‘Elementary My Dear Watson’: The Effect of Richard Watson On American Methodism -- By: Ben Witherington, III

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 20:0 (NA 1988)
Article: ‘Elementary My Dear Watson’: The Effect of Richard Watson On American Methodism
Author: Ben Witherington, III


‘Elementary My Dear Watson’:
The Effect of Richard Watson
On American Methodism

Ben Witherington, III

Dr. Witherington is Associate Professor of Biblical and Wesley an Studies at ATS.

It is true to say that just as the source of American Methodism was in various regards its English counterpart, so too in the early decades of the American Methodist Church the source of its foundational theology may be traced back to the Mother Country. The influence of John Wesley was considerable well into the 19th century, and when his views were expounded and systematized by his fellow countryman, Richard Watson, in the 1820s this influence was magnified several times. The works of early native American Methodist theologians, such as Asa Shinn, “…had nowhere near the influence among Methodists as did the perennial favorite, Richard Watson’s Theological Institutes…”,1 and thus it behooves us to examine closely how Watson interpreted and presented both the life and works of Wesley before we explore the reaction to Watson’s efforts among American Methodists.

I. Watson’s Wesley — Refutations and Commendations

In this section of our discussion it will be necessary to focus on two of Watson’s works: his early reply to Robert Southey’s popular life of Wesley entitled, Observations on Southey ‘s ‘Life of Wesley’: Being a Defence of the Character, Labours, and Opinions of Mr. Wesley, Against the Misrepresentations of that Publication;2 and his own positive presentation that appeared about ten years later entitled, The Life of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M.3

It is quite clear that Watson’s Observations was intended to be a strong antidote to the work of Southey which gained considerable popularity in the early 19th century, not least because it was written by England’s poet laureate. Watson was quite upset over some of the misrepresentations and misinterpretations in Southey’s work, and he sets forth to rebut them with vigor. Watson is exercised to point out that Southey’s life is defective mainly because he is out of his element, being no theologian, and secondly because Southey vacillates between interpreting Wesley in light of the popular philosophy of the day (in terms of ‘natural’ causes) and in light of Christian considerations. The following quote is somewhat representative of Watson’s complaints:

Devotional ardour is resolved into constitutional temperament; religious joys and depressions into buoyancy of the spirits, and the influence of disease; Mr. W...

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