1902 Encyclopedia > Richard Watson

Richard Watson
Anglican clergyman and academic
(1737-1816)




WATSON, RICHARD (1737-1816), bishop of Llandaff, was born in August 1737 at Heversham, in Westmorland, and was the son of the master of the grammar school of that place. He was entirely educated by his father, who sent him in 1754 to Trinity College, Cambridge, with "a considerable stock of classical learning, a spirit of persevering industry, and an obstinate provincial accent." He was elected a fellow of Trinity in 1760, and about the same time had the offer of the post of chaplain to the factory at Bencoolen. " You are too good," said the master of Trinity, " to die of drinking punch in the torrid zone," and Watson, instead of becoming, as he had flattered himself, a great Orientalist, remained at home to be elected professor of chemistry, a science of which he did not at the time possess the simplest rudiments. " I buried myself," he says, " in my laboratory, and in fourteen months read a course of chemical lectures to a very full audience." Not the least of his services was to procure an endowment for the chair, which served as a precedent in similar instances.

In 1771 he became a candidate for the regius professorship of divinity, and at the age of thirty-four gained what he calls " the first place for honour in the university," " and," he adds, " exclusive of the mastership of Trinity College, I have made it the first for profit. I found it not worth £330 a year ; it is now (1814) worth £1000 at the least." He did not entirely renounce the study of chemistry : in 1768 he had published Institutiones Metalturgicae, intended to give a scientific form to chemistry by digesting facts established by experiment into a connected series of propositions. In 1781 he followed this up with a volume of Chemical Essays, which Davy told De Quincey remained as late as 1813, after all recent discoveries, unsurpassed as a manual of introductory discipline. But on the day on which he composed his preface he burned all his chemical manuscripts, and never returned to the subject. His course as professor of divinity was no less decisive. " I reduced the study of divinity into as narrow a compass as I could, for I determined to study nothing but my Bible." He produced several anonymous pamphlets on the liberal side in the subscription controversy and other topics of the day, and some sermons, one of which was thought likely to have involved him in a prosecution, but which, Dunning said, contained "just such treason as ought to be preached once a month at St James's." It is said to have prevented his obtaining the provostship of Trinity College, Dublin. In 1776 he answered Gibbon's chapters on Christianity, and had the honour of being one of the only two opponents whom Gibbon treated with respect. In 1781 he was prostrated with a malignant fever, from the effects of which he never wholly recovered, and which served as an excuse for that neglect of many duties which remains the chief stain upon his character. He had always opposed the American War, and when the accession of Lord Shelburne to power in 1782 afforded the then unfrequent opportunity of advancing a Liberal in politics and religion to a bishopric, Watson was made bishop of Llandaff, being permitted to retain his other preferments on account of the poverty of the see. Shelburne, he says, expected great service from him as a pamphleteer, but Watson proved from the ministerial point of view a most impracticable prelate. He immediately brought forward a scheme for improving the condition of the poorer clergy by equalizing the incomes of the bishops, the reception of which at the time may be imagined, though it was substantially the same as that carried into effect by Lord Melbourne's Government fifty years later. Watson now found that he possessed no influence with the minister, and that he had destroyed his chance of the great object of his ambition, promotion to a better diocese.





Neglecting both his see and his professorship, to which latter he appointed a deputy described as highly incompetent, he withdrew to Calgarth Park, in his native county, where he occupied himself largely in forming plantations and the improvement of agriculture. He nevertheless frequently came forward as a preacher and a speaker in the House of Lords, but his only very conspicuous appearance before the public was his warm support of the prince of Wales's unqualified claim to the regency on the insanity of the king in 1788, which completed his disgrace at court. In 1796 he published his Apology for' the Bible, in answer to Thomas Paine, at present the best known of his numerous writings. It was most effective in its day ; in ours Christianity would hardly be attacked or defended by the arms employed by either disputant. Undismayed by the displeasure of the court, or perhaps hoping to overcome it, Watson continued to exert his pen with vigour, and in general to good purpose, denouncing the slave trade, advocating the union with Ireland, and offering financial suggestions to Pitt, who seems to have frequently consulted him. In 1798 his Address to the People of Great Britain, enforcing resistance to French arms and French principles, ran through fourteen editions, but estranged him from many old friends, who accused him, probably with injustice, of aiming to make his peace with the Government. In 1807 the advent of a Whig ministry almost brought the coveted preferment within reach. Had Dr Markham died a few months sooner Watson would have been archbishop of York. Such a disappointment might palliate the querulous strain of his conversation and published references to himself, though it could not render it dignified or decorous. De Quincey, however, who knew the bishop personally in his latter years, while severely criticizing his complaints, allows that his temper had not been soured by disappoint. went. "His lordship was a joyous, jovial, and cordial host." He died on July 2, 1816, having occupied his latter years in the composition and revision of an autobiography, which, with all its egotism and partiality, is a valuable work, and the chief authority for his life.

As an advocate of liberal principles in church and state, Watson stands almost alone among the prelates of his day ; and it cannot be said that his longing for preferment, violent and unbecoming as it was, seduced him into mean actions or unworthy compliances. His character is high enough to make it cause for regret that it should stand no higher, as it easily might if he had possessed a nicer sense of dignity and had not measured success so exclusively by the attainment of wealth and station. Hard-headed and pushing, be yet had an intellectual conscience ; the two main elements of his character stood in each other's way : he failed as a courtier, and did not leave a wholly unblemished reputation as a patriot. As a bishop he neither was nor endeavoured to be anything ; as an ecclesiastical statesman it was his misfortune to have been born fifty years too soon. His massive but unoriginal intellect is justly characterized by De Quincey as "robust and commonplace." G.)






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