Dr. William Perkins
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"The Elizabethan Puritan Par Excellance!"
Dr. William Perkins, an outstanding preacher, made great contributions to the Puritan Movement despite the shortness of his life. He was born in Marton, Warwickshire, in 1558 and educated in Christ's College, Cambridge. In his early years he demonstrated scholarly ability, but his personal life was wild and sinful. He was much devoted to drunkenness. While he was walking through town, he heard a young woman say to her child "Hold your tongue, or I will give you to drunken Perkins, yonder." Finding himself as a byword among the people his conscience gripped him and became so deeply impressed by it that it was a first step to his conversion. After his conversion he became a strong exponent of Calvinism and always dealt sympathetically with those in spiritual need. He became a fellow at the college in 1578 at the age of 24.
Perkins was later ordained and began his ministry preaching to prisoners in the Cambridge jail. He collected the prisoners in one spacious room where he preached to them every Sabbath, with great power and success. Here the prison was his parish; his love to souls, the patron presenting him to it; and his work were all the wages he received. No sooner were his pious labors made known, than multitudes flocked to hear him from all quarters. By the blessing of God upon his endeavors, he became the happy instrument of bringing many to the knowledge of salvation, and to enjoy the glorious liberty of the sons of God, not only of the prisoners, but others, who, like them, were in captivity and bondage to sin.
His great fame, afterwards known in all the churches, was soon spread through the whole university; and he was chosen preacher at St. Andrew's church, where he continued a laborious and faithful minister of Christ, until called to receive his reward. He is said to have encountered a young condemned prisoner who was terrified not so much of death as of the impending judgment of God. The Puritan preacher knelt beside him to "show what the grace of God can do to strengthen thee." He showed him that Christ is the means of salvation by the grace of God and urged him with tears to believe in Him and experience the remission of sins. The youth did so and was able to face his execution with composure, a glorious display of God's sovereign grace. This incident should be kept in mind while studying Perkins' chart of election and reprobation. It shows his theology did not make him cold and heartless when dealing with sinners in need of a Savior.
Around 1585 Perkins was chosen as rector of St. Andrews, Cambridge, and continued there until his death in 1602. His individual writings consisted mainly of treatises of the Apostle's Creed and the Lord's Prayer, and expositions of Galatians 1-5, Matthew 5-7, and Hebrews 11. He wrote the practical Cases of Conscience. His writings were popularly received and were later translated into Latin, French, Dutch, and Spanish. They were collected in the three volumes The Works of William Perkins.
Mr. Perkins being settled in this public situation, his hearers consisted of collegians, townsmen, and people from the country. This required those peculiar ministerial endowments which providence had richly bestowed upon him. In all his discourses, his style and his subject were accommodated to the capacities of' the common people, while at the same time, the pious scholars heard him with admiration. Luther used to say, "that ministers who preach the terrors of the law but do not bring forth gospel instruction and consolation, are not wise master-builders: they pull down, but do not build up again." But Mr. Perkin's sermons were all law and all gospel.
He was a rare instance of those opposite gifts meeting in so eminent a degree in the same preacher, even the vehemence and thunder of Boanerges, to awaken sinners to a sense of their sin and danger, and to drive them from destruction; and the persuasion and comfort of Barnabas, to pour the wine and oil of gospel consolation into their wounded spirits. He used to apply the terrors of the law so directly to the consciences of his hearers, that their hearts would often sink under their convictions; and he used to pronounce the word "damn" with so peculiar an emphasis, that it left a doleful echo in their ears a long time after. Also his wisdom in giving advice and comfort to troubled consciences, is said to have been such, "that the afflicted in spirit, far and near, came to him and received much comfort from his instructions."
Mr. Perkins had a surprising talent for reading books. He perused them so speedily, that he appeared to read nothing; yet so accurately, that he seemed to read all. In addition to his frequent preaching, and other ministerial duties, he wrote numerous excellent books ; many of which on account of their great worth, were translated into Latin, and sent into foreign countries, where they were greatly admired and esteemed. Some of them being translated into French, Dutch, and Spanish, were dispersed through the various European nations. Voetius and other foreign divines, have spoken of him with great honour and esteem. Bishop Hall said, "he excelled in a distinct judgment, a rare dexterity in clearing the obscure subtleties of the schools, and in an easy explication of the most perplexed subjects." And though he was author of so many books, being lame of his right-hand, he wrote them all with his left. He used to write in the title of all his books, "Thou art a Minister of the Word: Mind thy business."
This celebrated divine was a thorough puritan, both in principle and in practice, and was more than once convened before his superiors for nonconformity; yet he was a man of peace and great moderation. He was concerned fur a purer reformation of the church; and, to promote the desired object, he united with his brethren in their private associations, and in subscribing the "Book of Discipline." Complaint was, however, brought against Him, that he had signified, before the celebration of the Lord's supper, that the minister not receiving the bread and wine from the hands of another minister, but from himself was a corruption in the church: that to kneel at the sacrament was superstitious and antichristian; and that to turn their faces towards the east, was another corruption. Charges were brought against him, but they were dismissed after he clarified his positions by his own testimony. Though he did this, it is uncertain whether he was cleared of all charges, or whether further problems arose for him while at the college.
Mr. Perkins was so pious and exemplary in his life, that malice itself was unable to reproach his character. As his preaching was a just comment upon his text; so his practice was a just comment upon his preaching. He was naturally cheerful and pleasant; rather reserved towards strangers, but familiar upon their further acquaintance. He was of a middle stature, ruddy complexion, bright hair, and inclined to corpulency, but not to idleness. He was esteemed by all, says Fuller, as a painful and faithful dispenser of the word of God; and his great piety procured him liberty in his ministry, and respect to his person, even from those who differed from him in other matters.
He is classed among the fellows and learned writers of Christ's College, Cambridge. Churton styles him "the learned and pious, but Calvinistic Perkins," as if his Calvinism was a considerable blemish in his character. Toplady, on the contrary, applauds him on account of his Calvinistic opinions, and denominates him "the learned, holy, and laborious Perkins." The celebrated Archbishop Usher had the highest opinion of him, and often expressed his wish to die as holy Mr. Perkins did, who expired crying for mercy and forgiveness. Herein he was, indeed, gratified; for his last words were "Lord, especially forgive my sins of omission."