Church History

Research Article

William Perkins's “A Reformed Catholic”: A Psycho-Cultural Interpretation

James C. Herberta1

a1 director of governance study at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

It is remarkable that study of William Perkins (1558–1602) has had so little impact on conventional interpretations of English history. Of the work of this great pastoral theologian, William Haller observed that “no books… were more often to be found upon the shelves of succeeding generations of preachers, and the name of no preacher recurs more often in later Puritan literature.” In an article which commented upon Perkins's undeserved obscurity, Louis Wright suggested that in Perkins's thought Max Weber would have found “pertinent illustrations” for the famous argument about Protestantism and capitalism. Historical scholarship generally appears to have followed Wright's suggestion, mining Perkins's works for “pertinent illustrations” of established outlooks. Perkins has been pressed into service in economic and political versions of Haller's neo-Foxian epic which describes religious forces gathering relentlessly toward a mid-seventeenth-century climax. Other historians, encountering Perkins's insistent defense of the established church, have portrayed him as an Elizabethan moderate of varying degrees of sincerity and importance. Ultimately, these unproductive readings rest on an assumed typology of Anglicanism and Puritanism which casts Puritan theology as sectarian and disruptive while reserving the culturally integrative role of a churchly religion for Anglicanism. However faithfully this typology represents the outcome of seventeenth-century English history, it may have impeded fruitful analysis of Perkins's thought.