William Perkins (1558–1602) was an influential English cleric and Cambridge theologian, receiving both a B.A. and M.A. from the university in 1581 and 1584 respectively, and also one of the foremost leaders of the Puritan movement in the Church of England during the Elizabethan era. Although not entirely accepting of the Church of England's ecclesiastical practices, Perkins conformed to many of the policies and procedures imposed by the Elizabethan Settlement. He did remain, however, sympathetic to the non-conformist puritans and even faced disciplinary action for his support.
Perkins was a prolific author who penned over forty works, many of which were published posthumously. In addition to writing, he also served as a fellow at Christ's College and as a lecturer at St Andrew's Church in Cambridge. He was a firm proponent of Reformed theology, particularly the supralapsarian theology of Theodore Beza and John Calvin. In addition, he was a staunch defender of Protestant ideals, specifically the five solae with a particular emphasis on solus Christus and sola Scriptura.
Perkins was born to Thomas and Anna Perkins at Marston Jabbett in the parish of Bulkington, Warwickshire, England in 1558, the year in which the ProtestantElizabeth I succeeded her Catholic sister Mary as Queen of England. Perkins lived his entire life under Elizabeth I, dying one year before the Queen's own death in 1603. Perkins's relationship with Elizabeth was ambiguous: on the one hand, she was Good Queen Bess, the monarch under whom England finally and firmly became a Protestant nation; on the other hand, Perkins and the other members of the Puritan movement were frustrated that the Elizabethan settlement had not gone far enough and pushed for further Reformation.
Little is known of Perkins' childhood and upbringing. Sometime in his early life he was rendered lame which forced him to write with his left hand. His family was evidently of some means, since in June 1577, at age 19, Perkins was enrolled as a pensioner of Christ's College, Cambridge being trained in the tradition of the Reformed scholastic framework. He would receive his BA in 1581 and his MA in 1584.
According to an unverifiable story, Perkins was convicted of the error of his ways after he heard a Cambridge mother say to her child, "Hold your tongue, or I will give you to drunken Perkins yonder." Whether or not the story is true, it is clear that Perkins had a religious awakening sometime between 1581 and 1584 during his time at Cambridge.
Following his ordination, Perkins also preached his first sermons to the prisoners of the Cambridge jail. On one celebrated occasion, Perkins encountered a young man who was going to be executed for his crimes and who feared he was shortly going to be in hell: Perkins convinced the man that, through Christ, God could forgive his sins, and the formerly distraught youth faced his execution with manly composure as a result.
In 1584, after receiving his MA, Perkins was elected as a fellow of Christ's College, a post he held until 1594. In 1585, he became a Lecturer of St Andrew the Great in Cambridge, a post he held until his death.
On 13 January 1587, Perkins preached a sermon denouncing the practice of kneeling to receive Communion, and was ultimately called before the Vice-Chancellor as a result. During the final set of trials against Puritan ministers in 1590–91, Perkins confirmed that he had discussed the Book of Discipline with Puritan ministers, but claimed that he could not remember whom he had talked to. Perkins married Timothye Cradocke of Grantchester on 2 July 1595. (He had previously resigned his fellowship at Christ's College, since only unmarried men could be fellows.) They became the parents of seven children, three of whom died in youth from various causes, and one of whom was born after Perkins himself had died.
Perkins was a proponent of "double predestination" and was a major player in introducing the thought of Theodore Beza to England. He viewed the Reformed concept of the Covenant of Grace, which is central to Reformed soteriology and double predestination, to be a doctrine of great consoling value. He was responsible for the publication in English of Beza's famous chart about double predestination. In addition to adopting a Reformed soteriology, he also strongly held to the doctrines of solo Christo and sola Scriptura which "serve as the twin foundation stones for what Perkins conceived as biblical preaching." He was also a major proponent of literal interpretation utilizing the regula fidei, or Rule of Faith. This principle advocates that the unclear portions of scripture ought to be interpreted by the clear portions rather than by tradition or speculation. He did, however, leave room for figurative or analogical language when context demands.
Although relatively unknown to modern Christians, Perkins has had an influence that is felt by Christians all around the world. and was highly regarded in the Elizabethan Church. In addition, Perkins's views on double predestination made him a major target of Jacobus Arminius, the Dutch Reformed clergyman who opposed the doctrine of predestination. He also was influential in the theological development of the American puritan philosopher and theologian Jonathan Edwards. In addition, some consider the hermeneutics of Perkins to be a model that ought to be emulated.
In his lifetime, Perkins attained enormous popularity, with sales of his works eventually surpassing even Calvin's. When he died, his writings were selling more copies than those of many of the most famous of the Reformers combined.
From his position at Cambridge, Perkins was able to influence a whole generation of English churchmen. His pupils include:
William Ames, Puritan theologian whose "Marrow of Theology" was the most popular systematic theology of the time became professor of theology at Franeker, Netherlands
A Warning against the Idolatrie of the Last Times (1584)
Foure Great Lyers, Striuing Who Shall Win the Siluer Whetstone: Also, A Resolution to the Count (1585)
A Treatise Tending Vnto a Declaration Whether a Man be in the Estate of Damnation or in the Estate of Grace: And If he be in the First, How he may in Time Come out of it: if in the second, how he maie discerne it, and perseuere in the same to the end. The points that are handled are set downe in the page following (1590)
Armilla aurea, id est, Miranda series causarum et salutis & damnationis iuxta verbum Dei: Eius synopsin continet annexa tabula (1590)
A golden chaine, or the description of theologie: containing the order of the causes of saluation and damnation, according to Gods woord. A view of the order wherof, is to be seene in the table annexed (1591)
The foundation of Christian religion : gathered into sixe principles. And it is to bee learned of ignorant people, that they may be fit to hear sermons with profit, and to receiue the Lords Supper with comfort (1591)
Prophetica, sive, De sacra et vnica ratione concionandi tractatus (1592)
A case of conscience : the greatest that euer was; how a man may know whether he be the child of God or no. Resolued by the word of God. Whereunto is added a briefe discourse, taken out of Hier. Zanchius (1592)
An exposition of the Lords prayer : in the way of catechising seruing for ignorant people (1592)
Tvvo treatises·: I. Of the nature and practise of repentance. II. Of the combat of the flesh and spirit (1593)
An exposition of the Lords praier : in the way of catechisme (1593)
A direction for the government of the tongue according to Gods word (1593)
An exposition of the Symbole or Creed of the Apostles : according to the tenour of the Scriptures, and the consent of orthodoxe Fathers of the Church (1595)
A salve for a sicke man, or, A treatise containing the nature, differences, and kindes of death : as also the right manner of dying well. And it may serue for spirituall instruction to 1. Mariners when they goe to sea. 2. Souldiers when they goe to battell. 3. Women when they trauell of child (1595)
A declaration of the true manner of knowing Christ crucified (1596)
A reformed Catholike, or, A declaration shewing how neere we may come to the present Church of Rome in sundrie points of religion, and wherein we must for euer depart from them : with an advertisement to all fauourers of the Romane religion, shewing that the said religion is against the Catholike principles and grounds of the catechisme (1597)
De praedestinationis modo et ordine : et de amplitudine gratiae diuinae Christiana & perspicua disceptatio (1598)
Specimen digesti, sive Harmoniæ bibliorum Veteris et Novi Testamneti (1598)
A warning against the idolatrie of the last times : And an instruction touching religious, or diuine worship (1601)
The true gaine : more in worth then all the goods in the world (1601)
How to liue, and that well: in all estates and times, specially when helps and comforts faile (1601)
The works of that famous and worthie minister of Christ, in the Universitie of Cambridge, M.W. Perkins : gathered into one volume, and newly corrected according to his owne copies. With distinct chapters, and contents of euery book, and a generall table of the whole (1603)
The reformation of couetousnesse: Written vpon the 6. chapter of Mathew, from the 19. verse to the ende of the said chapter (1603)
A commentarie or exposition, vpon the fiue first chapters of the Epistle to the Galatians: penned by the godly, learned, and iudiciall diuine (1604)
Lectures vpon the three first chapters of the Reuelation: preached in Cambridge anno Dom. 1595 (1604)
Gvilielmi Perkinsi Problema de Romanæ fidei ementito Catholicismo. : Estq[ue] Antidotum contra Thesaurum Catholicum Iodoci Coccij. Et [propaideia] iuventutis in lectione omnium patrum (1604)
The first part of The cases of conscience : Wherein specially, three maine questions concerning man, simply considered in himselfe, are propounded and resolued, according to the word of God (1604)
Satans sophistrie ansuuered by our Sauiour Christ: and in diuers sermons further manifested (1604)
Hepieíkeia: or, a treatise of Christian equitie and moderation (1604)
M. Perkins, his Exhortation to repentance, out of Zephaniah: preached in 2. sermons in Sturbridge Faire. Together with two treatises of the duties and dignitie of the ministrie: deliuered publiquely in the Vniuersitie of Cambridge. With a preface præfixed touching the publishing of all such workes of his as are to be expected: with a catalogue of all the perticulers [sic] of them, diligently perused and published, by a preacher of the word (1605)
Works newly corrected according to his owne copies (1605)
Of the calling of the ministerie two treatises, describing the duties and dignities of that calling (1605)
The combat betweene Christ and the diuell displayed, or A commentarie upon the temptations of Christ (1606)
A godlie and learned exposition vpon the whole epistle of Ivde... (1606)
A C[hristian] and [plain]e treatise of the manner and order of predestination : and of the largenes of Gods grace (1606)
The arte of prophecying, or, A treatise concerning the sacred and onely true manner and methode of preaching (1607)
A cloud of faithfull witnesses, leading to the heauenly Canaan, or, A commentarie vpon the 11 chapter to the Hebrewes (1607)
A treatise of mans imaginations : Shewing his naturall euill thoughts: His want of good thoughts: The way to reforme them (1607)
A discourse of the damned art of witchcraft: so farre forth as it is revealed in the Scriptures and manifest by true experience ... (1608)
The vvhole treatise of the cases of conscience : distinguished into three bookes (1608)
Christian oeconomie: or, A short survey of the right manner of erecting and ordering a familie : according to the scriptures (1609)
A graine of musterd-seede: or, the least measure of grace that is or can be effectuall to saluation (1611)
A resolution to the countryman prooving it utterly unlawfull to buy or use our yeerely prognostications (1618)
Deaths knell: or, The sicke mans passing-bell : summoning all sicke consciences to pr[e]pare themselues for the coming of the grea[t] day of doome, lest mercies gate be shut against them: fit for all those that desire to arriue at the heauenly Ierusalem. Whereunto are added prayers fit for housholders. The ninth edition. (1628)
The Work of William Perkins, ed. Ian Breward (1970)
The Works of William Perkins, ed. Joel R. Beeke and Derek W. H. Thomas, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014–-2020).