The Impact of William Perkins

Sinclair Ferguson

Editor's Note: This post has been adapted with permission from William Perkins: Architect of Puritanism, now available at ReformedResources.org.


William Perkins was born in 1558 in Marston Jabbet, in Warwickshire, a few miles north of Coventry. We know relatively little about his upbringing. In his youth he may have suffered an accident, resulting in a degree of lameness on his left side, perhaps only in his left arm. He came up to Christ’s College, Cambridge, and graduated in 1581, becoming and remaining a fellow until his marriage in 1595.[1] But of greater significance for posterity was his appointment as lecturer in Great St. Andrews in 1584.

A lectureship—to be distinguished from a college or university post bearing that description—was a form of ministry developed by the Puritans to establish and advance the preaching and teaching of the Word of God outside of the restraints of the ordinary clerical appointments and worship services of the Church of England. This helped both to guarantee an evangelical preaching ministry where there was none, and at the same time helped to fill vacant pulpits where the stipend was so low as to be virtually unmanageable. Thus, without possessing the advowsons for parishes,[2] the burgeoning Puritan movement effectively created its own.[3]

The lecturer gave regular “lectures,” expositions of the text of Scripture. Thus the Puritan agenda was advanced by creating a detour around the via media of the Elizabethan church settlement, which sought to temper the more radical biblical reformation encouraged by Edward VI on the one hand and the Roman Catholicism of the reign of “Bloody” Mary on the other. The funding and multiplying of these lectureships provided the opportunity for people to hear gospel preaching and to sit under a genuine biblical ministry.

Perkins continued in this ministry in Cambridge until his death in 1604—a remarkable longevity in the exposition of Scripture, and strategically placed to influence young men going into the ministry because it was set in one of only two university cities in England. Expressions of his preaching fill the three volumes of his Works. Here was powerful, passionate, sharply pointed gospel ministry, and clearly its impact lingered on for years to come.

Few people, however, would have predicted William Perkins’s destiny. The story has often been retold that what helped to awaken him spiritually was overhearing a woman say to her recalcitrant child,“Hold your tongue or I’ll give you over to drunken Perkins yonder.” Evidently, as a young man, he had a reputation for wild living (and rumors of that past life persisted).

In God’s providence, in the latter half of the sixteenth century Cambridge University was graced with men of high spiritual caliber, including the remarkable Laurence Chaderton. He came up to Cambridge as a Roman Catholic, experienced a radical conversion, and became a fellow at Christ’s College.[4] He had both longevity (c. 1536–1640!) and a correspondingly vast influence. He served as lecturer at St. Clement’s Church for fifty years, and was for thirty-eight years (1584–1622) the first Master of Emmanuel College—a “seed-bed of Puritanism” founded by Sir Walter Mildmay. When he resigned his lectureship at St. Clement’s, dozens of ministers signed a testimonial to him in appreciation of the way their own ministries had grown out of his mentoring. It is impossible to doubt that Chaderton had a significant influence on Perkins.

Whatever the instruments, Perkins was brought to a living faith in Christ, and began to evangelize zealously. He brought the gospel to the poor, to the prisoners in the Cambridge jail, and even to the condemned. And at the relatively tender age of twenty-six, as discerning people saw the maturity of his life and biblical understanding, he was appointed to the lectureship at Great St. Andrews.

Just as Chaderton belonged to a lineage of grace (he himself had been deeply influenced by the godly Edward Dering [1540–1576]), Perkins’s own influence flowed into the burgeoning Puritan brotherhood. He would become tutor to “the learned Doctor” William Ames (1576–1633) who, while professor at Franeker in the Netherlands, in turn influenced the covenant theologian Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669). Then there was his influence on Richard Sibbes who would in turn have an impact by the publication of his preaching on men like Richard Baxter (1615–1691). This chain of influence would touch John Cotton (1584–1652) who in turn, with Sibbes, would influence John Preston (1587–1628). He in due course would touch Thomas Goodwin’s life just as Cotton’s Keyes of the Kingdom would awaken his friend and colleague John Owen (1616–1683) to the congregational way.

Here we find a pattern that seems to appear frequently when God purposes to do a fresh work of grace. Often in retrospect only one prominent individual is remembered, and he is perhaps seen as virtually the only instrument of blessing. But there is always a brotherhood. Men like Moses are always part of a network of brothers—they have an Aaron and a Hur, a Joshua and a Caleb. An Elijah will always have an Elisha and a school of the prophets. A Paul will always have a Timothy and a Titus and Silas. There is always a fellowship of burdened people, lovers of God’s kingdom, praying towards its advancement and encouraging one another. They are strengthened by the knowledge that they are being caught up in a work of God that is far bigger than themselves or their own ministry. William Perkins stood within such a stream and at the center of such a network.

The fruit of this ministry abides in his Works. He is, of course, best known for only some of them. His great work The Greatest Case of Conscience deals with what he saw as the fundamental question—how do you know that you really are a Christian believer? Then there is his exposition of The Sermon on the Mount, that well-loved but often misunderstood part of Scripture. (Most people who say “I don’t have much time for Paul, but I love the Sermon on the Mount” give clear enough evidence that they have either not read it to the end, or they have not understood the words they have read.) Then, in addition, there is his exposition of Galatians and the book whose title has become so closely associated with his name, The Golden Chain.

But in those segments of the scholarly world critical of the evangelical tradition, William Perkins is known for one thing only—a diagram! He called it an ocular catechism. In its own way, it was a stroke of genius, a teaching tool that built on the work of Theodore Beza. It was a visual representation of how the gospel works, tracing the patterns of salvation and damnation from eternity to eternity.[5] In its own way, it was a sixteenth-century PowerPoint presentation of the gospel.

This “chain of salvation” was regularly demeaned in the neo-orthodoxy of the middle part of the twentieth century because of its focus on the divine decrees, and has been critiqued by Barthian theologians because (a priori in their thinking) it lacked genuine Christo-centricity. But one only need look at Perkins’s ocular catechism to see that this is not the real issue. The spine of Perkins’s diagram is his representation of Jesus Christ Himself, the one person, in His two natures—divine and human, in His two states—humiliation and exaltation, and in His three offices of prophet, priest, and king. Thus, every aspect of salvation is related to Him.

In this sense we can be confident in saying that William Perkins was a profoundly Christ-centered preacher.[6]

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[1] Under the University laws at the time, a fellowship had to be resigned upon marriage.

[2] The advowson was the title to appoint a resident minister. Appointments were made under a patronage system. In one sense, these lectureships were a shrewd way of creating a parallel (and sometimes rival) patronage system of their own for the Puritan movement.

[3] For a comprehensive account of these lectureships see Paul S. Seaver, The Puritan Lectureships, The Politics of Religious Dissent, 1560–1662 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1970).

[4]Difficult though it may be in our time to imagine, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the influence of a tutor was potentially immense on an undergraduate. Apparently students could live “in close contact with such men, often sleeping in trundle beds at their tutor’s feet.” M. M. Knappen, Tudor Puritanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939), 219. It was not unusual in those days for servants to sleep near their masters.

[5] It is described in William Perkins, The Works of that Famovs and VVorthy Minister of Christ in the Vniuersitie of Cambridge, Mr. William Perkins, 3 vols. (London: John Legatt, 1612–13), 1:95 (insert), as A Survey, or Table declaring the order of the causes of salvation and damnation, according to God’s word. It may be instead of an ocular catechism to them which cannot read: for by the pointing of the finger they may sensibly perceive the chief points of religion, and the order of them.

[6] The underlying issue here is the neo-orthodox and Barthian view of the sovereignty of God and the nature of the atonement. English-speaking followers of Barth have been particularly enamored by the work of the Scotsman John Macleod Campbell (1800–1872), especially his major work The Nature of the Atonement (London: Macmillan, 1873). In order to deny the integrity of the Reformed view of the saving work of Christ, Campbell realized that it was necessary to re-theologize its very nature (hence the title of his magnum opus) to defend a universal atonement. While the“domino effect” may not be a logical necessity in the development of doctrine, it usually holds over consecutive generations. The universalism implicit in a universal atonement was certainly implied in Barth and his earliest followers, although not (to my knowledge) explicitly taught. Indeed, on occasion it seemed to be denied on the grounds that this would be to argue logically rather than biblically from a universal atonement. But it has become increasingly clear that succeeding generations have followed what was implicit to draw the explicit conclusion of universalism (and thus, paradoxically have followed the “logic” which was demeaned in the previous generation). At the end of the day the issue here, then, is not Perkins’s lack of a Christology, but the Orthodox Reformed view of the person and work of Christ in general and the nature of the atonement in particular.


Sinclair B. Ferguson (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen) is Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has severed as a minister in his native Scotland and the United States. He has also served as Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas.


Related Links

William Perkins: Architect of Puritanism, edited by Joel Beeke and Greg Salazar

Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson

The Works Of William Perkins, vol. 5

Sinclair Ferguson