A Seminal Reformed Theologian & Father of Puritanism: Why you should read William Perkins (1558-1602)

William Perkins (1558-1602) is remembered today as ‘the father of English puritanism.’ This is largely because his work managed to combine Reformed predestinarian theology with a highly practical approach to Christian living and piety. This kind of ‘practical divinity’ came to characterise the puritan movement of the seventeenth century. Yet even in his own day Perkins came to be regarded as a pre-eminent Reformed theologian, preacher and author. From his position at Cambridge – first as a university academic, and then as a local preacher – he managed to combine accessibility with theological depth in ways that appealed to academic and non-academic audiences alike. If you visited Cambridge in the 1590s you would find Perkins’s sermons and lectures eagerly attended by students and townspeople, and the output of the official university press being dominated by his books. Perkins became the best-selling English Christian author of his generation and the next, and his influence only spread after his death as his works were gradually translated for foreign audiences. On my count, no fewer than 550 editions of Perkins’s various works were printed in the early modern period, including editions in English and Latin, and translations into Dutch, German, Spanish, French, Czech, Hungarian, Irish, and Welsh. His influence can be detected in the deliberations of the Synod of Dort (1618-19), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), and in the theology, piety, and approach to pastoral ministry of virtually the entire puritan movement in England, New England, and beyond.

Perkins’s practical approach to predestination

Perkins’s contributions were many. He made especially important contributions to Protestant preaching, ethics, pastoral counselling, and the role of conscience in the Christian life. But his most notable contributions were in theology, especially relating to predestination and Christian assurance.

That Perkins held to double-predestination is well-known: it was memorably laid out in the large fold-out chart which accompanied his work, A Golden Chain (rev.1592). In that work Perkins describes individual human destiny as sovereignly determined by God, with all persons either being predestined to salvation in Christ, or damnation apart from him. The idea of a ‘golden chain’ comes from Romans 8:29-30, expressing the idea that each of God’s elect people will be called, justified, sanctified, and then glorified, and that this sequence is unbreakably invincible.

The implications of this theological paradigm have bothered many, especially considering how unabashedly it is portrayed in Perkins’s chart. Many have simply inferred what they expect to be its implications from looking the chart itself, leading to accusations of fatalism and of inducing despair. After all, it stands to reason that anyone who suspects that their spiritual experience aligns with that of the ‘reprobate’ on the chart might give up entirely. However, such conclusions are not fair to Perkins’s intent.

One must remember that Perkins was a theologian operating within a national church. The Church of England was founded upon Reformed theology, as expressed in its doctrinal statement The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1563, 1571). Perkins regarded the English church as a true church which ministered the true gospel, but he was concerned that most of its people had not savingly embraced that gospel. It was one thing to have rote-learned the Apostles’ Creed and Ten Commandments, but quite another to have a regenerate heart that loved the truths that creed expressed, and which eagerly pursued obedience to God’s commands. Perkins sought for all English people to come to know Christ savingly, and to experience regeneration and full assurance of faith for themselves.

But doesn’t God’s plan involve reprobate people? Yes, but predestination and pastoral ministry operate on two different levels, namely those of Creator and creature. God’s eternal plan will ultimately result in elect and reprobate people reaching their respective destinies, but at a creaturely level all people are called to respond to the gospel. For Perkins, this fact is particularly glaring in the case of those whom God sovereignly brings into contact with that gospel. Thus, the conclusion of A Golden Chain (and his work more broadly) forbids readers from concluding that they are reprobate, and even from doubting their own election. Instead, if they can find no positive signs of God’s work in them, they ought to seek God through the means of grace – word and sacrament – that in time ‘he may have an inward sense of the power of Christ drawing him to Christ, and an assurance of his redemption by Christ’s death and passion.’ Far from being inducing fatalistic despair or apathy, Perkins’s predestinarian theology was a call to action. All people were to seek after God where he may be found, a striving which can be expected to mature from mere spiritual desire to full assurance of faith.

Where should I begin reading William Perkins?

The best place to begin reading William Perkins is his account of the ‘science of theology,’ namely his A Golden Chain. I co-edited an edition of A Golden Chain (Tulip, 2021) which includes additional structural charts to aid readers to see the logic of his thinking. This edition is in modern English and includes a useful introduction and overview of the work.

Reformation Heritage Books has recently completed publication of Perkins’s complete works (10 volumes, 2014-2020; see my review here) which makes his material more accessible than ever:

  • Those interested in Perkins’s practical divinity should read his A Treatise Tending unto a Declaration whether a Man is in the Estate of Damnation or in the Estate of Grace, as well as his A Grain of Mustard Seed (vol.8). Alongside this are Perkins’ important works on conscience and manual of Christian ethics.
  • Perkins’s most sophisticated engagements with matters of grace and predestination appear in Manner and Order of Predestination and God’s Free Grace and Man’s Free Will (vol.6).
  • Perkins authored the first English Protestant work on preaching, The Art of Prophesying (vol.10), which is found alongside his influential treatises on ministry, family, and vocation.
  • Perkins’s exposition of the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer contain his fullest catechetical instruction (vol.5). Alongside this is his brief and immensely influential catechism, The Foundation of Christian Religion Gathered into Six Principles, which distils much of Perkins’s practical divinity into basic “how to” instruction on approaching learning the Christian faith.
  • Perkins became an esteemed critic of Roman Catholic theology. Especially worth reading is his A Reformed Catholic (vol.7), which sets out the extent to which Protestants and Roman Catholics agree on various doctrinal topics, and where they crucially diverge.

There are great riches to be gained by reading meditating on Perkins’s work – no less today than when he first sat down to write.

Matthew Payne is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sydney studying the life and theology of William Perkins.