© 2016 Christy K Robinson
William Perkins, 1558-1602, a moderate Puritan who earned his BA and MA degrees at Cambridge University in England, was one of the teaching “fellows” when John Robinson, the pastor of the Pilgrims to America, was a student there in the 1590s. Though Robinson wasn’t a Puritan, he was a Separatist, one who had broken with the Church of England over its adherence to many of the Catholic practices and beliefs. Robinson, a university professor himself, wrote many tracts and books before he died in 1625, and you can see the surprising (for that time) amount of compassion and grace that contrasted with the grim hellfire sermons of his contemporaries.
My attention was attracted to William Perkins by this image of a 1682 reprint of his 1591 book. The title is hilarious, because it insults the potential reader and book buyer, and the art seems to show a pagan (or Native American) of tropical climes. Imagine, if I used this for a shingle to attract piano students.
But if you’re like me, curious with a quirky sense of humor, you’d pick up this book in Ye Olde Bookshop, or do an archives search for the title.
I grew up in a fundamental Christian denomination that now has a spectrum of believers, from those who take the King James Bible literally and quote church writings by the full paragraph, to those who intellectually or culturally assent to the creed, but don’t really practice the specifics in their lives.
When I was in denominational elementary and high schools, I heard that novels were evil, and full of lies, and that we should spend our reading energies in religious works or the Bible. Please note #14 below, about Skoggins' jest books.
When I began reading Perkins’ book, which is not funny at all, I saw a few things that I’d disagree with, but many that I’d say have held up remarkably well over 425 years. Perkins lists 32 sentences that “ignorant people” have said regarding their spirituality. They can be summarized in a person who says that they attend services, and because they believe in God they can live any way they like, and confess on their deathbed, and that is sufficient for salvation. (Believing in God’s love and grace, and learning from the thief on the cross with Jesus, that’s certainly a possibility—but the better choice is to live such a life of compassion, mercy, love, justice, humility, and grace that you can be confident that you’ll meet the Lord with joy rather than fright.)
Perkins goes on at length, to give scriptures that refute or refine the 32 ignorant sayings. But what I thought was most sensible was this:
“I answer again, that it is not sufficient to say all these without book, unless ye can understand the meaning of the words, and be able to make a right use of the Commandments, of the Creed, of the Lords-Prayer; by applying them inwardly to your hearts and consciences, and outwardly to your lives and conversations. This is the very point in which ye fail.”
Boom! Yes, that’s it! You might live long enough to luck into a deathbed confession and absolution, but what about the life between now and then, learning to be a disciple, learning to be God’s child and trust his leading, and learning the joy of a personal journey with the One who bought your eternal life? Rather than dying a “good death,” live with high morals and ethics that lift up other people.
It’s the difference between an ignorant person and a wise one.
It’s the difference between an ignorant person and a wise one.
|Perkins' book, 1591 version |
that Rev John Robinson
would have read or studied in university
The foundation of Christian religion: gathered into sixe principles. And it is to bee learned of ignorant people, that they may be fit to hear sermons with profit, and to receiue the Lords Supper with comfort (1591)
PSAL. 119. Ver. 133.
The entrance into thy Word sheweth light, and giveth understanding to the simple.
By William Perkins.
BOSTON IN NEW-ENGLAND
Printed by Samuel Green, and sold by Mary Avery near the Blue Anchor in Boston. 1682.
TO ALL Ignorant People
That desire to be INSTRVCTED.
Poor People, your manner is to sooth up your selves, as though you were in a most happy estate: but if the matter come to a just tryal, it will fall out far otherwise. For you lead your lives in great ignorance, as may appear by these your common opinions which follow.
1. That Faith is a mans good meaning and his good serving of God.
2. That God is served by the rehearsing of the ten Commandments, the Lords Prayer, and the Creed.
3. That ye have believed in Christ ever since you could remember.
4. That it is pity that he should live which doth any whit doubt of his salvation.
5. That none can tell whether he shall be saved or not certainly; but that all men must be of a good belief.
6. That howsoever a man live, yet if he call upon God on his death-bed, and say, Lord have mercy upon me, and so go away like a lamb, he is certainly saved
7. That if any be strangely visited, he is either taken with a Planet, or bewitched.
8. That a man may lawfully swear when he speaketh nothing but the truth, and swears by nothing, but that which is good, as by his faith and troth.
9. That a Preacher is a good man no longer then he is in the Pulpit; They think all like themselves.
10. That a man may repent, when he will, because the Scripture saith, At what time soever a sinner doth repent him of his sin, &c.
11. That it is an easier thing to please God, then to please our neighbour.
12. That ye can keep the Commandments as well as God will give you leave.
13. That it is safest to do in religion as most do.
14. That merry Ballads and Books, as Skoggin, Bevis of Southampton, &c. are good to drive away the time, and to remove heart qualms. [There was a physician of the time who said that laughter with Skoggin's "jest books" was good medicine to heal illness.]
15. That ye can serve God with all your hearts; and that you would be sorry else
16. That a man need not hear so many Sermons, except he could follow them better.
17. That a man, which cometh at no Sermons, may as well believe, as he which hears all the Sermons in the world.
18. That ye know all the Preacher can tell you: for he can say nothing, but that every man is a sinner, that we must love our neighbour as ovr selves, that every man must be saved by Christ: and all this ye can tell as well as he.
19. That it was a good world, when the old Religion [Roman Catholicism] was, because all things were cheap.
20. That drinking and bezeling in the Ale-house or Tavern, is good fellowship, and shews a good kind nature, and maintains neighbour-hood.
21. That a man may swear by the Mass, because it is nothing now: and by our Lady, because she is gone out of the countrey [because there was no mass or praying to the Virgin Mary now that the Church of England was established].
22. That every man must be for himself, and God for us all.
… [there are 32 points of ignorance]
These and such like sayings, what argue they, but your gross ignorance? now where ignorance raigneth, there raigns sin, and where sin raigns, there the devil rules; and where he rules, men are in a damnable case.
Ye will reply unto me thus: that ye are not so bad as I would make you. If need be, you can say the Creed, the Lords Prayer and the ten Commandments: and therefore ye will be of Gods belief, say all men what they will, and you defie the Devil from your hearts.
I answer again, that it is not sufficient to say all these without book, unless ye can understand the meaning of the words, and be able to make a right use of the Commandments, of the Creed, of the Lords-Prayer; by applying them inwardly to your hearts and consciences, and outwardly to your lives and conversations. This is the very point in which ye fail.