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The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: The Works of William Perkins
July 11, 2013
Within the library at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan is a special climate-controlled room equipped with a waterless fire suppression system. It is a room specially built to house rare treasures, and of all the items in the collection, none is of greater importance than The Works of William Perkins. These three precious volumes are the next of the twenty-five objects through which we can trace the history of Christianity, for the books, now 400 years old, have a fascinating provenance and a remarkable significance.
The Protestant Reformation forever transformed Christian doctrine, recapturing the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone. Though the Reformation began as a reformation of doctrine, doctrine can never be entirely separated from its implications and applications as they work themselves out in daily life. Following in the footsteps of the Reformers was a movement that came to be known as Puritanism. One of the great concerns of the Puritans was working out the implications of Reformation theology through godly living and the pursuit of practical holiness. J.I. Packer says, “Puritanism was an evangelical holiness movement seeking to implement its vision of spiritual renewal, national and personal, in the church, the state, and the home; in education, evangelism, and economics; in individual discipleship and devotion, and in pastoral care and competence.”
William Perkins is considered “The Father of Puritanism,” for he was among the first, the greatest, and the most influential of the Puritans. Perkins was born in 1558 in Warwickshire, England, and as a young man indulged in all manner of sin while harboring a fascination for the occult. He earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Christ’s College in Cambridge and it was while he was a student that he experienced a sudden and radical conversion that began when he heard a woman chastise her child by threatening to hand him over to “drunken Perkins.” This small incident caused him great humiliation and in his sorrow he turned to Christ.
He turned his studies toward theology and after graduation was ordained as a minister. He proved an exceptional preacher and a kind, insightful pastor. He was later elected a fellow of Christ’s College, a post he would hold until his death, and proved an able teacher as well. This combination of strengths gave him wide authority and wide influence among his peers.
In time, Perkins as a rhetorician, expositor, theologian, and pastor became the principle architect of the Puritan movement. His vision of reform for the church, combined with his intellect, piety, writing, spiritual counseling, and communication skills, enabled him to set the tone for the seventeenth-century Puritan accent on Reformed, experiential truth and self-examination, and their polemic against Roman Catholicism and Arminianism.
As a fellow of Christ’s College he mentored and taught such eminent theologians as William Ames, Richard Sibbes, John Cotton, and John Preston. His writings outsold even those of John Calvin and other Reformers so it could rightly be said that he “moulded the piety of a whole nation.”
Though today Perkins’ writings are overshadowed by many of those he discipled, this makes him no less influential in the history of the Puritan movement and the history of Protestantism. Perkins’ influence, and the influence of those who followed him, is aptly represented in the volumes that rest today in Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary as part of the collection of The Puritan Resource Center. The aim of this Center is to assemble the largest possible collection of resources on the Puritans and already it is one of the best and most important collections in the world. I have been privileged on a couple of occasions to visit the Center and to have Dr. Joel Beeke, its founder, show me some of the most significant works.
Beeke has been collecting Puritan works since the age of 9 and one of the jewels of this collection is this 3-volume set containing “The workes of that famous and vvorthy minister of Christ in the Vniuersitie of Cambridge, Mr. William Perkins.” Printed in London by John Legatt in the years 1612-1613, these volumes were once owned by the great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon and they still bear the seal of his Pastors’ College. Following Spurgeon’s death his widow distributed his library and the volumes were sold to an unknown person who in turn sold it to another eminent theologian, A.W. Pink. Pink made a close study of the volumes and his extensive margin notes remain. They are especially prominent in Perkins’ section on the book of Hebrews, for Pink consulted this work as he prepared his own massive volume on the epistle. After Pink’s death in 1952, his widow likewise sold his library and over time the volume was offered for sale to Beeke who purchased it in 1999.
And in the history of the ownership of Perkins’ works we see the influence of the Puritans across the centuries, for Spurgeon ministered primarily in the nineteenth century, Pink in the twentieth, and Beeke in the twenty-first. And here we see as well the influence of the Puritans as it transcends theological traditions, for Spurgeon was a Baptist, Pink a man who spanned multiple traditions through his career, and Beeke is a minister and professor in the Dutch Reformed tradition. And as these volumes and so many more are passed to a new generation through The Puritan Resource Center, I trust their influence will continue and will increase all the more.