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An English Church puritan

by
11 March 2016

This interesting figure owes a debt to others, says Angela Ranson

William Perkins and the Making of Protestant England
W. B. Patterson
OUP £65
(978-0-19-968152-5)
Church Times Bookshop £58.50

 

W. B. PATTERSON’s examination of the Elizabethan theologian William Perkins is as multifaceted as was Perkins himself. Patterson discusses Perkins’s work as an apologist, an advocate for social justice, a theological writer and educator, and a preacher. He also studies one of Perkins’s most distinctive contributions to practical theology: his books on conscience and casuistry.

Shedding light all these glittering aspects of Perkins is the main goal of Patterson’s book. He seeks to demonstrate that Perkins played a substantial part in the intellectual revolution of early modern Europe, with the purpose of reclaiming Perkins for the Established Church. For centuries, Perkins has been portrayed as a puritan Reformer, but Patterson demonstrates that Perkins did not intend to quarrel with the Church of England, and indeed tried to support and develop its clergy and congregations.

Part of the value of this book lies in a side effect of this argument. Although Patterson’s separation of Perkins from the puritan movement is fascinating in and of itself, it also showcases the contrast between Perkins’s intent for his work, and the uses to which it was put. Throughout the book, Patterson discusses the reception of Perkins’s work, in context with Perkins’s long-lasting influence. This comes through most notably when Patterson discusses Perkins’s study of conscience, showing how Perkins began a school of thought that influenced such important 17th-century figures as William Ames.

The question of reception is of such relevance to current scholarship that further analysis of Perkins’s audience would have provided a valuable expansion of the arguments in this book. For example, Chapter Six discusses the controversy caused by Perkins’s apologetics, but focuses on the Roman Catholic challenger, William Bishop, and does not fully consider Perkins’s defenders.

Similarly, the discussion of Perkins’s legacy takes him out of his historical context, which inflates his significance while neglecting his debt to other theologians. He becomes a hero at the expense of great Reformation figures such as John Jewel, John Whitgift, and Richard Hooker.

Patterson’s book effectively shows that Perkins sought to help English Christians live out their faith as members of the Church of England. For scholars of the Reformation, it is valuable for two main reasons. First, it shows Perkins in a new light, providing excellent expositions of his main works. Second, it raises new questions about Perkins himself, which will, I hope, inspire further examination of this fascinating figure.

 

Dr Angela Ranson earned her doctorate at the University of York in 2014. Her current research focuses on early modern ecclesiastical history.

 

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