William Perkins (1558-1602)
Born: Warwickshire, England
Role: Preacher, university fellow, early Puritan reformer
Emphases: practical piety, covenant of grace, sola Scriptura, solo Christus, double predestination
Protested against: forced religious conformity; religious formalism; kneeling at Communion; Pelagianism
With his lifetime spanning the reign of the mildly Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, William Perkins was one of the most significant figures in the early phase of English Puritanism. One of his biographers, Carl Trueman, has described him as “doubtless the most influential English theologian of his time” – noting his enormous influence on subsequent generations of English and Dutch Protestantism through both his writings and students.
The traditions surrounding Perkins’ life portray him as a drunkard and no-hoper who had a dramatic religious conversion while studying at Cambridge in the 1570s. His early ministry does demonstrate a heart for those from the wrong side of the tracks, as he became the equivalent of a prison chaplain, preaching every Sunday to the inmates near Cambridge. There is a remarkable story of Perkins praying for a young man moments before his execution and sharing the gospel with him, leading to the astonishing conversion and comfort of the condemned criminal.
[When Perkins’ prayer had ended, the young man] rose from his knees cheerfully, and went up the Ladder again comforted, and took his death with such patience and alacrity, as if he actually saw himself delivered from the hell which he feared before…
This illustrates the way God used Perkins as a minister to so many people, gifting him with an exceptional capacity for pastoral care and resolving issues of conscience, doubts about salvation and fear about eternity. His Whole Treatise of Cases of Conscience (published after his death) was a very influential work on how pastors might address the spiritual concerns of their parishioners. This was the beginning of the art the Puritans sought to master in subsequent years – taking the biblical truths recovered in the Reformation and turning them into a kind of applied science of pastoral care to promote healthy growth in godliness and Christlikeness.
This was Perkins’ major contribution to the English Reformation: holding firmly to Protestant and Calvinist theological emphases and seeking to ensure that the implications of these beliefs were fully realized in Christian life and pastoral ministry. He famously described theology as “the science of living blessedly forever.” ‘Practical divinity’ as the Puritans would come to call it, was all about knowing God in truth and having a vibrant spirituality based on that knowledge.
Perkins did not push as hard for ecclesiastical or doctrinal reform within the wider, established English church (that had embraced a stagnant via media during Elizabeth’s reign in the name of religious “settlement”) as some of his contemporaries and successors. However, he did land in controversy for taking the classic English Protestant stance against kneeling at communion, on the basis that it conveyed a wrong notion of reverence which was residue from Rome rather than biblical practice.
The scope of his influence can be appreciated, at least in part, from the distribution of his writings and the significance of those who learned from him and built upon his approach to theology and ministry.
As Beeke and Pederson recount in their biographical sketch of Perkins: “By the time of his death, Perkins’s writings in England were outselling those of Calvin, Beza, and Bullinger combined.” An incredible feat indeed.
Perkins had a major impact on a younger generation of Puritan pastors who would themselves continually think about how to apply the grand truths of Reformed theology in a pastoral manner that was conducive to assurance, piety and spiritual growth. William Ames and Richard Sibbes are notable examples. His influence extended both to Calvinist churchmen such as Archbishop James Ussher and the emergent Congregationalists, including Thomas Goodwin and John Robinson.
In today’s religious climate there are a range of problems posed by dry Protestant orthodoxy and people who are better suited to online theological wrangling than pastoral ministry on the one hand, and wishy-washy approaches to counselling and spirituality divorced from solid biblical doctrine on the other. In times where cold Calvinism, hollow liberalism and frothy spirituality all gratify the carnal, prideful nature of sinful people – Perkins’ commitment to biblical truth, theologically-informed piety and gospel-saturated pastoral care challenges us to take stock of how we’re approaching the Scriptures, life and ministry God has graciously given to us.
Carl Trueman, “William Perkins” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals
“William Perkins” in Joel Beeke & Randall Pederson, Meet the Puritans
“William Perkins” wikipedia
Samuel Clarke, “The Marrow of Ecclesiastical History” (1654)