It is a great pity that no biography of W. L. Watkinson has been published. All we have in addition to his sermons is a slight but precious volume Letters of Two Friends, a record of correspondence between Watkinson and another Methodist minister, F. W. Macdonald, in the closing years of their lives (1919-1925), showing how even in their eighties they kept their interest in life and literature.
William L. Watkinson was born in Hull, England, in 1838. He began to preach when he was eighteen and in 1858 was accepted as a candidate for the Wesleyan Methodist ministry. He was tall, thin and delicate; the examiners wondered if he had the physical stamina to bear the strain of the itinerant Methodist ministry. He was passed by a medical specialist for the home work but refused the opportunity to fulfill his heart’s desire to be a missionary in India.
Watkinson was sent to Richmond College but in six weeks was called out to take the place of a minister in Stratford-on-Avon who was ill. He served several circuits in the Midlands where he had the healthy stimulus of large and appreciative congregations.
In 1871 he was appointed to Bacup in Lancashire. His three years there were the really formative period of his intellectual life. He settled down to hard and methodical study and his profiting appeared not only in the richer variety and fullness of his preaching but in the splendid work of his Bible classes. Whole books of the Bible were studied carefully and the then novel but useful method of distributing multi-graphed summaries of each lesson was adopted.
In 1893, Watkinson became Connexional Editor which filled up the next eleven years of his life until he retired in 1904. He became president of the Wesleyan Methodist Conference in 1897 and died in February, 1925. It was as a preacher of original genius and incisive power that Watkinson made his name known in the churches. He visited America about the turn of the century and delivered lectures at several theological seminaries, preached in a number of prominent pulpits and made an excellent impression everywhere.
Watkinson was noted for what Mrs. Herman calls “the explicit, architectural manner of preaching which is almost a lost art in these impressionist days. He draws out a bold and spacious ground-plan, builds his points up one by one, hammers away at them till they stand secure against the winds of inattention, and adorns his pillars with the fine, clear lilywork of illustration. He also caresses those points with a lover’s regard, lingers over them with deliberate appreciation; preaches for himself, in short, as much as for his audience. Balance, weight, deliberate and loving workmanship are characteristic of all his utterance.”1
His sermons are massive, yet his exquisite artistry saves him from any suspicion of heaviness. In all his work careful preparation lay behind his most popular sermons. He had delved his own ore, had crushed and separated it from all foreign matter, until it came forth refined from the heat of his inner life.
If prone to take unfamiliar texts, it was not because of superficial acquaintance with the Bible, for few men have more diligently searched the Scriptures. Preaching was the supreme joy of his life. No sacrifice was too great to make for its effectiveness. In his early days he did much lecturing and was offered large fees but he found that it interfered with his preaching and decided to lecture no more.
In an address to theological students he once said: “Preaching is a subject of which we are never weary; it has for us an abiding charm. For my own part, I love a book on homiletics as much as ever I did in my life. I read with eager expectation the last published lectures on the art of preaching, trusting to know how to do it before I die.”
One wonders why Watkinson was never selected as a lecturer on preaching, for he was an acknowledged master of the art. Every sermon of his was a work of art, to which an incredibly ingenious mind had brought by painful toil every resource of wit and imaginations and the product of wide and extensive reading.
Watkinson was one of the few preachers who could use irony effectively. He did it with the suggestion of a twinkle in his eye and with a genial sniff and none of his hearers was offended. Now and then his gift of humor was a snare to him, but on the whole it was a great source of power. He once said to his friend F. W. Macdonald: “Humor sometimes gets the better of me in the pulpit but I never allow it to appear in my printed sermons.”
He was almost entirely self-taught. Hour after hour he toiled in quest of knowledge. He was quite sure that no man gets great things out of life who does not put great things into it. He was a voracious reader of the great books. He had little taste for modern fiction, but of other kinds of reading nothing seemed to come amiss. He read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire three times aloud to himself for the sake of the style.
One day he told the editor of The Christian World that he had been reveling in Nietzsche. “Can you read him with patience?” asked the editor. “I read him with delight,” was Watkinson’s reply. “He is a perfect tonic to me. He challenges everything I believe and live by. He has made me go all over my fundamentals and make sure that my feet of faith are on rock, not sand.”2 He said once: “I don’t care what a book is like, if I can get but one thought or illustration from it.” In the last year of his life he wrote to a minister friend: “Despite constant illness, I keep on learning how ignorant I am. I have quite a lot of things on hard-science, theology, and general literature.”
When Watkinson arrived to stay in a home he laughingly told his hostess that in case of a fire she was to save first of all, not her deeds and will, but his commonplace books that were full of notes and illustrations gleaned from the reading of many years. He entered any picturesque and telling incident or fact in his notebook, under an appropriate heading, with the title of the book and the page, so that he could always verify his references. He wrote his sermons out fully in longhand and would preach them aloud at home before going out to his service.
In an autobiographical article which appeared in The Sunday Companion, July 22, 1922, Watkinson wrote: “One of the most popular sermons that I ever preached was suggested in its entirety by a simple woman, who little dreamed of saying anything worthy of the pulpit. She had got hold, in her private reading of the Scriptures, of a passage I had never noticed and gave it a capital practical application, which enabled me to make effective use of it. I went through the country preaching this striking discourse as if it were my own, and thousands of people never suspected its obscure source. I had the sense to know a good thing when I heard it. But the genuine merit belonged to the modest creature in the background. The Africans have a pathetic saying, ‘When a poor man makes a proverb, it does not circulate.’ But I made the proverb of that poor woman circulate.
“This was by no means the only occasion on which my inspiration came from the people. All through my ministry I was helped by their fresh and vital reflections on the great doctrines and duties of our faith. If the pulpit is to retain its interest, the preacher must cultivate the close fellowship of the common people. If the sermon is to have the touch of reality, we cannot ignore actual life and experience, even that of the lowliest. Both Faraday and Darwin loved to listen to the humblest worker in things pertaining to science; how much more may the preacher consult with advantage the unsophisticated brother who puts to the test of actual life the great spiritual doctrines of theology.”
What were the principles which guided Watkinson in his work? First of all, he placed great emphasis on the preacher being ready to take infinite pains with his task. Secondly, the preacher must learn to be simple and interesting. Scholarship the preacher should have but it must never be paraded in the pulpit. The preacher must find out acceptable words and must deal with the people as they are and speak in language they can understand. Preaching should be full of life and color and movement, according to Watkinson. The immense popularity of the novel ought to teach the preacher the value of a concrete and pictorial style.
In an interview with a reporter for The Methodist Recorder on his methods of illustrations, Watkinson said: “I never, if I know it, use an illustration that anybody else has used. There is such a gain in finding one’s own. They have a power and freshness that other men’s discourses inevitably lack. The illustration must be capable of swift statement, then having got the benefit of it, you must drop it. You don’t want too many illustrations in one sermon. One under each division is enough; to exceed that number is apt to divert attention. This was brought home to me by the remark of a man who had heard me preach. ‘You have told us some most interesting facts today.’ Oh, yes, I thought, and in so doing I have missed the mark. He has thought more about my facts than about my thesis.”
Another rule of Watkinson’s was that preaching should be timely. The preacher must treat the great evangelical truths in the light of present-day knowledge and conditions. “To enable him to do this the preacher must be familiar with the teachings of science. He must carefully study all that the scientist can teach him concerning the new facts and teachings of Nature and thus enrich his sermons with new and forceful illustrations and analogies.”
The fourth principle that guided Watkinson was that the preacher should speak from life to life. He must know and love men and women. He ought to know theology, science, and literature, but he must also know the joys and sorrows of the human heart. This means that the preacher must possess and develop his own spiritual life, must understand and feel the truths which he preaches.
“I see no reason why our preaching should not display the same skill that is brought into the artistic world, the same power, the same delivery, the same perfection of finish. If an artist puts all the labor and pains that he does into a picture, should we put any less into our sermons?”
The illustration with Watkinson was always made subservient to the subject. It never became an end in itself. He said: “Too many stories look suspiciously like padding. They remind us of the man who agreed to spend an hour with a friend in prayer, each praying for five minutes, and who was soon gravelled for lack of matter. Petition having failed him he said: ‘Now, Lord, we will tell an anecdote.’ There are far too many sermons on that principle. Never drag an illustration in. Your illustration must arise naturally out of your argument.”
Here is one example taken from a volume of sermons preached in America. “Watching the Mayflower driven with its sorrowful freight over the wild sea to an unknown world, the troubled spectator might have protested. Where is the justice, wisdom or benign purpose in the permission of this tragedy? What condemnation can be too severe of the government which allows this expatriation, if such government there be? But it is all clear now. The American Republic is the interpretation of the dubious episode of the seventeenth century.
‘That fatal and perfidious bark
Built in the eclipse, and rigg’d with curses dark,’
turns out to be God’s ark, bearing to a new world the germs of a higher civilization and the future of the race. He makes the wrath of man to praise Him, and compels human sin and folly to majestic ends.”3
Watkinson had the facility of finding unexpected and sometimes startling texts and subjects. “The Fictions of Sin” is his title for a sermon on “On their heads, as it were, crowns of gold” (Revelation 9:7). A sermon on “As it were the body of heaven in his clearness” (Exodus 24:10) is entitled “Blue Distances.” “Be not righteous overmuch” is the text for a sermon on “Strained Piety.” A sermon on “The Craft and Cruelty of Sin” is based on “And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions” (Revelation 9:8). The last sermon he preached in 1923 was entitled “The Pharisee of the Fields” and was based on Hebrews 10:24-25.
Here are some examples of his remarkable ability in sermon divisions. A sermon on “Things Undone” had as its text “He left nothing undone of all that the Lord commanded Moses” (Joshua 11:15). It begins with a quotation from the diary of Andrew A. Bonar in reviewing one of the years of his life: “This year omissions have distressed me more than anything.” Then the sermon is divided as follows:
1. The things undone are many.
2. The things undone are often the things of greatest consequence.
3. The things undone are things for which we must be held responsible.4
“Learn to do well” (Isaiah 1:17) is the text for a sermon on “The Highest Education.” Watkinson begins: “We hear much of primary, secondary, and higher education. But our text reminds us of a sphere yet beyond these levels. This highest level of education concerns all: securing it is the main end of life. To acquire this we need (1) a pattern (2) power (3) practice.5
“The Apology of the Sneak” is a striking title for a sermon on Judges 5:15-16. “By the watercourses of Reuben there were great resolves of heart. Why sattest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the pipings for the flocks? At the watercourses of Reuben there were great searchings of hearts.” This text is treated as a rebuke to the theorist, to the critical, and to the sentimentalist.6
Watkinson often uses his text for the idea it gives him; this is most obvious when he chooses curious texts. His titles are clear, usually arresting, and indicative of the content; often they sum up the whole sermon. His structure is always sound. His careful construction of a sermon permits the outline of his thought to come through very clearly. But the sermons lack definite movement. Transitions are almost wholly lacking; each division stands alone.
His style is excellent, though judged by the standards of today too florid. His words flow smoothly and rhythmically, with the apparent ease that comes only from the hardest effort. He is always concrete. He says in a letter to a ministerial friend: “I am afraid I rather resemble those poor sailors who love to hug the shore. The abstract very soon to me becomes faint and dubious unless the concrete comes to the rescue.”7
He is never dull or commonplace, and his sermons are studded with fresh and suggestive illustrations, apt and effective quotations, and with bright, sparkling sentences which linger in the memory like proverbs. Here are a few of his memorable sayings:
“Life seems to many people like that African forest which a traveller described as a forest of fish-hooks, varied with an occasional patch of penknives.”
“Man opens a blossom with a crowbar; God opens it with a sunbeam.”
“Plato believed in moral beauty for a few aristocratic souls. Jesus Christ brings that beauty to the man in the street.”
“In the East the nest of the hummingbird is sometimes seen fastened by a spider’s thread to the face of a rock and in this marvelous combination of strength and weakness the frail, beautiful creature is secure.”
Sentences and illustrations like these — and they are frequent — display the preacher’s power to a marked degree. But this is not the only way in which his genius reveals itself. Every place is explored in turn, and all yield valuable materials. The curiosities of travel, the treasures of biography, the legends of primitive people, the facts of everyday life, and the discoveries of modern science are all full of illustrations for Watkinson. He also shows great skill in using Scripture to illustrate Scripture.
The chief criticism that can be made of these sermons is that there is too little of Christ in them, and too much of man, his character and conduct. There is a man-centeredness in his sermons as the very titles of his books suggest. They are uniformly exhortatory or didactic. Exhortation and instruction are honorable forms of preaching in the New Testament but they are definitely subordinate forms. They rise out of the Kergyma. In these sermons we are instructed about character and conduct, but rarely are we given a vision of God.
Nevertheless the clarity and finish of his workmanship, his homiletic genius and apologetic adroitness, his consummate artistry and his fertile mind make Watkinson a preacher whose sermons are still worthy of careful study by preachers of the present day.
1. Hugh Sinclair (the pen-name of Mrs. E. Herman), Voices of Today, p. 267-8.
2. Arthur Porritt, The Best I Remember, p. 161.
3. The Supreme Conquest (1907), pp. 60-61.
4. Things Undone (1901), p. 73.
5. The Bane and the Antidote (1902), p. 165.
6. Studies in Christian Character, Work and Experience, Vol. II (1901), p. 55.
7. Letters of Two Friends: W. L Watkinson and F. W. Macdonald, p. 18.

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