Protestant Profiles #13: Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1686)


Born: Yorkshire, England
Role: Pastor; author; presbyterian activist; promoter of Puritan piety
Emphases: the Puritan idea of godliness; need for regeneration; Westminster theology
Protested against: hypocrisy and formal religion; Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic doctrine and worship

Watson is one of the most frequently quoted and republished Puritans, but relatively little is known about his origins or personal life. But with his promotion of godliness; ability to apply theology pastorally and practically; and capacity for warm, vivid and often striking preaching and writing – Watson represents some of the best aspects of the Puritan movement on both sides of the Atlantic.

Watson came to prominence in a very unstable time in English history. This is best illustrated by the fact that his first published work was the transcript of a sermon he preached before the nation’s parliament – just after control of it had been seized by partisans aligned with the victors of the first and second English Civil Wars. Not long after this sermon was delivered, this group of politicians and officers executed King Charles I (the loser of the Civil Wars) – an act which shocked Watson and many of his more moderate peers. In this key sermon, Watson criticised many of those in attendance as using religious pretenses to satisfy their greed and ambitions for power and preached sharply against all forms of hypocrisy.

“If there are any here, that when they should have been doing God’s work, have been by stealth hiding the Babylonish garment [see Joshua 7], making themselves rich, feathering their own nests; who, instead of driving in nails into God’s temple to fasten it, have been driving a wedge of gold into their chests – God sees it!”[1]

Many of the winners in the Civil War were religiously affiliated with the Puritan movement in some way, shape or form, but mere outward profession meant very little to Watson. He firmly believed that the theology and principles of the Protestant Reformation necessitated the recovery of a certain kind of spirituality described in the Bible. All outward religious expressions had to be genuine reflections of one’s heart towards God – highlighted by YHWH’s complaint against Israel in the OT that they honoured Him with their lips, but their hearts were far away and Jesus’ contentions with the scribes and Pharisees about their hypocrisy and selective obedience in the NT. Therefore, Watson cared little whether his contemporaries claimed to be “reformed” if their actions betrayed them as insincere.

Much of Watson’s ministry focused on how to live the Christian life appropriately in light of the truths revealed in the Gospel. His work The Godly Man’s Picture was written to present an in-depth picture of what godliness was according to the Puritan understanding of the Bible, at a time when those with Watson’s beliefs were facing persistent religious persecution. The last work he published before his death (Religion our True Interest republished in the 20th Century as The Great Gain of Godliness) returned to this important theme, with a particular focus on how godly Christians should live in the difficult times they found themselves in. His best known work, A Body of Practical Divinity (published by friends a few years after his death) systematically works through the Presbyterian theology formulated by the Westminster Assembly (during the 1640s) and Watson goes to great lengths to apply each doctrine pastorally and practically.

An excellent sample of this comes from his treatment of the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s fundamental question, “What is the chief end of man?” “A: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever”:

Glorifying God consists in APPRECIATION. To glorify God is to set God highest in our thoughts, and to have a venerable esteem of him. “You, Lord, are most high for evermore!” “You are exalted far above all gods!” There is, in God, all that may draw forth both wonder and delight; there is a constellation of all beauties; he is the original and springhead of being, who sheds a glory upon the creature. We glorify God, when we are God-admirers! Admire his attributes, which are the glistening beams by which the divine nature shines forth! Admire his promises which are the charter of free grace, and the spiritual cabinet where the pearl of price is hid! Admire the noble effects of his power and wisdom in making the world, which is called “the work of his fingers.” To glorify God is to have God-admiring thoughts; to esteem him most excellent, and search for diamonds in this rock alone!

Watson was not afraid to take risks and suffer for his convictions. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London and came close to being executed in 1651 for his involvement in a plot to restore the monarchy with Charles I’s son (also Charles and later Charles II) as the king. He saw this as a way of righting the wrongs done by the parliamentarians who executed the king and hoped the new king would bring about a better religious status quo (Charles II had promised to implement Presbyterian government in the Church of England upon his return, which he later reneged on).

In 1660 the monarchy was eventually re-established, but Watson received no favour from the new king for his earlier support. In 1662, he was ejected from his ministry within the national church for his refusal to subscribe to unbiblical religious regulations being imposed upon the clergy by the bishops who returned to power with the king. He carried out the next decade of his ministry as an effective ‘outlaw’ preacher – unable to hold meetings in the usual places, but still determined to exhort local Christians to live godly lives in the midst of great ungodliness.

Watson’s great gift to the church today is his clear presentation of the Puritan vision of godliness and biblical spirituality. There are things that contemporary evangelicals are right to disagree with the Puritans on, when it comes to how we should approach the Christian life, but there is comparatively much more we could learn – and be corrected on – by clear and notable promoters of Puritan piety like Watson.

Today many professedly Reformed Christians could do with the same wake-up call from Watson that those in the English Parliament received three and a half centuries ago – about whether our hearts are sincerely devoted to God. In a time when many are guilty of a kind of cold, over-rationalised orthodoxy that more resembles the Vulcans of the Star Trek universe than the holistic piety practiced by many earlier generations of faithful Christians – Watson could be the remedy that many Protestant Christians and churches are in need of.

“Strive for the reality of godliness. Do not rest in the common workings of God’s Spirit. Do not think that it is enough to be intelligent and discursive. A man may discourse of piety to the admiration of others, yet not feel the sweetness of those things in his own soul.  The lute gives a melodious sound to others, but does not at all feel the sound itself.”[3]

You can read more about Watson’s life, ministry and significance here.

My doctoral research is focused on the significance of Thomas Watson and I can’t recommend highly enough that you read him for yourself! To get a taste for his emphasis on genuine heart piety, start here or here.


[1] God’s Anatomy Upon a Man’s Heart (1649)
[2] A Body of Practical Divinity (1692)
[3] The Godly Man’s Picture (1666)


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