“It is a by-word among us: It was a very plain sermon: and I say again, the plainer, the better.” (William Perkins)
Calvin and Luther we know. But who is William Perkins (1588-1602)? Amazingly enough, many modern scholars state that Perkins rivaled both men in his influence on seventeenth-century English Protestants and New England Colonial Puritans. He has been called the “Prince of Puritan Theologians” and “The Principle Architect of Elizabethan Puritanism.” So far reaching was Perkins’ influence that historian Samuel Morrison notes that “the typical Plymouth colony library comprised a large and a small Bible, Ainsworth’s translation of the Psalms, and the works of William (‘Painful’) Perkins, a favorite theologian.”1
The influence Perkins had in his own day and to the future generations of Puritans who would follow was largely due to the fact that he was a prolific writer. R. T. Kendall writes that “by the end of the sixteenth century Perkins had replaced the combined names of Calvin and Beza as one of the most popular authors of religious works in England,” witnessing the publication of “seventy-six editions (including repeated issues) during his lifetime, seventy-one of which came after 1590.”2
William Perkins was born in England in the village of Marston Jabbet in 1558. He enrolled at Christ’s College in Cambridge in 1577. He graduated B.A. in 1581, completed his M.A. in 1584, and from 1584 to 1595 was a fellow of Christ’s College. It would be at Cambridge where he would remain for the rest of his life and ministry. Cambridge was the seedbed of English Puritanism and J. I. Packer states that “the Puritan tradition in preaching was created there at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the leaders of the first great evangelical movement in that university — William Perkins, Paul Baynes, Richard Sibbes, John Cotton, John Preston, Thomas Goodwin and their fellows.”3
Legend has it that Perkins lived less than a pious life until he heard a woman tell her child, “Hold your tongue, or I will give you to drunken Perkins yonder.”4 Later on Perkins would be known as “Painful Perkins” because of his extraordinary discipline, methodical ways, and diligence in his preaching duties. In addition to a fellowship at Christ’s College, Perkins was awarded a lectureship at the great St. Andrew’s Church in the 1580’s. He held this position until his death in 1602, and the sermons delivered there comprise a great portion of his works.
Perkins’ brand of Puritanism caused him very few troubles because his main interests were practical in nature. He was more concerned about effectively ministering to people rather than opposing the authorities, as some of his contemporaries. Perkins displayed a balance in preaching and temperament that allowed him the freedom to preach to the great and small of his day. He always maintained his alliance with the mainstream of the established church of England while at the same time the Puritanism that he shared — one borne out of a deep Calvinistic piety and urgent concern for vital religion — endeared him to the masses.
One of the qualities that made Perkins’ preaching so effective was his “plain style.” His preaching was plain and evident, but not tedious or boring. In his Commentary on Galatians Perkins discusses this style and suggests a pattern for effective preaching:
1. The first is true and proper interpretation of the scripture, and that by itself (scripture is both the glosse and the text).
2. Secondly, the preacher should gather the points of “wholesome doctrine” from the passage and expound upon them.
3. Finally, the preacher should apply the doctrine as the text dictates — “either to the information of the judgment, or to the reformation of the life. This is the preaching that is of power.”5
What Perkins meant, in seeking for the correct interpretation, was that the preferred sense of scripture was always the literal sense. Perkins challenged the interpreters of the Church of Rome and their fourfold allegorical meaning of scripture. He said this method “must be exploded and rejected. There is only one sense, and the same is literal.”6 When it came to the interpretation of a passage of scripture Perkins asked questions which ring familiar to Bible expositors today: “Who? To Whom? Upon what occasion? At what time? In what place? For what end? What goeth before? and what followeth?”7
Perkins’ sermons were very practical in nature as illustrated by the subjects of some of his works. He preached and wrote on such topics as: proper Christian recreation, the Christian family, the vocations or callings of men, practical theology, and homiletical works for preachers. Perkins plain and practical preaching style was defined by what it lacked as well as by what it contained. What plain preaching avoided was the heaping up of citations by the church fathers, and repeating words in Latin and Greek. Perkins said that to preach using languages of the unlearned which divert attention to the preacher instead of the content of the sermon “is a sin to unbelievers — I Cor. 14:22. And in this kind of preaching we do not paint Christ, but … our ownselves.”8
Even more memorable is the tribute that Thomas Fuller paid to Perkins, who was said to preach in such a way that “his sermons were not so plain but that the piously learned did admire them, nor so learned but that the plain did understand them.”9
Perkins apparently preached series of sermons His Commentary on Galatians is the substance of the Sunday lectures of three years at St. Andrews. His exposition of Hebrews 11:1-12:1, entitled A Cloud of Faithful Witnesses, and his famous Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft began as series of sermons first preached at Cambridge.
What makes a study of Perkins’ preaching so valuable is that he has left us a legacy of Puritan preaching methodology. His insights into the interpretation of scripture, early expository preaching, the work of the minister, and the practical application of the word of God to everyday life placed him at the forefront of the preaching of his day. Perkins was exceptionally organized and orderly in his method of preaching and ministry. He clearly defined the primary business of preaching and the church in no uncertain terms: it is “to collect the church and to accomplish the number of the elect.” Its other function is to “drive the wolves away from the folds of the Lord.”10
In his very influential book, and one of the first of its kind, The Act of Prophesying, Perkins sums up his idea of the plan a preacher should follow. Perkins did not invent this plan, although he did popularize it and it is the basis for all his sermons. Perkins said the preacher should plan:
1. To read the text distinctly out of the canonical scriptures.
2. To give the sense and understanding of it, being read, by the scripture itself.
3. To collect a few and profitable points of doctrine out of the natural sense.
4. To apply, if he have the gift, the doctrines rightly collected, to the life and manner of men in a simple and plain speech.
The sum of the sum
Preach one Christ by Christ
to the praise of Christ.11
Although Perkins placed a great deal of stress on the interpretation and message of the gospel; he was equally concerned about the messenger of the gospel. The lifestyle of many of the Anglican clerics was a constant scandal to the Puritans. In Perkins’ A Commentary on Hebrews 11 he emphasizes the importance of the minister’s life as well as his doctrine. Commenting on the phrase in Hebrews 11:4, “being dead yet speaketh” Perkins writes that “There is a double teaching, namely, in word, or deed … It sufficeth not for him to teach by vocall sermons, that is, by good doctrine; but withall by reall sermons, that is, by good life: His faith, his zeale, his patience, his mercy, and all other his vertues must speake, and cry, and call to other men to be like him: which if he practise carefully in his life as Abel did, then shall his vertues speak for him to all posterities when he is dead.”12 (my emphasis)
Perkins summed up the call for godly pastors when he said that the preacher “… must first be godly affected himself who would stir up godly affections in other men.”13 The pastor’s duty was to preach, minister the sacraments, and to pray.
Characteristic of most Puritan preaching, and Perkins as well, was the centrality of the word of God in preaching. The Puritans were opposed to preaching that was ornate, artificial, and that exalted the preachers intellect rather than Christ. Perkins was a true scholar who studied the arts, philosophy and read widely; yet in the pulpit he concealed all of his study so as “not to make the least ostentation.” Seventeenth-century church historian, Thomas Fuller, pays Perkins the greatest tribute when he states that Perkins “did distill and soak much deep scholarship into his preaching, yet so insensibly that nothing but familiar expressions did appear.”14
Utmost in William Perkins’ preaching was the application of the word of God to everyday life. His goal in preaching was nothing less than “holy reformation” of character and action. The need for personal application of biblical teachings was one of many reasons the Puritans gave for rejecting the prescribed homilies of the Anglican liturgy. The homilies of Perkins’ day often failed to give specific application to the local situations that pastors and congregations faced.
Perkins uniquely divided “the ways of application” into seven categories, depending on the conditions of the listeners. The categories ranged from the unbeliever who is both ignorant and unteachable, to some who do believe, to some who are fallen. He had a particular strategy for preaching application to each category. One category that I particularly found interesting was the sixth — “some who have fallen.” Perkins gave new meaning in his day to the familiar phrase “preaching the truth in love.” He says concerning fallen Christians: “These need that doctrine which do cross their error … demonstrated and inculcated (or beaten upon them) together with the doctrine of repentance, and that with a brotherly affection.”15
In closing I want to draw forth several contributions of Perkins’ preaching and make some observations about preaching today. First, Perkins has much to teach us about balance in the preaching ministry. His sermons were doctrinal in nature, yet there was a freshness and vibrancy to them. He displayed a strong Calvinism that was equally warm and full of enthusiasm. It has been said that orthodoxy without unction — preaching without passion — may be one of the greatest heresies of evangelicalism today. Perkins avoided this tendency because he knew that true preaching was the spirit of God in him and speaking by him. He said that “this makes the ministry to be lively and powerful.”
Perkins long pastoral tenure is further testimony and fruit of his well-balanced preaching ministry. He preached a steady and purposeful diet of sermons to his congregation. He preached series of sermons — both topical and expository — through books of the Bible. He wrote and studied extensively in the areas of preaching and theology. He also wrote and preached many practical and polemical works. Undoubtedly his diversified and wholistic ministry served to keep him balanced for his long pastoral tenure. There is a lesson for us in this. If we would desire to be fruitful in the preaching/pastoral ministry we must learn to be content where God has placed us, never cease to grow and mature, and preach “the whole counsel of God.”
Another lasting contribution that William Perkins’ preaching brings to us is his insistent emphasis on “Plain preaching.” This style propelled his preaching from the study to the pulpit. The erudite Perkins could never be accused of being anti-intellectual. He was a brilliant man; however, his education and study always was a servant to the preaching task. Perkins combined a vital theology with the practical pastoral aspects of ministry in a way that few others did. Perkins “plain style” was primarily seen in the practical nature of his sermons and his emphasis upon application. There is always the danger (especially in expository preaching) to relegate application to the last few minutes of the sermon. Perkins saturated his sermons with application throughout. His preaching was always meant to affect change.
What perhaps best sums up the preaching of William Perkins (and the Puritan preachers in general) is that it was rooted in the Bible being the absolute word of God. Perkins said, “The word of God must be our rule and square whereby we are to frame and fashion all our actions; and according to direction received thence, we must do the things we do, or leave them undone.”16
1Samuel Eliot Morison, The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England, 2d ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1956), p. 134.
2R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, Oxford Theological Monographs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 52-53.
3J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), p. 280.
4Everett H. Emerson, English Puritanism (Durham: Duke U. Press, 1968), p. 154.
5William Perkins, A Commentary on Galatians, ed. Gerald T. Sheppard (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1989), pp. 140-141.
6William Perkins, The Work of William Perkins, ed. Ian Breward (Foxton: Burlington Press, 1970), p. 338.
7Perkins, Works, p.338.
8Perkins, Galatians, p. 140.
9As quoted in Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986), p. 105.
10Perkins, Works, p. 331.
11Ibid., p. 349.
12William Perkins, A Commentary on Hebrews 11, ed. John H. Augustine (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1991), p. 22.
13Perkins, Works, p. 347.
14As quoted in D. M. Lloyd Jones, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors (Southampton: Camelot Press Ltd., 1987), p. 385.
15Packer, p. 72.
16Perkins, Works, p. 464.
“It is a by-word among us: It was a very plain sermon: and I say again, the plainer, the better.” (William Perkins)