Monday, July 24, 2017

A Voice from Church History: Thomas Watson

It was tough being an evangelical pastor in 17th century England. As the government see-sawed between Catholic and Protestant-leaning monarchs, the Puritans and Dissenters were hounded, hunted down, and harried out of the land. In 1662, a series of Parliamentary acts further plagued the Puritans. The Act of Uniformity, for example, required all English ministers to either use the government-sanctioned Book of Common Prayer in their services or leave their pulpits. As a result, on August 17, 1662, two thousand ministers preached their farewell sermons and were expelled from their churches. Among them was Thomas Watson.

I wish we knew more about Watson, for he is among the most readable and quotable of the Puritans. His writings brim with practical, biblical truth. He could grasp doctrine like J. I. Packer, craft a sermon like John Stott, and turn a phrase like Vance Havner.

"Discontent is an ungrateful sin, because we have more 
mercies than afflictions; and it is an irrational sin, because 
afflictions work for good. . . . The devil blows the coals of 
passion and discontent, and then warms himself at the fire.”

His date and place of birth are unknown to us, and little information has survived about his upbringing. We know that in 1646, following his training at Cambridge, he married a minister’s daughter and the two of them moved to the city of London, where Thomas became rector of the parish of St. Stephen’s, Walbrook.

There the popularity of his sermons was excelled only by the renown of his deeply moving, extemporaneous prayers. Crowds came, souls were converted, and his influence spread through London and across England. His ministry at St. Stephens continued, with brief interruptions (he was once thrown into the Tower of London for his political views), until the aforementioned Act of Uniformity in 1662.

Ejected but not dejected, he continued teaching and preaching in barns, homes, kitchens, and wooded groves, quietly and always at risk. After the Declaration of Indulgence restored his freedom to minister in 1672, he publicly resumed preaching in the great hall of a friend’s mansion.
His failing health finally forced his removal to the village of Barnston, where he died in 1686 while engaged in prayer.

If you’ve never read any of the Puritans, Gleanings from Thomas Watson is an excellent starting place. It’s an assortment of irresistible, pithy truths culled from Watson’s writings, first compiled and published in 1915 by Central Bible Truth Depot in London. It has recently been reprinted by Soli Deo Gloria Publishers. Here are some samples from my own underlined and dog-eared copy:

  • “True grace holds out in the winter season. That is a precious faith, which, like the star, shines brightest in the darkest night.”
  • “Other physicians can only cure them that are sick, but Christ cures them that are dead. He doth not only cure them but crown them. Christ doth not only raise from the bed, but to the throne. He gives the sick man not only health but heaven.” 
  • “The world is fading not filling.” 
  • “If God be our God, He will give us peace in trouble. When there is a storm without, He will make peace within. The world can create trouble in peace, but God can create peace in trouble.” 
  • “Who would have thought to have found adultery in David, and drunkenness in Noah, and cursing in Job? If God leave a man to himself, how suddenly and scandalously may sin break forth in the holiest men of the earth! ‘I say unto all, Watch.’ A wandering heart needs a watchful eye.” 
  • “Prayer delights God’s ear, it melts His heart, it opens His hand: God cannot deny a praying soul.” 
  • “The world is but a great inn, where we are to stay a night or two, and be gone; what madness is it so to set our heart upon our inn, as to forget our home.”

Charles Spurgeon called Watson “one of the most concise, racy, illustrative, and suggestive” of those who made the Puritan age the “Augustan period of evangelical literature.” I wouldn’t call Watson “racy”—he was, after all, a Puritan—but he has certainly become one of my favorite authors. I hope you’ll make his acquaintance, too.