William Perkins was born in 1558 to Thomas and Hannah Perkins in the village of Marston Jabbett, in Bulkington parish, Warwickshire. As a youth, he indulged in recklessness, profanity, and drunkenness. In 1577, he entered Christ’s College in Cambridge as a pensioner, suggesting that socially he nearly qualified as gentry. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1581 and a master’s degree in 1584.
While a student, Perkins experienced a powerful conversion that probably began when he overheard a woman in the street chide her naughty child by alluding to “drunken Perkins.” That incident so humiliated Perkins that he gave up his wicked ways and fled to Christ for salvation. He gave up the study of mathematics and his fascination with black magic and the occult, and took up theology. In time, he joined up with Laurence Chaderton (1536–1640), who became his personal tutor and lifelong friend. Perkins and Chaderton met with Richard Greenham, Richard Rogers, and others in a spiritual brotherhood at Cambridge that espoused Calvinist and Puritan convictions.
Cambridge was the leading Puritan center of the day. Perkins’s formal training was Calvinism within a scholastic framework. The strict scholastic training at Cambridge was modified somewhat, however, by Peter Ramus’s influence. Ramism had won the support of the Puritans, due to its practicality. Ramus, a converted Roman Catholic, had reformed the arts curriculum by applying it to daily life. He proposed a method to simplify all academic subjects, offering a single logic for both dialectic and rhetoric to make them understandable and memorable. Chaderton first introduced Ramus’s Art of Logick to Cambridge students, particularly to Gabriel Harvey, a lecturer who used Ramus’s methods for reforming the arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic.
Perkins was impressed with Harvey’s presentation and applied it to his manual on preaching titled The Art of Prophesying, or a treatise concerning the sacred and only true manner and method of preaching. Perkins’s training in Ramus’s method oriented him toward practical application rather than speculative theory, and gave him skills for becoming a popular preacher and theologian.
From 1584 until his death, Perkins served as lecturer, or preacher, at Great St. Andrew’s Church, Cambridge, a most influential pulpit across the street from Christ’s College. He also served as a fellow at Christ’s College from 1584 to 1595. Fellows were required to preach, lecture, and tutor students, acting as guides to learning as well as guardians of finances, morals, and manners.
On July 2, 1595, Perkins resigned his fellowship to marry a young widow. That motivated Samuel Ward, later Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, to respond in his diary, “Good Lord, grant...there follow no ruin to the college.” Men such as Ward counted it a great blessing to sit under Perkins’s teaching and to witness his exemplary living.
Perkins served the university in other capacities. He was dean of Christ’s College from 1590 to 1591. He catechized the students at Corpus Christi College on Thursday afternoons, lecturing on the Ten Commandments in a manner that deeply impressed the students. On Sunday afternoons, he worked as an adviser, counseling the spiritually distressed.
Perkins had exceptional gifts for preaching and an uncanny ability to reach common people with plain preaching and theology. He pioneered Puritan casuistry—the art of dealing with “cases of conscience” by self-examination and scriptural diagnosis. Many people were convicted of sin and delivered from bondage under his preaching. The prisoners of the Cambridge jail were among the first to benefit from his powerful preaching. Perkins “would pronounce the word damn with such an emphasis as left a doleful Echo in his auditors’ ears a good while after,” wrote Thomas Fuller. “Many an Onesimus in bonds was converted to Christ” (Abel Redevivus, 2:145-46).
Samuel Clarke offers a striking example of Perkins’s pastoral care. He says a condemned prisoner was climbing the gallows, looking half-dead, when Perkins said to him, “What man! What is the matter with thee? Art thou afraid of death?” The prisoner confessed that he was less afraid of death than of what would follow it. “Sayest thou so,” said Perkins. “Come down again man and thou shalt see what God’s grace will do to strengthen thee.”
When the prisoner came down, they knelt together, hand in hand, and Perkins offered “such an effectual prayer in confession of sins...as made the poor prisoner burst out into abundance of tears.” Convinced the prisoner was brought “low enough, even to Hell gates,” Perkins showed him the gospel in prayer. Clarke writes that the prisoner’s eyes were opened “to see how the black lines of all his sins were crossed, and cancelled with the red lines of his crucified Savior’s precious blood; so graciously applying it to his wounded conscience, as made him break out into new showers of tears for joy of the inward consolation which he found.” The prisoner rose from his knees, went cheerfully up the ladder, testified of salvation in Christ’s blood, and bore his death with patience, “as if he actually saw himself delivered from the Hell which he feared before, and heaven opened for the receiving of his soul, to the great rejoicing of the beholders” (The Marrow of Ecclesiastical History, pp. 416-17).
Perkins’s sermons were of many “colours,” writes Fuller. They seemed to be “all Law and all gospel, all cordials and all corrosives, as the different necessities of people apprehended.” He was able to reach many types of people in various classes, being “systematic, scholarly, solid and simple at the same time.” As Fuller says, “His church consisting of the university and town, the scholar could have no learneder, the townsmen [no] plainer, sermons.” Most importantly, he lived his sermons: “As his preaching was a comment on his text, so his practice was a comment on his preaching,” Fuller concludes (Abel Redevivus, 2:148, 151).
Perkins aimed to wed predestinarian preaching with practical, experiential living. He refused to see the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility as antagonistic but treated them as “friends” who need no reconciliation.
Like Chaderton, his mentor, Perkins worked to purify the established church from within rather than joining Puritans who advocated separation. Instead of addressing church polity, he focused on addressing pastoral inadequacies, spiritual deficiencies, and soul-destroying ignorance in the church.
In time, Perkins as rhetorician, expositor, theologian, and pastor became the principle architect of the Puritan movement. His vision of reform for the church, combined with his intellect, piety, writing, spiritual counseling, and communication skills, enabled him to set the tone for the seventeenth-century Puritan accent on Reformed, experiential truth and self-examination, and their polemic against Roman Catholicism and Arminianism. Fuller said of Perkins, who was disabled in his right hand, “This Ehud, with a left-handed pen did stab the Romish cause.” By the time of his death, Perkins’s writings in England were outselling those of Calvin, Beza, and Bullinger combined. He “moulded the piety of a whole nation,” H.C. Porter said (Reformation and Reaction in Tudor Cambridge, p. 260).
Perkins died from kidney stone complications in 1602, just before the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. His wife of seven years was pregnant at the time; she was caring for three small children as well as sorrowing over three children recently lost to various diseases. Perkins’s closest friend, James Montagu, later bishop of Winchester, preached the funeral sermon for Perkins from Joshua 1:2, “Moses my servant is dead.” Ward, deeply distressed, wrote on behalf of many: “God knows his death is likely to be an irrevocable loss and a great judgment to the university, seeing there is none to supply his place” (M. M. Knappen, ed., Two Elizabethan Puritan Diaries, p. 130). Perkins was buried in the churchyard of Great St. Andrews. His sizable library was purchased by William Bedell, one of Perkins’s students who became bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh.
Eleven editions of Perkins’s writings, containing nearly fifty treatises, were printed after his death. His major writings include expositions of Galatians 1-5, Matthew 5-7, Hebrews 11, Jude, and Revelation 1-3, as well as treatises on predestination, the order of salvation, assurance of faith, the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the worship of God, the Christian life and vocation, ministry and preaching, the errors of Roman Catholicism, and various cases of conscience. His writings, popularized for lay readers, are Bible-based in accord with the principles of literal and contextual interpretation established by the Reformers. They are practically and experientially Calvinistic, continually focusing on motives, desires, and distresses in the heart and life of sinners, ever aiming at finding and following the path of eternal life. For pietistic emphasis, Perkins usually uses a Ramistic method that presents the definition of the subject and its further partition, often by dichotomies, into progressively more heads or topics, applying each truth set forth.
Perkins’s influence continued through such theologians as William Ames (1576-1633), Richard Sibbes (1577-1635), John Cotton (1585-1652), and John Preston (1587-1628). Cotton considered Perkins’s ministry the “one good reason why there came so many excellent preachers out of Cambridge in England, more than out of Oxford.” Thomas Goodwin (1600- 1680) wrote that when he entered Cambridge, six of his instructors who had sat under Perkins were still passing on his teaching. Ten years after Perkins’s death, Cambridge was still “filled with the discourse of the power of Mr. William Perkins’ ministry,” Goodwin said.
The translation of Perkins’s writings prompted greater theological discussion between England and the Continent. J. van der Haar records 185 seventeenth-century printings in Dutch of Perkins’s individual or collected works, twice as many as any other Puritan (From Abbadie to Young: A Bibliography of English, mostly Puritan, Works, Translated i/o Dutch Language, 1:96-108). He and Ames, his most influential student on the continent, influenced Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) and numerous Dutch Nadere Reformatie (Further Reformation) theologians. At least fifty editions of Perkins’s works were printed in Switzerland and in various parts of Germany. His writings were also translated into Spanish, French, Italian, Gaelic, Welsh, Hungarian, and Czech.
Nearly one hundred Cambridge men who grew up in Perkins’s shadow led early migrations to New England, including William Brewster of Plymouth, Thomas Hooker of Connecticut, John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay, and Roger Williams of Rhode Island. Richard Mather was converted while reading Perkins, and Jonathan Edwards was fond of reading Perkins more than a century later. Samuel Morison remarked that “your typical Plymouth Colony library comprised a large and a small bible, Ainsworth’s translation of the Psalms, and the works of William Perkins, a favorite theologian” (The Intellectual Life of New England, 2nd ed., p. 134).
“Anyone who reads the writings of early New England learns that Perkins was indeed a towering figure in their eyes,” wrote Perry Miller. Perkins and his followers were “the most quoted, most respected, and most influential of contemporary authors in the writings and sermons of early Massachusetts.”
Joel Beeke (@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.
Randall J. Pederson (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an author and editor of several publications relating to Puritanism.
William Perkins: Architect of Puritanism, edited by Joel Beeke and Greg Salazar
Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson