Not long ago, at a gathering of Anglican worthies, I chanced to mention William Perkins. A chill fell. “I wonder”, said one senior cleric cheerily, “if that name has ever been mentioned in this room before?”
They had at least heard of Perkins. If you were asked to name the most internationally successful English author of the Elizabethan age, would you come up with this Cambridge theologian, who died prematurely of a kidney stone in 1602? Even in English, Perkins outsold Shakespeare by more than two to one; and Shakespeare was not being translated into Spanish, Czech, Hungarian and Welsh. Perkins’ books, as his first biographer put it, spoke more languages than the man himself ever did – and he was no mean scholar.
He produced 48 books in his 44 years, of them published posthumously. In an age of knuckle-gnawingly tedious 800-page religious works (which were typically titled “A Brief Treatise of…”), Perkins’ works are gems of 100 pages or less. He was, as W. B. Patterson points out, one of the fathers of the Puritan “plain style” of English prose. Indeed, one of Patterson’s problems in this book is that Perkins’ writing is so clear and succinct that it scarcely needs exposition.
Patterson’s mission, however, is less to explain Perkins than to rehabilitate him. Perkins’ general neglect is due to the fateful label “Puritan”, a word that was not applied to him in his lifetime, and which in the ensuing centuries has pigeonholed him as a sectarian fanatic. Hence the Anglican distaste. Yes, he may have been a cleric of the Church of England, but he was a cuckoo in the nest.
As Patterson argues, this is not only unjust, it is a misunderstanding of the whole era. Perkins never openly challenged the structures of the established Church of England, but was instead one of the most vocal and effective apologists for that Church – or, at least, for his Calvinist understanding of what that Church was and ought to be.
Indeed, Perkins represented a pretty broad religious consensus within that Church (hence all the best-sellers). Patterson would like to deny that he was a Puritan at all, but even if, like me, you baulk at that, you need to recognise that establishment Puritanism, despite its self-image as a marginalised minority, was at the heart of Elizabethan and Jacobean religion. It was sometimes indistinguishable from the “conformism” to which it is usually opposed. Historians love parties and conflicts, but the campaign that Perkins and his allies were fighting was for the renewal of Christian souls, not for the amendment of laws and structures.
What makes Perkins stand out amid this consensus is not only his limpid style but also his subtlety and humanity. Patterson is an excellent guide to Perkins’ shrewd writings on dilemmas of conscience, and to his sharp, ethical analysis of the economic crises of his day.
This book is an unashamed apologia for Perkins, and at times goes too far. Yes, by contemporary standards he was restrained on witchcraft, but he still worried that the law let the guilty escape. Yes, his views on predestination were mainstream, but his notorious flow-chart illustrating the doctrine was mocked in his own age as “the black lines of damnation” and still appears grotesque. Many, even most English Protestants, did indeed admire him. It would be good to hear a few of those who didn’t.
But those of us who teach post-Reformation England have been saying for years that we need a first-rate study of Perkins. Now, at last, we have it, and it has been worth waiting for: not least because Patterson writes as tersely and as effectively as his hero.
William Perkins and the Making of a Protestant England
By W. B. Patterson
Oxford University Press, 288pp, £65.00
Published 30 October 2014