Publishing William Perkins’s manuscript sermons. Book Release: “The Labors of a Godly and Learned Divine, William Perkins.” (RHB, 2023)

Reformation Heritage Books has released a book of previously unpublished manuscript material relating to William Perkins (1558-1602). The volume is co-edited by Stephen Yuille and myself. Stephen was one of the main scholars responsible for the appearance of Perkins’s 10 volume collected works (published between 2014-2020). This new volume is intended to complement that set.

This is an academic book, intended to help serious historians and theologians engage Perkins’s works, but is also accessible to pastors and interested lay-readers.

So, what’s in the book and why does it matter?

This volume primarily consists of manuscript material that I discovered on my research trip to Cambridge in 2018. Although Perkins’s works sold extremely well during his lifetime, they have since been read primarily through the lens of the massive three-volume edition of his collected works produced posthumously under the supervision of the executors of his will. These volumes, published by John Legatt (various editions between 1608-1631), have been the standard point of reference for scholars ever since. Indeed, until the recent publication of Perkins’s works by RHB, they had remained out of print since 1631 – nearly 400 years! Even though this material has finally been republished, there is still a need to “get behind” the authorised editions of Perkins’s works, to see what can be gleaned from its original context. This volume enables scholars to consider those kinds of questions.

Collecting Perkins’s sermons

Part of the mission of Perkins’s heirs was to publish his previously unpublished works and sermons for posterity, mainly on the basis of notes carefully taken down by students. Some individuals published “unauthorised” editions of Perkins’s sermons, resulting in some drama. Ultimately some material was left out of Perkins’s “complete” works volumes. What remains extant has been published in this volume along with an introduction narrating how Perkins’s works were collected and produced.

The published edition of Perkins’s sermons were also edited for print, which places the reader at some distance to what Perkins originally preached. What did Perkins’s sermons really sound like? The manuscript sermons in this volume consist of “raw” notes which give some sense of the answer to that question. Some of the other sermons included are examples of sermon material that was subsequently transformed into longer treatises, demonstrating the connections between Perkins’s preaching and writing ministries.

Previously lost material

The volume also includes original sermons never before published, such as two sermons on John 3:16 from very early in his career (during which time we have virtually no other examples of his preaching available). I personally enjoyed Perkins’s two sermons on Romans 4:25. Some of this material has never even been cited in studies of Perkins, much less published. Not only is this material of historical significance, but it is edifying for believers.

A long-cited detail relating to Perkins has been that his funeral sermon was delivered by his friend James Montagu on the passage “Moses my servant is dead (Joshua 1:2). Previously this sermon was unavailable, making this a mere random fact. However we discovered that full notes of this sermon were taken down by a student who attended it, so this long-referenced sermon is now finally available in print. Finally, the volume prints Perkins’s will, as well as the prayer that he habitually prayed before his sermons.

Catalogue of Editions

The volume includes a catalogue of the more than 550 editions of Perkins’s works published throughout Europe up to 1700, including translations in English, Latin, Dutch, German, Spanish, French, Czech, Hungarian, Irish, and Welsh. The only lists previously available of this sort were very incomplete, and so this in itself is a significant contribution to historical engagement with Perkins’s thought and influence. This demonstrates just how popular Perkins’s works were throughout post-Reformation Europe, and why they might be expected to be of value to believers today.

The Manuscript Sources

It’s fun to see early modern manuscripts, so here they are!

Perkins’s two sermons on John 3:16 are in a commonplace book mostly filled with other material.

University of London, Senate House Library, MS187. “Commonplace book including notes on espionage”

Several sermons are in a volume known as the “Chaderton manuscript” because there is a great deal of material in it by Laurence Chaderton (1536-1640), Perkins’s friend and fellow puritan academic and preacher.

A firstyear Cambridge student named James Tomlin produced a booklet of notes taken from Perkins, several of which have never been published. It has a recycled medieval manuscript for its cover, and Tomlin produced doodled title-pages before each of the three series’ of sermons in it. It’s enjoyable to observe that students drew pictures in their books in the sixteenth century as much as they do now!

Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, MS Add.8563, “William Perkins: Sermons.”

Finally, the Hutton Manuscript contains sermons from a range of puritan preachers, which gives a sense of the kind of preachers that this note-taker esteemed. Among them are several sermons by Perkins. The photo below shows how damaged some of the outer pages of a manuscript are. There is a lot of text missing, some of which could be inferred from context, but some of which is simply lost.

Transcribing early-modern handwriting is painstaking and difficult work at times. Whilst this project was enjoyable, it is a gratifying to see it completed. It has been a privilege to contribute to this kind of historical work for the benefit of the church.