Obituary: The Rev John Watson
Wednesday 14 October 1992
Dedicated, dignified and wittily wise - such would be my summing up of John Watson's character. As a devout and lifelong member of the Methodist Church and in his role as general secretary of the British and Foreign Bible Society he showed, as he did throughout his career as student, teacher, ordinand and missionary, an enduring commitment to his Christian faith.
Born to a Lincolnshire shopkeeper in 1904, John Watson steadily revealed his gifts of leadership as a scholar of Moulton Grammar School, as a student at Westminster and Didsbury training colleges, as a college principal in West Africa and latterly as a head of department of the BFBS and then its general secretary. Upright of bearing, tall and slender, Watson well fitted the roles which he was called upon to play. He could both command respect and show great pastoral care at the same time. He was a good manager and a real friend.
Of his intellectual ability there could be little doubt. In addition to the education already mentioned he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the West Virginia Wesleyan college in 1966. He had shown his gifts as a teacher before being ordained, and during his time at the Bible Society he wrote four books including Seen and Heard in Dahomey (1934), How to Play a Hymn Tune (1950) and Daily Prayers for the Methodist Church (1951).
Watson had to exercise great wisdom in the then developing relations between national societies in what was becoming the United Bible Societies. His choice as a general secretary in London, after being invited to the work by an equally renowned Methodist, Dr William Platt, was a wise one. Watson was respected everywhere he went.
The British and Foreign Bible Society was founded in 1803 as a lay organisation to translate, publish and distribute the Scriptures in as many languages as circumstances or funds would permit. As the 19th century went on and individual nations developed their own societies - starting with Scotland, Ireland and the US - there was a need to bring these daughter organisations together under the aegis of one central body. The United Bible Societies was formed, not to replace the BFBS, but to facilitate co-operation between the separate national societies.
Watson was much travelled, as the senior officer of the BFBS has to be. In 1968 he was asked to join the delegation of the United Bible Societies that was to meet the Pope, a first step in the later promising relations between Roman Catholics and others in the work of Bible translation and distribution.
In 1969 he retired to Eastbourne and during the last 23 years led a most worthwhile retirement. He not only found his gifts as an organiser and speaker of use to local churches, Probus (former Rotarians) and other senior associations, but his fluency in French led him to set up a group in which people could either improve or start their acquaintance with that language. That he wrote several hymns and a wedding march for a son's wedding serves to reveal still further his Methodist attachment, not to mention his musical talent.
Yet over all these things, the characteristic that will ever stay with me is that ever-lurking smile behind his eyes, his constant sense of humour and his fund of amusing stories. He was a man of God who loved people, could guide and serve them, and never forget that, above all, he honoured his Lord.
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