David Watson—the British evangelist who filled churches

David watson pamphlet 001
Found among a pile of ephemera at Jot HQ, a clipping from the Cambridge Evening News, dated 24th May 1980, plus a printed sermon entitled ‘I know where I’m going ‘ by The Rev David Watson, vicar of St Mary-le-Belfry Church, York. As a true evangelist Watson wanted to get his message across, so not only was his sermon broadcast on Radio 4, but printed copies of it were obtainable from his own home from 20 copies for 40p (plus postage) up to 240 copies for a very reasonable 240p (plus postage).

Watson also wanted to fill churches, and indeed marquees. In May 1980 he and a group of five young devotees were to be seen touring the UK delivering the message of Jesus to packed venues. In the first week of June, 1980, we learn from the newspaper clipping, he was due to address a crowd in the 3,000 seater ‘ Supertent ‘on Midsummer Common in Cambridge. Amazingly, ‘ over 200 churches of all denominations in the Cambridge area ‘ had come together to stage the festival. It is not known how many attended this free event, but we can be sure that there would have been plenty of printed sermons in that Supertent together with piles of his new book, My God is Real.

We in the UK are used to hearing about American evangelists of all sects broadcasting on radio, filling venues, publicly baptising new converts, speaking in tongues and wrestling with rattlesnakes, but twentieth century Britain has no great tradition of Anglican evangelism. So David Watson seems to have been a maverick. Nonetheless, he was seen by others as the answer to the spiritual malaise that was afflicting the Anglican church at that time.

Watson had been converted while on a train when he was a student at Cambridge . Before that he had been groomed in his late teens by Eric Nash, founder of the Iwerne Trust, a non-denominational Christian charity that ran holiday camps for public schoolboys. Looking back at his time with Nash Watson confessed that’ the most formative influence on my faith …was my involvement with ‘Bash Camps ‘.An interesting choice of words this, considering that while Watson was touring the country preaching the Word the then Chairman of the Trust, barrister John Smyth, was known to have been beating naked public schoolboys in his garden shed allegedly to relieve them of their sins. Commentators on the Iwerne Trust have maintained that its aims were to promote a brand of ’muscular Christianity ‘which was opposed to Catholicism and homosexuality. It is to Watson’s credit that despite his schooling in these teachings, as an evangelist he was a passionate advocate of ecumenicalism. We don’t know whether he preached against homosexuality.

The theme of Watson’s printed sermon turned on the emptiness of life without Christ. It didn’t matter if you were successful in business, happily married with children, a liberated woman, a pop star (Marianne Faithfull was quoted) or a student. You didn’t know where you were going because you had not submitted yourself to the teachings of Christ. Watson knew where he was going, but these people did not. Watson then described the four stages that led to an acceptance of Christ. It was a simple enough message and typically one that Watson knew would appeal to a sanguine British audience that distrusted the flamboyant style of American evangelists. With messages like this Watson could fill not only his own parish church to bursting but also arenas like the Supertent.

Watson was indubitably a significant figure and after his early death from bowel cancer in 1984 one admirer declared that it was ‘doubtful whether any other Christian leader has had greater influence on this side of the Atlantic since the Second World War.’ [R.M.Healey]

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