Ask many postmodern Christians what they think about the 17th century English Puritans, and the responses will vary from ‘Who?’ to ‘Oh, weren’t they the stuff-shirted killjoys who talked funny, dressed even funnier, and could have nothing in common with 3rd millennium believers?’ That was once my impression. After a B.A. in English Literature, an M.Div., and a Ph.D. in preaching, my closest acquaintance with Puritan thought came from a college course on the writings of John Milton. Then I read The Mischief of Sin by Thomas Watson. I have been an unabashed fan of the Puritans ever since. Preachers of the 21st century (and beyond, should Jesus tarry) will benefit from knowing the English Puritans. Thomas Watson is a great place to start.
Thomas Watson was a pastor and a theologian and a preacher. J. I. Packer described the simple elegance of Puritan preaching embodied in Watson:
They systematically eschewed any rhetorical display that might divert attention from God to themselves, and they talked to their congregations in plain, straightforward, homely English. Not that their speaking was slipshod or vulgar. Dignified simplicity — ‘studied plainness’, as one of their number once put it — was their ideal. In fact, the ‘studied plainness’ of Puritan preaching often possesses a striking eloquence of its own — the natural eloquence that results when words are treated not at all as the orator’s playthings, but entirely as the servants of a noble meaning.1
Biographical information about Thomas Watson is scarce. The dates circa 1620-1686 are commonly given for the life of Watson. Charles Spurgeon considered these facts to be of little relevance when studying Watson’s contributions to Christendom. Spurgeon observed,
His writings are his best memorial; perhaps he needed no other, and therefore providence forbade the superfluity. We shall not attempt to discover his pedigree, and, after the manner of antiquarians, derive his family from a certain famous Wat, whose son distinguished himself in the Crusades, or in some other insane enterprise; whether blue blood was in his veins or no is of small consequence, since we know that he was the seed-royal of the redeemed of the Lord. Some men are their own ancestors, and, for aught we know, Thomas Watson’s genealogy reflected no fame upon him, but derived all its lustre from his achievements.2
We do know that Watson, like many of the great Puritan divines, received his formal education at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. One registry of the era listed such notable fellow alumni as Stephen Charnock, Ralph Venning, and Thomas Brooks. Watson distinguished himself as an industrious student, completing his course of study with aplomb and honor. After taking both the baccalaureate and M.A. degrees from Emmanuel, Wat-son is reported to have preached briefly at Hereford.
One biographical source indicated that Watson married during this time Abigail Beadle, whose father, John, was the rector of Barnston, Essex. While this information is apparently not well-attested, it would at least partially explain Watson’s retirement to Essex in later years. He subsequently began (in 1646) a nearly sixteen-year pastoral tenure at St. Stephen’s, Walbrook, in the heart of London. During this pastorate, Watson gained wide acclaim as a preacher of ample expositional skill and unquestioned personal piety. A colleague offered the following anecdote about Watson’s practice of public prayer:
Among other hearers, there came in that Reverend and learned Prelate, Bishop Richardson, who was so well pleased with his sermon, but especially with his prayer after it, that he followed him home, to give him thanks; and earnestly desired a copy of his prayer. “Alas!” said Mr. Watson, “that is what I cannot give; for I do not pen my prayers; it was no studied thing, but uttered as God enabled me from the abundance of my heart and affections, pro re nata.” Upon which the good Bish-op went away wondering that any man could pray in that manner, ex tempore.
Walbrook was to be his most memorable, even signature, place of service; in every sense, St. Stephen’s was to Watson what the Metropolitan Tabernacle was to Spurgeon, what North-ampton was to Edwards, what Kid-derminster was to Baxter.3
In the midst of his thriving Walbrook ministry, in 1651, Watson was involved with several other ministers and Christopher Love in a plot to restore the Stuart monarchy. While the particulars of this intrigue are uncertain, it is known that the collaborators were corresponding with Charles II, then living in exile in Holland. For his complicity in this crime against the prevailing political hegemony, Watson was imprisoned at the Tower for an indeterminate period.
Upon his release, pastor and people were happily reunited at St. Stephen’s. Though Watson’s renown as a powerful homilist surged, the Restoration for which he had once conspired in time forced yet another departure from his pulpit. The Act of Uniformity (popularly known as the Great Ejection) in 1662 led Watson into the ranks of nonconformity. His farewell sermon to the Walbrook con-gregation is instructive about Watson the pastor. The final paragraph of that address reads as follows:
The hour is come wherein the sun is setting on not a few of the prophets: our work seems to be at an end; our pulpits and places must know us no more. You are not ignorant what things there are imposed on us as the condition of our continuing our ministration. I must pro-fess before God, angels, and men, that my non-submission is not from any disloyalty to authority or any factious disposition, but because I dare not do anything concerning which my heart tells me the Lord says, “Do it not.” I feel I must part with my conscience or with my ministry. I choose, therefore, that my ministry be sealed up by my sufferings, rather than be lengthened out by a lie; but I shall, through the grace of God, endeavour patiently and peaceably to suffer as a Christian. And now welcome the cross of Christ; welcome reproach; welcome poverty, scorn, and contempt, or whatever may befall me. This morning I had a flock and you had a pastor, but now behold a pastor without a flock, and a flock without a shepherd! This morning, I had a house, now I have none. This morning, I had a living, now I have none: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” And thus, brethren, I bid you all farewell. “Finally, brethren, farewell.”
He continued to preach whenever and wherever safety allowed, but he was never again to minister at his beloved St. Stephen’s. Watson was, on occasion, reported to the authorities as a “conventicler” because he per-sisted in convening assemblies of believers. Following the fire of 1666, in which most of London’s church edifices were destroyed, Watson and some of his Nonconformist compatriots furnished private rooms as worship sanctuaries.
With the passage of the Declaration of Indulgence in 1672, official animosities toward the ejected minis-ters diminished. Watson obtained a license to preach, securing a great hall at Crosby House on the east side of Bishopgate Street. He was joined there in 1675 by the eminent Stephen Charnock. For some five years the two preacher-theologians served as co-pastors to the fortunate flock. Charnock, who preached during his years at Crosby House the famous expositions on the existence and attributes of God, died July 27, 1680.
Watson continued for some years as pastor at Crosby House after the death of his colleague, eventually retiring to Barnston, Essex. As noted previously, this may have allowed Watson the pleasure of spending his declining years with family. He is reported to have died suddenly in his closet while at his prayers. Efforts to determine the date and place of Watson’s burial are inconclusive, but it is probable that he was buried in Essex in the grave of his father-in-law, John Beadle.
Thomas Watson left a legacy of printed works, including his best-known A Body of Practical Divinity (a three-volume opus containing Watson’s expositions on the Westminster Assembly’s Shorter Catechism: volume one, A Body of Divinity; volume two, The Ten Commandments; volume three, The Lord’s Prayer); also eminent among Watson’s writings are Heaven Taken by Storm: Showing the Holy Violence a Christian is to Put Forth in the Pursuit After Glory; The Mischief of Sin; and The Art of Divine Contentment.
A debt of gratitude is owed by all admirers of Thomas Watson to Soli Deo Gloria Publications and to the Banner of Truth Trust for giving his expositions a new and wider hearing in print. Read Watson and the other Puritans; your preaching will improve, and your heart will soar!
1J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, 285-86.
2Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Brief Memoir of Thomas Watson, in A Body of Divinity, vii.
3Principal biographical references include Spurgeon’s Brief Memoir; the brief vita in Sermons of the Great Ejection; and Biographical Introduction by Hamilton Smith in Gleanings from Thomas Watson.

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