Born at Barton-on-Humber on 22 February 1781, he was brought up in the Countess of Huntington's Connexion. He had a classical education at Lincoln Grammar School, but was then apprenticed to a joiner. He was converted in 1794, began preaching in 1796 and was received on trial as a WM itinerant in 1797. He left the WM ministry in 1800 under suspicion of denying the divinity of Christ, a doctrine he later defended in his 'Remark on the Eternal Sonship' (1818) and over which he differed from Adam Clarke. In 1804 he joined the MNC, but was unhappy with the lay control of the MNC ministry and regained his ministerial status in WM in 1812. The sermon he preached at the inaugural meeting of the Leeds District Missionary Society in 1813 was published and had a widespread influence on the formation of similar District societies. In 1817 he drew up the plan for a connexional Missionary Society, adopted by the Conference of 1818, serving as one of its secretaries from 1821 to 1827 and again in 1832. He was President of the 1826 Conference.
The first outstanding WM systematic theologian and a keen promoter of missions, in 1818 he published Remarks on the Eternal Sonship of Christ, in which he was critical of the view's expressed by Adam Clarke in his Commentary on the New Testament. His greatest theological contribution was his Theological Institutes (1831), in which he was the first to bring John Wesley's theology into a coherent system. He made no claim to originality, but, at a time when there was still no formal ministerial training, aimed to help ministers refute Calvinist, Socinian and rationalist ideas when they threatened to disturb the Methodist people. While he undoubtedly shared the evangelical perspective of Wesley's theology and reproduced its content, it is arguable that, because of his apologetic concerns, he failed to preserve its approach and style. Everything turns on whether for Wesley theology was immediately practical, informing and strengthening faith, whereas for Watson it served preaching indirectly, by supporting doctrine and clearing away intellectual encumbrances. Watson also wrote catechisms for young people, Observations on Southey's life of John Wesley (1820) and a life Wesley of his own (1831). He compiled a Biblical and Theological Dictionary (1831) at the request of the WM Conference, and edited a revision of the WM Hymn-book. His daughter Mary married James Dixon. He died of liver failure in London on 8 January 1833 and was buried at Wesley's Chapel.
'The most impressive figure of them all was that of Richard Watson, the stateliest intellect our Church has yet produced. Even in stature there were few to match him: he stood six feet two… He had, I think, the biggest brow I ever saw, and it was exquisitely modelled… For native dignity of carriage and of utterance, he was quite unrivalled.'
Benjamin Gregory, Side Lights on the Conflicts of Methodism (1898) p.50