The Works of William Perkins

The Works of William Perkins


Fidei vita vera vita - The true life is the life of faith

Biography of William Perkins

This biography is taken from "Lives of the Puritans (Vol 2)" by Benjamin Brook, published in 1813.

WlLLIAM PERKINS was born at Marton in Warwickshire, in the year 1558, and educated in Christ's College, Cambridge. For some time after his going to the university, he continued exceedingly profane, and ran to great lengths in prodigality. While Mr. Perkins was a young man, and a scholar at Cambridge, he was much devoted to drunkenness. As he was walking in the skirts of the town, he heard a woman say to a child that was froward and peevish, "Hold your tongue, or I will give you to drunken Perkins, yonder." Finding himself become a by word among the people, his conscience smote him, and he became so deeply impressed, that it was the first step towards his conversion. After he was called by divine grace, and become a preacher of the gospel, he laid open the workings of sin and vanity in others, exercised a spirit of sympathy over perishing sinners, and upon their repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, led them to the enjoyment of substantial comfort. He gave, at the same time, strong proofs of his great genius, by his deep researches into nature, and its secret springs of operation. When the Lord was pleased to convert him from the error of his ways, he immediately directed his attention to the study of divinity, and applied himself with such uncommon diligence, that in a short time, he made an almost incredible proficiency in divine knowledge.

At the age of twenty four, he was chosen fellow of his college, when he entered upon the sacred function. Having himself freely received, he freely gave to others; and in imitation of our Lord, he went and preached deliverance to captives. Feeling bowels of compassion for the poor prisoners confined in Cambridge, he prevailed upon the jailer to collect them together 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, all the wages he received. No sooner were his pious labours made known, than multitudes flocked to hear him from all quarters. By the blessing of God upon his endeavours, 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, till called to receive his reward.

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 1aw 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. Perkins'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 the 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."1

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".2

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 for 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. Upon this complaint, he was convened before Dr. Perne, the vice chancellor, and heads of colleges; but refusing to answer, unless he might know his accusers, it was thought expedient to bring certain persons who had heard him, and examine them upon their oaths. Therefore, Mr. Bradcock, Mr. Osborne, Mr. Baines, and Mr. Bainbrigg, were produced as witnesses against him, and required to answer the three following interrogatories: —1. "Whether Mr. Perkins, in his common place, made at the time before mentioned, did teach, that it was a corruption in our church, that the minister did not receive the communion at the hands of another minister, because that which is used in our church is without warrant of the word? — 2. Whether he did name kneeling when we receive the sacrament, as superstitious and antichristian? — 3. Whether he did not denominate kneeling towards the east to be a corruption?" —The witnesses mostly answered in the affirmative; but, in several particulars, they could not give any testimony. Mr. Bainbrigg closed the evidence by observing, with respect to kneeling at the sacrament, "He thought our Saviour sat, and," in his opinion, "it was better to come near to that which He did, than that which was done in time of popery." He thought also that it was better not to kneel towards the east.

After the examination of the witnesses, Mr. Perkins wao allowed to speak in his own defence, when he addressed his spiritual judges as follows: — "As this doctrine of faith and a good conscience is to be applied to the congregation, so it is by God's providence come to pass that I must apply it to myself. I am thought to be a teacher of erroneous doctrines. I am enjoined to satisfy, and, in truth, I am now willing with all my heart to do it. — Of ministering the communion to a man's own self, this was my opinion, that in this place it was better to receive it from another, because we are thirteen ministers; and, by this means, the minister would not only receive the sacrament, but also the approbation of his brother, that he was a worthy receiver. It is observed, that I said this action was unlawful, and a corruption of our church. I said it not; and truly, I protest before God, if I had said it, the same tongue which had said it, should unsay it; that God might have the glory, and that shame and confusion might be unto me.

"I said not that kneeling was idolatrous and antichristian. I do remember it. My opinion was this, that of the two gestures which we used, sitting and kneeling, sitting is more convenient, because Christ sat, and the pope kneeleth, as Jewel observes against Harding. And in things indifferent we must go as far as we can from idolatry. Mr. Calvin taught me this, in his sermon on Deuteronomy 7. I think a man may use it with a good conscience; for I am far from condemning any. And I beseech you how can we altogether clear ourselves, who, sitting before, fall down on our knees when the bread cometh, and, having received it, rise up again, and do in like manner with the wine.

"I hold looking unto the east or west to be indifferent, and to be used accordingly: but this, I marvel at, wht the cross still standeth in the window, and why we turn ourselves toward the end of the chapel, at the end of the first and second lesson. We are commanded to flee from every appearance of evil. — These things I have said to satisfy every man in the congregation, and to shew that I despise not authority; which, if this will do, God be praised; but if not, God's will be done. I confess most freely this thing. I did not seek the disquiet of this congregation; yet I might have spoken these things at a more convenient time."3

It does not appear whether Mr. Perkins's defence gave satisfaction to his ecclesiastical judges, or whether he suffered some particular censure or further prosecution. This, however, was not the end of his troubles. He was apprehended, with many others, and carried before the star chamber, on account of the associations. Upon his appearance before this high tribunal, he took the oath ex officio, discovered the associations, and confessed that Mr. Cartwright, Mr. Snape, and others, had met at Cambridge, to confer about matters of discipline.4 He was once or twice convened before the high commission; and though his peaceable behaviour, and great fame in the learned world, are said to have procured him a dispensation from the persecutions of his brethren,5 he was, nevertheless, deprived by Archbishop Whitgift.6 Mr. Perkins, writing at the above period, in 1592, when many of his brethren were cruelly imprisoned for nonconformity, styles it, "The year of the last patience of the saints."7

Towards the close of life, Mr. Perkins was much afflicted with the stone, the frequent attendant on a sedentary life, which he bore with remarkable patience. In the last fit of his complaint, a little before his death, a friend praying for the mitigation of his pains, he cried out, "Hold, hold! do not pray so; but pray the Lord to give me faith and patience, and then let him lay on me what he pleases." At length his patience had its perfect work. He was finally delivered from all his pains, and crowned with immortality and eternal life, in the year 1602, aged forty four years.8  He was born in the first, and died in the last year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. He left the world rich in grace, and in the love of God and good men; and was instrumental in making many rich. His ministerial labours were signally blessed to multitudes, both townsmen and collegiains. His remains were interred in St. Andrew's church with great funeral solemnity, at the sole expense of Christ's college; the university and the town striving which could shew the warmest gratitude for his faithful labours, and pay the greatest respect to his memory. Dr. Montague, afterwards successively Bishop of Bath and Wells, and of Winchester, preached his funeral sermon from Joshua 1:2. "Moses my servant is dead"; and spoke in high commendation of his learning, piety, labours, and usefulness.9

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.10 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 in 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.11 Churton styles him "the learned and pious, but Calvinistic Perkins"; as if his Calvinism was a considerable blemish in his character.12 Toplady, on the contrary, applauds him on account of his Calvinistic opinions, and denominates him "the learned, holy, and laborious Perkins."13 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."14

The works of this excellent divine are numerous and highly esteemed, especially in foreign countries. They were published at various times, but were collected and printed in three volumes folio, in 1606, entitled "The Workes of that Famous and Worthie Minister of Christ, in the Universitie of Cambridge, M. W. Perkins." Mr. Job Orton had an high opinion of him and his writings, and gives the following account both of the author and the productions of his pen:— "I am now reading the works of Mr. William Perkins, an eminent tutor and divine at Cambridge, in Queen Elizabeth's reign. They are three volumes folio, and I have got through one of them. What led me more particularly to read him was that his elder brother was one of my ancestors, from whom I am in a direct line, by my mother's side, descended. I think him an excellent writer: his style is the best of any of that age, or the next, and many passages in his writings are equal to those of the best writers in modern times. He is judicious, clear, full of matter, and deep christian experience. He wrote all his works with his left hand, being lame of the right, and died about forty four. I could wish all ministers, especially young ones, would read him, as they would find large materials for composition. He hath some tracts against the papists; and appears to have been a pretty high Calvinist; but he hath many admirable things in practical divinity. His works are little known in England, but they are still in estimation in Germany, many of them being written in elegant Latin, and others translated into German."15

Mr. Perkins made his last will and testament a little before his death, dated Cambridge, October 16, 1602, and it was in substance as follows:— "First, he bequeaths to the poor of the parish of St. Andrews, where he then dwelt, the sum of forty pounds. Also to his worshipful and loving friends, Mr. Edm. Barwell, Jam. Montague, D.D. Mr. Law. Chadderton, master of Emanuel College, Rich. Foscroft and Tho. Cropley, M. A. and Nath. Cradock his brother in law, all the messuage or tenement wherein he then dwelt, with the houses, yards, &c. adjoining thereto, in the town of Cambridge, to be sold, and the money divided into three equal parts, one part to go to his wife Timothye, the other two amongst his children, born or unborn. He also wills that the price of all his moveable goods and chattels be divided amongst his wife and children.

"He appoints his wife Timothye his sole executrix, or in case of failure by death, then he makes Nath. Cradock aforesaid, executor. He also bequeaths to his father, Tho. Perkins, and his mother, Anna Perkins, ten pounds a piece, and to every of his brethren and sisters, five pounds a piece, and to his son in law, John Hinde, his English Bible."

1 Fuller's Abel Redivivus, p. 431 434.—Clark's Marrow of Ecclesiastical History, p. 851.
2 Neal's Puritans, vol. 1, p. 423.
3 Baker's MS. Collec, vol. xxx, p. 292, 293.
4 Strype's Whitgift, p. 354, 371, 372.
5 Neal's Puritans, vol. 1. p. 509.
6 Granger's Biog. Hist., vol. 1. p. 219.
7 Churton's Life of Nowell, p. 323.
8 Fuller's Hist. of Cam. p. 157.
9 Strype's Whitgift, p. 371.
10 Fuller's Abel. Red. p. 436.—Clark's Eccl. Hist. p. 851.
11 Fuller's Church Hist. b. ix. p. 211.—Hist. of Cam. p. 92.
12 Churton's Life of Nowell, p. 323.
13 Toplady's Historic Proof, vol, ii. p. 179.
14 Bernard's Life of Usher, p. 100, Edit. 1656;
15 Biog. Britan, vol.5 p. 312. Edit. 1778.