September 27 – James Watson

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

James Watson, Christian pioneer

James Watson was an outstanding pioneer Methodist missionary. He began his ministry in 1891 as a member of William Bromilow and George Brown’s huge Australasian missionary venture to the island of Dobu in the British-administered territory of Papua.  Watson almost died because of repeated bouts of malaria and was obliged to return home after two years’ service. From then on he served in circuits at Narrabri (1896–1898), Inverell (1899–1901), Broken Hill (1902–1906), Wallaroo (1907–1910) and Kempsey (1911–1913). His interest in missions however never waned. In 1914 he was appointed Foreign Missionary Secretary with the Methodist Church of Australasia and in 1916, was selected by the Methodist Overseas Mission Board to establish and lead the Methodist Aborigines’ Mission on South Goulburn Island (Warruwi) in Western Arnhem Land.

Watson was a man of untiring energy and zeal. He was an expert horseman, sailor, builder–immensely practical both in the bush and on the sea. He was a gifted raconteur, competent photographer and throughout his long life, a powerful spokesman for Methodist missions.

At a time when there was a widespread belief that Aboriginal people were a “dying race”, Watson played a prominent role in challenging Methodist attitudes towards Aboriginal people. On his first excursion into Arnhem Land in 1915 to find a suitable site for a mission station, his first-hand experience led him to the conclusion that they were a “remarkable people” to be greatly admired for their physical strength, athletic prowess, intelligence, poise, patience, humour and imagination. He expressed nothing but appreciation of “this most fascinatingly interesting race”. Watson represented the beginnings of a new wave of thinking in Methodism, one of making reparation or doing atonement for the diseases and destruction inflicted on Indigenous societies by European civilization. In public lectures and short articles in the Missionary Review, he often pointed out that it was not the wish of missionaries to try to radically change the way Aboriginal people lived but by “means of friendship and the Gospel to gradually improve the living conditions of the people who had undisputed right of title to these lands”. For Watson there was both a standing with Aboriginal people and a standing between them and injustices of white society. During World War I he boldly compared the treatment of Aboriginal people with “the atrocities of the Huns”—a foreshadowing of recent arguments about Aboriginal genocide.

Watson had a practical faith and was a man of his era.  His obituary in the Methodist states that he was “no great lover or student of books” but had a great capacity to get alongside people and to learn from them. His simple, practical faith is probably best illustrated by a sermon he delivered in Bendigo in 1903 on the subject ‘true religion”: “true religion consisted in being good and doing good”. It was also reported that when Watson died, his last words were: “I have fought a good fight; I have finished my course; I have kept the faith.” It is testimony to a man who was “a brave and devoted soldier of Christ”.

William Emilsen