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Watson, Alan Cameron (1900–1976)

by Ian Breward

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Alan Cameron Watson (1900-1976), Presbyterian minister, was born on 16 March 1900 at Feilding, New Zealand, youngest of four children of Thomas Watson, an auctioneer from Scotland, and his wife Marion, née Thomson, a New Zealander. After attending Feilding District High School, Alan entered the University of Otago (B.A., N.Z., 1923; M.A., 1924; Dip.Soc.Sc., 1924), Dunedin, where he studied philosophy, represented the university at hockey, served on the executive of the Students' Association, and became active in the New Zealand Student Christian Movement. At Knox College—which profoundly shaped him—he edited the Collegian (1921-22), held office as president (1924), and tutored in philosophy (1922-27). Influenced by William Hewitson, the Victorian-born master of Knox, Watson developed a passionate interest in a new world order. He shared informal discussions with Walter Nash and other future leaders of the New Zealand Labour Party, and lectured for the Workers' Educational Association.

On completion of theological studies, Watson was ordained in December 1925. He was assistant at First Church, Dunedin, before being called to East Taieri in 1927. His gifted preaching, pastoral care and compassion for the poor endeared him to his parishioners. He persuaded the Dunedin City Council to set up a camp for the unemployed at Deep Creek. The teaching of the Bible came alive for him as he ministered to these people. At St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, New Plymouth, on 17 January 1928, he married Eileen Margaret Ballantyne (1902-1969), a schoolteacher and fellow-graduate of the University of Otago. Her practical wisdom and keen mind made her an invaluable partner in her husband's ministry.

The Watsons moved to St Paul's, Christchurch, in May 1932. In this large central parish, Watson ran innovative educational courses. He also encouraged his congregation to be active in civic life, setting an example through his membership of Rotary, support for the unemployed, and involvement with the Nurse Maude District Nursing Association. Impressed by the work of Toyohiko Kagawa in Japanese slums, he invited him to Christchurch in 1935. Watson's commitment to social justice and ecumenism were reinforced when he attended two conferences in Britain in 1937: that on Life and Work at Oxford, and that on Faith and Order in Edinburgh. He worked closely with Campbell West-Watson, the Anglican bishop of Christchurch, and became known, jocularly, as 'Bishop East-Watson'.

On 31 March 1942 Watson began a notable term as minister at Toorak Presbyterian Church, Melbourne. In 1959-76 he wrote weekly articles—entitled 'A Saturday Reflection' from 1966—that appeared anonymously in the Age. The essays discussed personal, cultural and philosophical topics, and the usages of language, and revealed his humane view of the world. A respected Rotarian, a well-known broadcaster, a fine preacher and pastor to people in all walks of life, he was sensitive to the joys and tragedies of living in God's creation. Throughout his ministry, he read widely in literature and theology, believing that preaching was a sacred trust demanding the most careful preparation and a steady growth in discernment. He served on many committees of the Victorian Presbyterian Assembly, including one concerned with theological education, and advocated state aid to schools. His standing in the Church was reflected in his election to terms as moderator (1953-54) of the General Assembly of Victoria and moderator-general (1959-62) of Australia. He was a fair-minded chairman, an excellent debater, and a master of judicious public statements.

Watson worked tirelessly for Christian unity and fostered closer relations with Asian churches, especially through Inter-Church Aid. He was a vice-president (1954-60) of the World Presbyterian Alliance, and a member of the central committee of the World Council of Churches. Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon, United States of America, awarded him an honorary doctorate of divinity (1954) for his international leadership. In 1961-63 he chaired the Australian Council of Churches. An influential member (from 1956) of the Joint Commission on Church Union set up by the Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists, he wrote the dissenting report which led to the rejection of a proposal to introduce bishops into the Uniting Church in Australia. He retired on 30 June 1967 and was appointed C.M.G. next year.

Craggily handsome, Watson was tall and lithe. Presence and eloquence balanced his Scottish reserve. He loved sport, gardening and reading, and could laugh uproariously. Survived by his daughter and two sons, he died on 15 January 1976 in his home at Mornington and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • The Knox College Register 1909-1973 (Dunedin, NZ, 1973)
  • D. Watson, 'Foreword', in D. Watson and N. Watson (eds), Alan Watson's Saturday Reflections (Melb, 1976)
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 July 1967, 16 Jan 1976
  • private information.

Citation details

Ian Breward, 'Watson, Alan Cameron (1900–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/watson-alan-cameron-11975/text21465, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 15 October 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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