The English Reformed theologian William Perkins (1558–1602), is perhaps the most prominent and influential of all English-speaking divines. As preacher and lecturer at Great St. Andrews and Christ’s College, Cambridge, he “influenced a generation of young students including Richard Sibbes, John Cotton, John Preston, and William Ames.”1 His influence extended not only to other parts of Europe, but to New England as well.2 Historian Samuel Morison remarked, “A typical Plymouth Colony Library comprised a large and small Bible, [Henry] Ainsworth’s translations of the Psalms, and the works of William Perkins, a favorite theologian.”3 Known as “late-Elizabethan England’s most famous preacher” and “the Homer [that is, the magisterial classic] of practical Englishmen,”4 Perkins and his works leave an indelible impression on any serious student of 16th and 17th century Reformed theology. Such readers will certainly appreciate his sermons contained in The Labors of a Godly and Learned Divine.
In this smoothly edited and meticulously footnoted volume, editors Matthew N. Payne and J. Stephen Yuille have provided the church with several previously unpublished sermon and lecture manuscripts containing diverse demonstrations of Perkins’ preaching method and style. His preaching and teaching method has been described as Ramist. Ramism was a scholastic method employed by Reformed theologians and preachers, particularly in the late 16th century.5 Thus, the sermons and their theses are clearly stated, highly structured, and concisely preached. This is a benefit for those who like to know where the preacher is going and where he is in his sermon with respect to his main point and sub-points. His straightforward preaching style was thoroughly biblical, distinctly Reformed, and often polemical. His polemics in this volume are particularly directed against the theology of Rome; however, he did not leave out the Anabaptists and Libertines. Students of his more well-known works, such as The Art of Prophesying and A Golden Chain will recognize familiar themes in these newly-available sermons.
As for the volume itself, the editors state the purpose of offering these manuscripts as twofold. First, to address whether or not all of Perkins’ intended public works have been published. Second, to provide the “evidence needed to peer behind the editorial curtain erected by the authorized editions of Perkins’ posthumously published works.”6 This volume also aids in an important historical task: “the recovery of his voice as a preacher.”7 In addition to nearly fifty sermons, the reader of The Labors of a Godly and Learned Divine is also provided with material such as Perkins’ prayer before preaching, several of his lectures, his last will and testament, and his funeral sermon preached by his close friend, James Montagu (1568–1618). Each chapter contains sermon manuscripts from a different student or colleague who sat under his ministry. The editors introduce each manuscript with a helpful essay contextualizing the material. Appendices also provide additional editorial and bibliographical information.
As for the substance of the book, there are numerous reasons to read, study, and digest Perkins’ sermons. First, this volume gives the reader a glimpse of the Ramist scholastic method of preaching. The clarity that comes from such a sermon can help not only to understand precisely where the preacher intends to go with his exposition of Scripture, but seeing this method in action also encourages present-day preachers and teachers toward writing and speaking with clarity and coherence for the benefit of their audience.
Second, one can easily find a vast range of Reformed theological topics of interest in each of his sermons and lectures. Whether on election and predestination (Jude sermons), the atonement and the extent thereof (John 3:16 and Romans 4:25 sermons), common grace (John 3:16), preaching and the free offer of the gospel (John 3:16 and Romans 4:25), prayer (sermons on Prayer), the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:28 sermons), or practical topics such as marriage (Genesis 2 sermons) vocation (1 Corinthians 7:20 sermons) and holy living (throughout all sermons)—the reader will appreciate Perkins’ lucidity and theological precision concerning a wide catalogue of Reformed doctrines.
Third, his sermons serve as quintessential historical examples of how the Reformed polemicized, even in their preaching. Perkins did not mind rhetorically ruffling Romish feathers and was far from a weak-kneed therapeutic preacher worried about offending the heterodox listener. Good examples of this style are his sermons on Revelation, Jude, and his Lord’s Supper sermons wherein he often used Rome’s own writers against her. Consider this polemic eloquence from his sermon on Revelation 14:8 regarding the pope and whether or not he is the antichrist,
I must needs say thus much in your behalf (O you papists) as ill as I love you, that if Jerome, Tertullian, and the rest of the doctors did so account of Rome as you affirm of them, they were much to blame to defame her with such names as to call her the whore of Babylon, which must needs make her vehemently suspected to be the church of antichrist and not of Christ. For what papist in these days dares says that which Jerome said, that Rome is that purple harlot Babylon, which Saint John speaks of in the Apocalypse?8
A fourth reason these sermons are worth the read, especially for students of both Perkins and historical theology, is that several of these works served as the rougher, rudimentary form of many of his treatises. For example, his Jude sermons became A Commentary Upon the Whole Epistle of Jude; his sermons on 1 Corinthians 7:20 were turned into A Treatise of Vocations; his Revelation 18:4 sermons became part of A Reformed Catholic; and his Exodus 22:18 sermons eventually were made into a treatise on The Damned Art of Witchcraft. Considering these works in their inchoate, sermonic form is certain to be of interest for the budding historical theologian and Perkins scholar.
Fifth, not only will the student of Reformed theology be pleased with the doctrinal precision of his sermon manuscripts, but so too the layperson will appreciate his frequent encouragements to respond with holy living to the doctrines taught. In good Reformed style, Perkins often concluded his points and sermons with calls to repent and believe in the gospel and with exhortations to good works because of the redemptive work of Christ and as a result of the believers’ salvation and union with Christ. For example, he finished his sermon concerning the resurrection of Christ in Romans 4:25 with this,
the resurrection of Christ ought to make us have a progress in our souls answerable to the same. He has overcome death and has raised His body out of his grave; much more ought we to be stirred up to raise our souls up from sin to holiness of life, putting off [the] old Adam and putting on the new man, Christ Jesus (as the apostle says [Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10]), washing away the corruption of the flesh and putting on the armor of faith.9
Sixth, the reader will find material scattered throughout which sounds close to what is now codified in the Westminster Standards. Those acquainted with the Westminster Larger Catechism will find his sermons on preaching and profitable hearing to be quite familiar. For example, in his sermon on Isaiah 50:4, he preached, “[W]e must know that for profitable hearing, three things are necessary: (1) a preparation before, (2) a right disposition in hearing, [and] (3) a right practice after.”10
Seventh and finally, this volume is edifying. Those who take the time to read these sermons preached over four hundred years ago by such a godly and learned divine, will be blessed and encouraged in their endeavor. These works will prove to be not only God-glorifying, but also useful in building the reader up in the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.
Many thanks to the editors, Payne and Yuille, and also the publisher, Reformation Heritage Books, for making these manuscripts available in this sturdy volume. The Labors of a Godly and Learned Divine is a recommended read for the scholar, the student, the preacher, and the layperson.
- J. Stephen Yuille, ed., The Works of William Perkins Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), xiii.
- Yuille writes, “In New England, close to one hundred Cambridge men, including William Brewster of Plymouth, Thomas Hooker of Connecticut, John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay, and Roger Williams of Rhode Island, lived in Perkins Shadow. Richard Mather was converted while reading from Perkins, and—more than a century later—Jonathan Edwards was gleaning insight from Perkins’s writings.” Ibid, xvii.
- Morison, The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England, 2nd ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1956), 134 in Yuille, Perkins Vol. 1, xvii.
- Matthew N. Payne and Yuille, eds., The Labors of a Godly and Learned Divine, William Perkins (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2022), 9; J. I. Packer, An Anglican to Remember—William Perkins: Puritan Popularizer (London: St. Antholin’s Lectureship Charity, 1996), 3 in Yuille, The Works of William Perkins Vol. 1, xvii.
- Yuille notes, “[Peter] Ramus (1515–72), a convert from Roman Catholicism, proposed a method to simplify all academic subjects—a single logic for both dialectic and rhetoric. The task of the logician was to classify concepts in order to make them understandable and memorable. This was accomplished through method—an orderly presentation of a subject…In his writings, Perkins regularly employed Ramus’ method by presenting his subject’s partition, often by dichotomies, into progressively more heads of topics, applying each truth set forth.” The Works of William Perkins Vol. 1, xviii.
- The Labors of a Godly and Learned Divine, 17.
- Ibid, 19.
- Ibid, 57.
- Ibid, 132.
- Ibid, 298. Cf. Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 160.
© Scott McDermand II. All Rights Reserved.
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