Puritans Who Changed the World: William Perkins 1558-1602

Posted on November 28, 2008. Filed under: Church History |

Puritans Who Changed the World: William Perkins 1558-1602

Overview: William Perkins, a former drunk who dabbled in the occult, became by God’s grace, the most influential Puritan Theologian and Pastor in England. His work at Cambridge and at St. Andrews church influenced two generations of Puritans and his legacy set the tone for Puritanism in America from the Pilgrims at Plymouth to Jonathon Edwards and the Great Awakening.

Biography: Born in 1558 (the year Queen Elizabeth took the throne) at the village of Marston Jabbett, Warwickshire, to Thomas and Hanna Perkins. Perkins showed promise with his academic abilities, but while at Christ’s College, Cambridge, he showed a talent for drunkenness that was quite notorious.

  • 1577 Perkins entered Christ’s College, Cambridge. He was a student of Mathematics but also dabbled in the occult and black magic.
  • 1581 received his BA and his MA in 1584. At some point in those years Perkins heard a mother of a small child refer to him as a drunk; this convicted him and was instrumental in his coming to Christ.
  • After his conversion he was mentored by Laurence Chaderton. They met with a few others and studied Calvinist theology and became Puritans.
  • Soon after his conversion he started preaching in the Cambridge jail. One account has Perkins leading a convict to Christ on the scaffold where he was executed immediately after trusting in Christ. Crowds began gathering at the jail to hear Perkins preach grace to those undergoing the disciplines of the law.
  • 1584 he became a faculty member of Christ’s College, where he was a teaching fellow until 1595, and started preaching at St. Andrews Church, Cambridge, where he preached until his death in 1602 at the age of only 44 years. In those 18 years he influenced two generations of Puritan students who went on to pastor, teach, and write.
  • 1590-91 Perkins was the Dean of Christ’s College and he catechized students on Thursdays and counseled on Sunday afternoons.
  • 1595 Perkins marries a young widow, Timothye Cradocke. They would have seven children though three died in infancy.
  • Perkins died of kidney stone complications in 1602, one year before Queen Elizabeth’s death; he lived his whole life during her reign.

Impact: Though Perkins taught God’s sovereign election and reprobation, he was a passionate soul winner amongst the prisoners in the jail (who were often mere moments away from the hangman’s noose) as well as with the cultured and refined scholars of Cambridge. Calvinism was no cold, formal formula for Perkins; it led to a burning compassion for the downtrodden and lost.

  • His writings totaled over 2500 pages and enjoyed 8 printings by 1635, with translations into half a dozen languages including Latin, French, Dutch and Spanish. His writings focused on the Apostle’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Galatians, the Sermon on the Mount and Hebrews 11. In his lifetime the sales of his books in England exceeded those of Calvin, Beza, and Bullinger combined.
  • He was such a gifted preacher that even though his church consisted of scholars, students, townsfolk and people from the surrounding countryside, his sermons were understandable and satisfying to all. He aimed to join strong doctrinal preaching with practical godly living so that “his preaching was a comment on the text and his practice was a comment on his preaching.”
  • A “moderate Puritan’, Perkins worked to purify the Church of England from within rather than separating from the Church.
  • Not just a scholar, preacher and evangelist, Perkins was much sought after for his skills in counseling.
  • Perkins was responsible for introducing the theology of Theodore Beza into England and taught Beza’s Double Predestination.
  • Perkins’ students included: William Ames, author of The Marrow of Theology, the theology book most often used in America in the 17th and early 18th centuries; John Robinson, who would go on to separate from the Church of England, move to Leiden, and then to the new world as the pastor on the Mayflower; Thomas Goodwin; James Ussher- famous for his Chronology of the World; Richard Sibbes and John Cotton.
  • “Nearly one hundred Cambridge men who grew up in Perkins’ 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 Jonathon 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.’” (pp. 475-6 Meet the Puritans).

For Further Study:

1. Meet the Puritans by Joel R. Beeke & Randall J. Pederson. Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids, MI. 2006, pp.469-480.

2. “Gallery: Preachers and Poets” by William Barker and Leland Ryken in Christian History and Biography, issue 89, Winter 2006, p,28. Published by Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, Illinois.

3. http://www.apuritansmind.com/WilliamPerkins/WilliamPerkins.htm

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