Joseph Barnes Watson (1884-1955) came from the sheep-herding hills
and marshy flats of Cumberland, Scotland. There, in the village of
Wigton, the gospel entered the home of John and Jane Watson. Their
marriage was another proof that opposites attract. Jane was a calm,
cautious homemaker, while John had a heavy dose of that impetuous,
loud, jovial impulse that kept village life interesting. John left
school for work when only nine years old, and only in adulthood learned
how to read from his wife. But those disadvantages did not slow his
fervor. Preaching in cottages and in the market place, he helped the
local chapter of the Y.M.C.A. (which at that time was an aggressive
evangelistic organization), and also joined hands with a simple
gathering of believers.
After Wigton, the young family moved to Workington, where John and
Jane Watson joined themselves to an assembly. There, the curious young
Joseph observed God's people gathering in simple New Testament fashion.
Speaking about those hallowed sessions spent around the simple
memorials of our Lord's death, Watson later said, "These are minutes
when the soul realizes the presence of the Lord in a measure beyond all
other hours. Then it is that the love of Christ melts our hearts and
causes our eyes to overflow. Then it is that we look at the Man of
Calvary. Then it is that we stoop to kiss the Conqueror's feet. Then it
is that we see afresh the wounded hands, feet, and side, and say with
Thomas, 'My Lord and my God!'" (John 20:28)
It was not the sophistication of the surroundings or the attendees
that left such impressions. The saints were respectful, but not ornate.
There were no multimedia special effects to induce an attitude of
worship. But as a musical Scottish tongue raised the hymn, and the
congregation joined in, the honest observer could only say that those
people said and sang truths which they personally had seen and heard.
Another lasting impression on young Joseph was the direct approach
in communicating Scripture. As in military life, the maxim is: "an
order that can be misunderstood will be." So, in telling the truths of
God, J. B. Watson did not allow his hearers any loopholes. His father
dreaded the obscure sermon. Once in a Bible study, after a tedious
discussion of a single verse, John felt that the study was less than
unfruitful and quietly suggested that they move on to the next verse.
"But John," one of the learned brethren protested, "we've not exhausted
this one yet."
"Nay," answered John, "But thoo's exhausted me."
Those youthful impressions were strong. But people do not enter into
the kingdom of God on impressions. Joseph was climbing his way up the
academic ladder, excelling in the physical sciences, showing a deft
hand as an illustrator, and then in the off hours achieving some local
reknown in the Workington Cricket Club as a promising left-handed
batsman. Still, between his athletics and temporal attainments, the
nineteen-year-old attended a Sunday School where a faithful old
warrrior named Jacob Dixon trained his crosshairs on the wavering young
man. Jacob tracked his prey down at John Watson's workshop in
Workington in April of 1903. There he pointed Joseph to John 20:31 ,
"But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ,
the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his
name." It was a bullseye.
Brother Dixon was not like Mephibosheth's nurse who dropped the
child. In the years that followed, before and after Joseph's move to
London in 1905, brother Dixon had a dominant influence. Dixon was the
tutor who showed him the practices of a consistent Christian life.
After Joseph moved to London to become a Government clerk in the
customs office, he kept a careful diary. "Jos. B. Watson,
born:--September 26th, 1884--Born again, April 25th, 1903," he wrote,
then at the head of the first page, in his tidy writing style:
"Day by day the manna fell"
Diary of Scriptural Studies, Spiritual Thoughts, and Gospel Outlines, 1905.
Motto for the year:--"Enoch walked with God"
( Gen. 5:24 )
Joseph's spiritual progress is outlined in this journal. Though not
without initial crisis in his Christian life, the studious young man at
the clerk's desk was himself a warrior in the making. He reminds us of
Dwight Eisenhower, who, before World War II worked on the staff of
General Douglas MacArthur. Steadily rising in the ranks, as we know,
Eisenhower went on to command the allied invasion of Europe. General
MacArthur was visibly miffed that he had been passed up for that job,
and derisively said that Eisenhower was "the best clerk I ever had."
But Eisenhower was unable to take this as a complement, and retorted
that under MacArthur he "had studied theatrics."
Joseph saw God's hand in his daily employment, and by night either
went out to preach himself, listened to Bible teaching, or studied in
To the end, J. B. Watson maintained a keen interest in the gospel,
and complained about those who seemed satisfied to hold polite, but
poorly attended, gospel meetings. In his July 31 journal entry for
1905, Watson wrote: "Every assembly should be a center from which
radiates an active living testimony to the saving power of Christ...The
snug gospel meetings where we sing pretty hymns and listen to a popular
preacher from a distance have none of the true ring of testimonies for
Christ. We get much too narrowed into ourselves and our own comforts,
we forget too often in our own safety that all around us are
thousands--teeming thousands--going heedless to endless woe...We need
to bestir ourselves and no longer sit in our comfortable seats, praying
God to condone our laziness by sending sinners in to the message, but
be up and with holy zeal carry out the message of life to the sinner.
What saith the Scripture? 'Go ye into all the world and preach the
gospel to every creature.' (Mark 16:15) 'Go ye into the highways and hedges and
compel them to come in.' (Luke 14:23) 'Go, work in My vineyard.' (Matthew 20:1-7) 'He that goeth
forth, and weepeth, bearing precious seed shall doubtless come again
rejoicing.' (Psalm 126:6) 'A sower went forth to sow.'" (Matthew 13:3)
Within a few years, he was well-known in London as an effective
preacher. His biographer, Robert Rendall, said of his ministry, "A
flowing river cuts out a bed for itself." By 1908, his gift as a Bible
teacher was becoming evident. That year he gave a lecture series on the
difficult topic of "the Levitical Offerings."
In 1910, Joseph Watson was joined in marriage to Miss Caroline
Jeffery. Their home was a proof that the church still has its
Priscillas and Aquilas, and their natural children (two sons and two
daughters) were also among their numerous spiritual children.
The Watsons settled on the east side of London, and in 1911, Watson
joined hands with two other able workers in an evangelistic work in
Leytonstone. Leyton had been the work place of such notables as Lord
Radstock, William Groves (known as "Happy Bill") and Gipsy Smith. About
thirty believers from area assemblies joined together and began meeting
at Green Grove Hall. Robert Rendal writes about the assembly that was
raised up there: "In ten years the company had increased to some 114
persons in regular fellowship. Although he had many openings for
ministry in other London districts--which he filled as occasion
offered--he firmly believed that those who ministeed the Word in what
he used to call a peripatetic ministry should do some solid work in
their own assembly, as this would keep their ministry in touch with
reality. He not only believed this, but practiced it, and so came to
learn from personal experience the problems and joys that are
associated with the congregational life of a local church."
A close co-laborer of forty years in the work said that Watson felt
his first duty to the assembly at Leytonstone, then to the greater
London area, and then to a wider sphere. Evidently he had seen more
than one roving expert who reminded him of Solomon's proverb: "As a
bird that wandereth from her nest, so is a man that wandereth from his
place" (Prov. 27:8).
Eventually Watson would travel as far as Africa in his teaching ministry, but he remained like the skylark of Wordsworth's poem,
That soar but never roam,
True to the kindred points of heaven and home.
In the work at Leytonstone, he was often called on as a conciliator.
One journal entry says, "Assembly mending. We were helped in bringing
the differing parties to one mind. Got home at 1 a.m." How difficult it
was for a preacher like Watson to hold his tongue we can only imagine.
If he had wanted to, he could sharpen his tongue to a keen razor edge
and then cut a man to ribbons with it. Once, at the London docks, he
saw a cruel man abusing a carriage horse. He intervened to apply what
the English call "a proper dressing down." After Watson had put his
verbal rapier back in the scabbard, the driver stood motionless with
his whip hanging limp at his side and exclaimed, "Lor', guv'nor, and
yer ain't used one swear word!"
Watson was an intense man, with fiery eyes. But this incident with the horse driver was not his normal mode of expression.
When John R. Watson wrote about his late father, his language is so
effusive that we have to wonder if such a man could have ever lived in
this century. Every one of us can pray that we will so live Christ
before our spouses and children that they will feel the same way about
us. J. B. Watson was the hero of his home, who set aside his Saturday
afternoons for his family. He lived a busy life; at his prime he was
speaking 200 times a year, besides working five and a half days a week
as a customs officer, and an early riser besides. But he was not too
busy to play a prank on his youngsters, inspect their school work, or
teach them a poem. When he prepared to preach, he would sometimes
consult his youthful board of advisers, and then at the preaching place
his delighted children would hear their father insert into his message
the very words of advice given him from his children. No one else in
the auditorium would know why the speaker would flash a smile just at
But every message he preached was not a sensation. As his journal
entry for January 8, 1925, reads, "Late through train delay: spoke on 1
Samuel 7. A poor affair. I was 'off' after the rush from train to
meeting. On reaching home conducted the funeral of the domestic cat--a
Watson continued to work in customs right through the difficult and
stressful years of the war. In the evenings, he would move about the
dangerous streets on his pastoral errands. Then in November of 1945,
after 40 years and nine months as a civil servant, Watson retired.
Watson's enduring contribution to us is his writing and editorial
work with The Witness magazine. In the 1870s, Donald Ross began a
magazine which became The Witness. J. R. Caldwell was the next editor
who made it a recognized forum for sound teaching. After him, Henry
Pickering took it on, and in 1941, Pickering passed on the editorship
to J. B. Watson with the advice, "When considering articles, remember
those rows of miners' cottages!" For instance, he was the editor of the
excellent The Church--A Symposium of Principles and Practice, which
includes articles by other able men such as W. E. Vine. But Watson was
first a preacher, and secondarily a scribe. Watson's speaking is
reflected in his writing--direct, clear, and giving great attention to
the details of Scripture. Whether speaking in the open air at Hyde
Park, or addressing 2,000 in the Spurgeon Tabernacle at the Sunday
School Teacher's Convention, he was consistently on the mark. One
friend said, "His addresses, brilliant models of the preacher's craft,
were delicately chiselled in thought and phrase. Not for him the
slipshod preparation of heart and mind."
In the months before his homegoing, Watson's health curtailed his
preaching. Writing to a friend, he confided that this was a great
trial. "Rutherford wrote in the time of his imprisonment of the trial
of his 'Dumb Sabbaths': I am tasting the same experience. I think of
myself as like the priest Zachariah, dumb but still able to use the
writing tablet. (Luke 1:63)
"I know that trials work for ends too high for sense to trace,
That oft in dark attire He sends His ministers of grace."
Watson's long friend, Ransome Cooper, visited him in the hospital
and heard his last words. Ransome was reading to him about the
translation of Mr. Valiant-for-Truth in the Pilgrim's Progress. "I read
out slowly and distinctly the words, 'Ye know in all your hearts and in
all your souls, that not one thing hath failed of all the good things
which the Lord your God spake concerning you.' Feebly but clearly he
repeated, 'Not one thing hath failed.' Then I read from Bunyan, from
the paper marking the verse, 'I am going to my Father's; and though
with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of
all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am.'
"So I left him: but the memory remained with me of the triumphant
words that follow in that little extract from Bunyan: 'My marks and
scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His
battles Who now will be my Rewarder...So he passed over and all the
trumpets sounded for him on the other side.'"
Materials for this articles are taken from
Brethren: The Story of a Great Recovery by D. J. Beattie
J. B. Watson: A memoir and Selected Writings by R. Rendal
W. E. Vine: His Life and Ministry by Percy O. Ruoff
Books by J. B. Watson include:
The Sinless Saviour
On the Sermon on the Mount [with C. F. Hogg]
The Church--A Symposium of Principles and Practice [edited by J. B. Watson]
The Promise of His Coming [with C. F. Hogg]