A short account of his life and ministry - part 1
If one has any acquaintance at all with the life and ministry of the Tudor theologian William Perkins (1558-1602), one would think him a most unlikely candidate to fall into profound historical obscurity. There circulates within the evangelical world a pithy maxim, usually attributed to Count Zinzendorf, that a Christian ought to “preach the Gospel, die and be forgotten”. Perkins, a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge and lecturer at the nearby Great St. Andrew’s church did all three of these things. His life had revolved around the proclamation of the Gospel since the time that, as a recently converted undergraduate, he had taken to gathering the prisoners at the Cambridge gaol to preach to them, and it was this work, together with the building up of the saints, which continued to animate him, professionally and personally, until his death at the age of only forty-four from a calculus.
Even a perfunctory examination of Perkins’ ministry, both in the pulpit and at his writing desk, however, give the impression that he was one of those relatively rare figures in the history of the Reformed faith whose reputation would endure among ordinary believers over the centuries: despite his relatively brief period of activity he penned at least forty distinct works, covering virtually every major topic of theological interest, from covenantal federalism and soteriology to ecclesiology and Christian living. Indeed, Perkins is often thought of, not without justification, as the English language’s first systematic theologian. At the latest count a cumulative 459 editions of his works were published in the period 1584-1690 in at least ten languages. Those tutored by Perkins at Cambridge, or inspired by his ministry form a veritable ‘who’s who’ of the early Puritan movement: among their number were William Ames, Richard Sibbes and the pastor of the Mayflower Pilgrims, John Robinson. Certainly, in the opening decades of Stuart rule, compendia of Perkins’ works were almost as common a sight as Foxe’s Acts and Monuments upon the shelves of English ministers and laymen alike.
Nevertheless, it is equally undeniable that his popularity had peaked by the end of the 1640s, and by the end of the seventeenth century, his treatises were out of print, his students long since passed away and his name rarely cited. Writing some time later, in 1772, the Shropshire dissenting minister Job Orton could complain that while “Mr William Perkins” had been an “excellent writer...judicious, clear, full of matter”, his “works are little known in England”. The sinking of Perkins’ star among British Protestants was the result of a complicated nexus of causes, ranging from the oversaturation of the market for Reformed divinity with the works of newer authors, such as Owen, Flavel and Watson, to the tarring of the Puritan name among much of the population through association with the 1649 regicide and a turning away, particularly within the Established Church, from the full-blooded Calvinism which Perkins so forcefully advocated.
This new obscurity among churchmen was, in time, accompanied by a startling lack of academic interest in Perkins’ monumental contributions to ecclesiastical history or the influence of his thought upon Reformed doctrine and practice. While the latter has been redressed somewhat in recent decades, in part through the pioneering scholarship of the Reverend Dr. Ian Breward and Professor W.B. Patterson, as well as attention being called to Perkins’ existence and extensive contributions by the widely publicised, if often embarrassingly inaccurate, pronouncements of the ‘Calvin vs. the Calvinists’ tradition of scholarship, chiefly embodied by the 1979 work of Dr. R.T. Kendall, entitled Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, Perkins remains startlingly little read among modern Christian believers, although a sterling effort has been made in the past decade by Dr. Joel Beeke and Reformation Heritage Books to republish his works in full. We do ourselves a great disservice in overlooking so varied and systematic, and at the same time so warm and practical a divine as Perkins. Space precludes a full enumeration of his virtues as an author, but it would be remiss of me to conclude this article without noting some other important points, which will be listed in the next instalment.
To be continued on Thursday For books on the William Perkins & other puritans, check out our St Antholin Series.