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James Dodson

No. I.


WHAT were the opinions of Dr. Watts on the subject of the Trinity and person of Jesus Christ? It would be pleasant, indeed, could we find him among the sound divines of England; but there, it is believed, his works will not allow him to be placed. If any be disposed to distinguish between the practical faith of his heart, and the speculative articles of his creed, I have no objection. Believing, however, as I do that God has not constituted us arbiters of the state of men, I have only to do with the latter—upon the former it is not mine to decide. The Doctor’s sentiments concerning the Redeemer, will be found in his “Discourses on the Glory of Christ.” The edition of the Discourses now before me is that of 1746, but a little more than a year before the author’s death.—There you will find him zealously maintaining that the human soul of Christ, created before all worlds, is the Lord from heaven, spoken of—1 Cor. 15:47.[1]—That in the image of this pre-existent spirit, Adam was created [2]—That the son-ship of Christ belongs, exclusively, to his human soul [3]—That the covenant of redemption was not made with a person who was the Father’s equal, but with this created spirit.[4] Such are some of the views which this author supposes would make the Bible more defensible. His opinions on the doctrine of the Trinity, may be gathered from the following address to God.

“Dear and blessed God, hadst thou been pleased, in any one plain scripture, to have informed me which of the different opinions about holy Trinity, among the contending parties of Christians, had been true, thou knowest with how much real satisfaction and joy, my unbiased heart would have opened itself to receive and embrace the divine discovery. Hadst thou told me plainly, in any single text, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are three real distinct persons in thy divine nature, I had never suffered myself to be bewildered in so many doubts, nor embarrassed with so many strong fears of assenting to the mere inventions of men, instead of divine doctrine; but I should have humbly and immediately accepted thy words, so far as it was possible for me to understand them, as the only rule of my faith. Or, hadst thou been pleased so to express and include this proposition in the several scattered parts of thy book, from whence my reason and conscience might, with care, find out, and with certainty infer this doctrine, I should have joyfully employed all my reasoning powers, with their utmost skill and activity, to have found out this inference, and ingrafted it into my soul.

—Holy Father,—how can such weak creatures ever take in so strange, so difficult, and so abstruse a doctrine as this? And can this strange and perplexing notion of three real persons, going to make up one true God, be so necessary and so important a part of that Christian doctrine, which, in the Old Testament, and the New, is represented as so plain and so easy, even to the meanest understanding?”—Watts’ Works, vol. 7, pp. 476-7. Leeds ed.

But to fully ascertain his views on the subject before us, the whole of the writings of Dr. Watts on the doctrine of the Trinity and the Person of Jesus Christ, must be read. The vocabulary of his nursery creed, it is probable, to some extent, the Doctor retained, long after he had abandoned the creed itself. The ambiguity of his language, his manifest desire to be in good standing with men of principles very different, from his own, his destitution of ecclesiastical character, and his defect in a well-settled principle of religious belief, render it somewhat difficult to find his precise position. He often used the language of the orthodox, but claimed the right to explain the terms in his own way, and to press them into an agreement with his own peculiar opinions. Thus scraps taken from his works may be, as they have been,—with what degree of intelligence and honesty we say not,—adduced to prove him orthodox, while taken in their full and proper connexion they prove no such thing, but the reverse.

Whatever obscurity, from the ambiguity of his language and other causes, may hang over his views, the following facts admit of no doubt—that is—that Dr. W. was an anti-trinitarian, and that the distinct divine Personality of the Son of God, as equal with the Father, had no place in his acknowledged creed. The labours of his life, in which he manifested more than his usual mental vigour, were in direct opposition to the orthodox faith on this whole subject. Thus the “Address” from which the foregoing quotation is taken, speaks in a style that forbids us to misunderstand him, and the suppressed pieces to which that paper was prefixed, may reasonably be supposed to have had nothing contradictory to its sentiments. His “Discourses on the Glory of Christ,” before mentioned, and his “Useful Questions” are all in the same spirit.

In the first of these Questions he asks—“What is the true meaning of the name, Son of God, given to Christ in the New Testament?” He, in reply, adduces, and remarks upon several scriptures, and adverts to the views of the orthodox, as—including an “eternal generation of the Person of the Son by the Person of the Father, in the sameness of the Divine Essence, consubstantial, co-equal, and co-eternal with the Father.” And then adds, “I am persuaded this can never be the sense of this Name in those texts,—for—if this be never so true, yet it is confessed to be inconceivable: and I do not think the gracious God would put such a difficult task upon the faith of young disciples,” &c. Then he adverts to the referring of—“the Sonship of Christ—rather to his human nature, or to his office of Messiah, than to such an eternal generation.” He farther says—“Christ considered as the Son of God, is throughout represented as dependent on the Father for all, and receiving all from the Father, which is hardly consistent with the idea of supreme Godhead, if that were included in Sonship.”

Again, in the same strain, he refers to 1 Cor. 15:28; and Phil. 2, and asserts—“that the Son of God is not depressed but exalted by the economy of the [Mediatorial] kingdom.” That that kingdom shall be given up, and then the Son of God, as Son, shall be depressed, be brought down to his original state of inferiority. Thus he writes—“Considered as a Son, he is naturally subject to the Father, and at the end of this economical exaltation he shall return to his natural subjection, and shall be so for ever.”—“His Sonship may be better referred to his inferior nature or to his office.” Dr. W, in his theory, admits the Son to be God, not “by nature,” but as related to the Creator. This naturally inferior Son—Christ—as a distinct Person, is only a creature, inferior to God; but being related to the divine nature is, because of that created relation, called God.

In the third of these “Useful Questions,” the Dr. asks—“Could the Son of God properly enter into a covenant with the Father, to do and suffer what was necessary for our redemption, without a human soul?” He states the orthodox views of the subject; but proceeds to represent them as self-contradictory, and to be abandoned. According to him the covenant of redemption was made between the one Person in God—that is, the Father—for he admits of only one Person in Jehovah, and his, the Dr’s, supposed super-angelic spirit, created before all worlds, and the creator of the world, which, absurdly enough, he calls the human soul of Christ. Then he says—“If we suppose the human soul of Christ to have a pre-existent state of joy, &c., before the world was created, these expressions (the scriptures that speak on the subject) are great and noble, are just and true.” But if we take them in the orthodox view, as to the divine Personality of the Saviour, he says—“Then all these have very little justice or propriety in them.” He adds—“According to the common—(the orthodox) explication of the doctrine of the Persons in the Trinity, we can have no ideas under all their glorious and affectionate representations of this transaction.” And again—“One of these beings or Persons covenanting, seems to be inferior to the other.” “If we give ourselves leave to conceive of the human soul of Christ, in its pre-existent state, as the προτοτοκος, the first form of every creature,—then here are proper subjects for these federal tranactions.”

In the fourth of his Questions, he asks—“Is the Godhead of Christ and the Godhead of the Father, one and the same?” This question he answers in the affirmative. But what does he mean? The ambiguity of his language and his confusion of thought are well calculated to entrap and deceive the unwary, and to furnish a momentary countenance for an unfair advocate of his orthodoxy. The Godhead of the Father and of the Son is the same, he admits. The Godhead is a unit. It is one. According to his scheme, in that Godhead, naturally and eternally, there is but one Person, the Father. The pre-existent soul, or spirit, of Christ is a mere creature—has no Deity of its own; but as an exalted and favoured creature is related in a near friendship with the Father, and in virtue of this relation, or created union—can lay some claim to Deity. Strip his language of its ambiguity, and his thought of its indistinctness, and, in the scheme of Dr. W., the question would be—“Is God the Father the Godhead of Christ?” And the answer would be, yes. The Dr’s. denial of distinct Persons, naturally and eternally, in the one Jehovah, and his doctrine of the pre-existence of the human soul of Christ,—which really is no human soul at all—fills his whole scheme with error, and spreads over it a bewildering confusion.

In his deprecations of tests of orthodoxy, the Dr. was sufficiently explicit, and in his refusal of consent to such a measure, at the meetings of Salters’ Hall, where it was discussed with sufficient earnestness, and urged by Mr. Bradbury and others, he was consistent. For him an orthodox test would not have been safe.

In a letter to Dr. Coleman of February 11th: 1747, accompanying his volume on “The Glory of Christ,” Dr. Watts says, “I think I have said every thing concerning the Son of God which Scripture says; but I could not go so far as to say, with some orthodox divines, that the Son is equal with the Father.” And in his preface and introduction to his treatise on the Trinity, published in 1722, twenty-six years before his death, he admits of a Trinity, but mark his language,—“Three such agents or PRINCIPLES of action, as may reasonably be called persons.” Principles of action—figurative, but not real Persons.

As an anti-trinitarian and opposer of the truth on the subject of the divine Personality of the Redeemer, he was understood by his contemporaries. The justly distinguished author of the volumes on “The great Mystery of Godliness,” the Rev. Thomas Bradbury, [5] in 1725, charged Dr. W. with “making the Divinity of Christ to evaporate into a mere attribute.” And at a subsequent period said to the Dr.—“It is pity, after you have been more than thirty years a teacher of others, you are yet to learn the first principles of the oracles of God. Was Dr. Owen’s church to be taught another Jesus? That the Son and the Spirit were only two powers in the Divine nature!”

Dr. Doddridge was his personal friend, companion, and admirer. He was capable of understanding, and certainly cannot be suspected of any disposition to misrepresent the principles of Dr. W. from which perhaps his own were not very different. Attend to the statement of Dr. Doddridge on this subject:—

“For as much as—there is such a change and humiliation asserted concerning Christ, as could not properly be asserted concerning an eternal and immutable being, as such, there is reason to believe that Christ had, before his incarnation, a created or derived nature, which would admit of such a change.”—Watts’ Diss. on the Trin. No. 3; Works, vol. 6. pp. 518-54. (See Doddr. vol. 2, p. 154.)

Again, “Dr. Watts maintained One Supreme God dwelling in the human nature of Christ, which he supposes to have existed the first of all creatures; and speaks of the divine Logos as the wisdom of God, and the Holy Spirit as the divine power, or the influence and effect of it; which he says is a SCRIPTURAL person, i.e., spoken of figuratively in Scripture, under personal characters.—Watts’ Diss. No. 7; Works, vol 6, p. 630.”—(See Doddr. vol. 2, p. 193.)

He also referred Christ’s being the only begotten Son of God, “to his being the promised Messiah, or to his extraordinary conception, and exaltation to his kingdom as Mediator.”—(See Doddr. vol. 2, p. 178.)

President Edwards thus understood Dr. W., and urges fourteen distinct arguments against his hypothesis concerning Jesus Christ. He has this remark—“According to what seems to be Dr. Watts’ scheme, the Son of God is no distinct divine person from the Father.”[6] That his son, the late Dr. Edwards, viewed the subject in a similar light, is more than presumable, from the fact, that he transcribed these arguments of his venerable father for the press. The same conclusion may be drawn in respect of Dr. Erskine, of Edinburgh, from the interest he took in the publication of these Essays of the President of Nassau Hall; and from the special notice which he takes of that part of them, containing the refutation of the scheme of Dr. W.

In the same light are these writings of Dr. W. understood by the venerable Dr. Anderson. [7] “He taught,” says Dr. A, “that the Holy Spirit is not a person really distinct from the Father, but the divine power—that there are no real distinct persons in the Godhead.” In a similar point of view is the subject contemplated by the Rev. James R. Willson, in his very-interesting “History of opinions on the Atonement.” Hear the confession of another—It is that of Dr. Ely. “We cannot deny,” says Dr. E, “that Dr. Watts’ treatise has wrought much mischief.—It was the book which first turned the head of the Rev. John Sherman—we wish the pernicious consequences of that treatise had terminated here.”[8]

In the same page we are informed, that Mr. Allison, late chaplain to Congress, last January, preached the heresy to our representatives, and gave Dr. W. as the author of the doctrine.

Such were the opinions of Dr. W. written and left on record by himself; and thus have these opinions been understood by Bradbury, Doddridge, the two Edwardses, Erskine, Anderson, Willson, Ely, &c. And it is notorious, that every Anti-trinitarian, who has read his works, claims him as of that school. His solemn address admits of no explanation. If ever man is serious in the expression of his sentiments, it is when he addresses God; and, if ever he expresses those sentiments with precision, it is when he writes them. Dr. W. has done both—He ventured to tell his Maker that the doctrine of three real persons in the Godhead, is a strange and perplexing notion, which we cannot receive; and which is not even inferable from the whole contents of the Book of God!

The truth is, “comparatively few divines of any class,—at the darkened period in which Dr. W. lived and wrote, held out the glimmering lamp of sound evangelical instruction.”[9] Giving too much way to the gambols of imagination, it “occasionally carried him out [say his friends] into moral and sentimental excursions, beyond the usual limits of plain evangelical truth.”[10]—And, according to the historian of the English dissenters,[11] from these excursions it was no easy task to bring him back. Childishly fond of something new, over the creatures of his fancy he doted with an overweening affection; not because they were legitimate, but because they were his own.

What upon this fundamental subject were the views of Dr. W.? Certainly not those of Christianity. They might be those of a slightly modified Arianism, but not less gross or erroneous than those of the Alexandrian presbyter. The scheme of both was really a form of the old Oriental Gnosticism. The superangelic spirit of Arius and Watts was but an AEon of the Gnostics. The scheme of W. may be Gnosticism, but Christianity it is not. We understand his scheme as did Bradbury, Doddridge, Edwards, and, perhaps, as every one understands him who has attentively read his works. Why then be specially reproached for understanding what they understood, and for saying what they said? That these vagaries of the Dr. were neither the fruits of youthful indiscretion, nor of the infirmities of advanced years, he assures us himself. In the preface to his “Useful Questions,” he certifies his readers that “These papers are the product of that part of his life, when his powers of mind and body were in full vigour.” That he abandoned them at a late period of his life, it would be grateful to be assured of, but of the fact no evidence has been given. The well meant attempt of Mr. Toplady to prove it, it is well known, was a failure. And his permission of the continuance of the orthodox phraseology of his poetry will not do it. The Dr’s. correspondence with Mr. Martin Tomkins, an anti-trinitarian, will explain why he did not alter, as he wished to do, the sentiments of his religious poetry. The language of poetry is no certain index of the principles of the poet. The modern Transcendentalist is often poetic in his theology, and in an evangelical strain he can take the language of Rutherford, and Owen, and Edwards, and talk of a close walk with God, and of intimate communion with him. The pantheism of transcendentalists allows them thus to speak a very spiritual language: while they may mean no more than their exposure to a July sun or a December frost, to a gentle shower or a storm of hail. The poetry of fancy will not do away the heresy of prose. This brings to mind a remarkable coincidence. Bardesanes of Edessa, of the second century, and Watts of Southampton; of the eighteenth century, were both distinguished for their advocacy of error, and both were poets, and are the only poets, as far as recollected, who attempted an imitation of the book of Psalms, each in a book of 150 hymns. If history is to be credited, the Gnostic, as a poet, was not inferior to him of Southampton.

But why should the suggestion of a doubt as to the orthodoxy of Dr. W. produce so much sensibility? Why not contend, with equal zeal; for the soundness of Robinson and Priestly? No man will hesitate to place Robinson; the author of the Village Sermons; and Watts, in the same rank as to orthodoxy. The same Robinson, the author of Ecclesiastical Researches; and Priestly, the historian of Early Opinions, were fellow labourers in the same cause of heresy—Why then separate Watts, Robinson, and Priestley? They were all learned and amiable men; and all equally mistaken in the first principles of true religion—the object and medium of worship. Is it because Watts gave a book of Psalms to orthodox churches?

To the religious principles of her psalmist the church cannot be indifferent. And to none of his works, when they come in the way of her members, are they likely to be indifferent. The works of Dr. W. are in market; and in the gossip of the religions newspapers of the day his name is celebrated as divine. The title by which the Spirit of God has designated an inspired Poet and Prophet, is transferred to him—”The sweet Psalmist of Israel;” and his verses have been elevated to the place of the displaced Psalms of inspiration; yet where is the enlightened Christian of any name, who, knowing what he was doing, would put in the hand of his son, or into that of any serious inquirer after fundamental truth, the “Useful Questions concerning Jesus Christ;” by Dr. W. or his more ingenious and laboured work; “The Glory of Christ?” By those in the use of his hymns in the Psalmody of the Church, no note of warning is sounded indicating the danger of his errors. His works have for a time perplexed many, and finally perverted others, and when the temptation to heresy has the sanction of the name of the “sweet Psalmist” of the church, the evil work among her members will take its course. These considerations justify this notice of these fatal errors. The interests, too, of historical verity have some claim to our regard. The defence of reputation against unfounded imputations of no very generous character, may be left to time without farther remark. It ought to be felt by Christians, that the leading psalmist of their church should have been a professed believer and advocate of the truth respecting the God of Israel. The influence which his name is likely to exert upon the faith of the church demands this. But such, however, was not the profession and advocacy of the Southampton poet.

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No. II.


IN Psalmody the music should be solemn and simple. Perhaps there might be a general reform effected in it by the banishment of every difficult tune, and the adoption of a manner better calculated to engage the attention to the sentiment: rather than to the sound. Would not the chanting of the Psalms in prose, be more congenial with the nature of sacred worship, than the modish art, which, almost universally, is at war with the engagement of the mind and the heart? I have said, chanting the Psalms in prose; not that I am displeased with a measured version, for if the translation be fair: whether it be in prose or verse, it is equally the word of God. The Westminster Directory enjoins it on the whole congregation to unite in this service, and to sing directly on, except in a given case. The spirit of that injunction has the sanction of good sense. One very general practice, however, cannot be reprobated in terms too strong; that of an entire congregation, say of a thousand, or fifteen hundred persons, resigning the whole of this part of worship to a dozen or two, usually of the most trifling characters; for the choir demands no qualification but a well-tuned voice. The whole attention is obviously devoted to the music. The notes of the tune frequently occupy the place of the Psalm Book! And this farce—this outrage upon devotion—is called religious worship! Why not employ this choir to say or sing the prayers of the church, and thus do the whole of the devotional service by proxy?

Thirty-five years ago, while the author was, in the United States, pleading for an inspired Psalmody, chanted in prose, untrammelled by unmeaning rhyme, the Rev. Andrew Fuller, D.D, was in England, advocating the same cause. The coincidence is not ungrateful. See a previous reference to the views of Dr. Fuller on the subject.

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No. III.

The fulness of the Old Testament revelation was not equal to that of the New Testament. The light of the former was not adequate to that of the latter. But has not this light of the latter penetrated the shadowy envelope of the former, and to Christian eyes unfolded the deep things of God which lay under the symbolic and prophetic cover? And, possibly, it may be found that the difference, in our view, of the two economies is more in the circumstance than the substance. “The sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow,” constituted the great subjects of ancient prophetic discovery, 1 Pet. 1:11. Were not the principles of these well understood? Were not their time and the manner of their time the questions of doubt, rather than the things themselves?

The church has always been one, and her religion, in its essential attributes, has ever been the same. This religion at all times embraced the truth of the Triune God, the mediation of the Son of God in our nature, the agency of the Holy Spirit, the existence of the eternal covenant of redemption, the same gospel, the renovation of the soul by divine grace, the justification of the believing sinner, the necessity of holiness, the adoption of the saved sinner into the family of God, the immortality of the soul, the stability of the promise, a future judgment, the endless glory of the saint, and the terrible retributions of the finally impenitent and unbelieving. The ancient church had her principles of religion before she had her ritual. She had her priests and her prophets to instruct her. Levit. 10:11; Mal. 2:7; Jer. 24:4. The rites were numerous, but, as mere rites, were of easy apprehension, not requiring much of deep inquiry. Not so, however, as to the import and bearing of the profound truths which they involved and were intended to illustrate. Hence the profound study by day and by night of the great and godly men of that economy. The Psalms and the prophets give us the essence of the attainments of the living church of Israel, as found spread out in her unrecorded ministrations, communion, and experience.

All outward rites of every economy are, when separated from their living principles, carnal, weak, and beggarly. The baptismal regeneration and the opus operatum of the papacy, in the other sacrament, are as weak, carnal and beggarly as any Levitical rite ever was to the unbelieving Jew; and so are New Testament divine institutions themselves, when left as mere shells in their lifeless forms. Is it not of the Levitical ceremonials, when thus separated from their life-giving principle, that Paul writes so disparagingly, and not of God’s appointments in their instituted relations to the principles of a spiritual religion? Who, in our times, understood better than did Moses, David, Isaiah, Daniel, and many others of the ancient saints, the depths of a spiritual religion? These depths of experimental religion are the subject matter of the book of Psalms. Could that deep experimental religion have existed without the deep principles of vital godliness? It was not the violent emotion of blind impulse. Those Psalms are not mere ritual observances. They unfold, and in their developments exhibit, the depths of vital religion; and more of its practical, spiritual influence than any other book—perhaps than all the other books—of the sacred volume.

We shall not repeat the ill-advised language of inferior men in reference to those inspired compositions, nor yet the ill-timed jeers of those of higher rank, who can find it convenient to cast them forth, at the use of a plain and faithful version of those songs of inspiration, and those who use them. Have they forgotten that these songs, and in this same version—which is spoken of as offensive to those of a modish taste,—were sung by their martyr ancestors in the sanctuary, and at the stake; and till a very late period, by their more immediate fathers? Does it escape their notice that, at this very day, a great majority of the most enlightened, orthodox, and spiritually-minded of the Presbyterian household use this version in the solemnities of the sanctuary? And in the matter of taste, do not those in this land, who continue the use of this scripture Psalter, find an apology in the fact, that this ancient version, even in the “minstrel land”—where distinguished minstrels still live, and write, and sing—was used by the Blairs, the Robertsons, the Reids, the Willisons, the Erskines, the Websters, of a by-gone time; and by the Chalmerses, the Lees, the Thompsons, the Candlishes, the Cooks, the Symingtons, the Goolds, the Fairbairns, the M‘Coshes, and others, not less distinguished, in our own age? Without much annoyance, in such company,—in this exercise,—the sneers of those who can sneer at it, may be borne. Sentiment is preferable to sound; and principle to verbiage. But serious thought, good temper, and candid inquiry, by the blessing of God, will correct and remove the unhappy effects of rash and ill-advised sayings and doings, as well as the evil results of the arrogance of numbers, or of the petulance of a party spirit. We are persuaded that in the church at large there is an amount of true principle and sound character, adequate, if put in requisition, to the satisfactory adjustment of this and other subjects of similar import, now in discussion before several departments of the family of God. For this happy issue we wait in hope.

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[1] Pp. 175,176.

[2] P. 203.

[3] P. 201.

[4] Pp. 180,225.

[5] The advocates of Dr. Watts admit Mr. Bradbury to have been a “man of wit”—a man of genius; but, to diminish the weight of his testimony, add—“he was a man of spleen.” The enlightened and serious reader of the volumes on “The Mystery of Godliness” will not thus judge. In those volumes, he will trace the operations of a mind deeply imbued with the love of truth, and of a spirit that was no stranger to the tender sensibilities of evangelical religion.

[6] Essays.

[7] Vindiciae Cantus Dom. p. 73.

[8] Rev. No. 2, p. 221.

[9] Christ. Obs.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Bogue.