Drama in the Meeting House: The Concept of Conversion in the Theology of William Perkins -- By: Mark R. Shaw

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 45:1 (Spring 1983)
Article: Drama in the Meeting House: The Concept of Conversion in the Theology of William Perkins
Author: Mark R. Shaw


Drama in the Meeting House:
The Concept of Conversion in the Theology of
William Perkins

Mark R. Shaw

One chilly February afternoon in 1935 in the cozy environs of a Beacon Hill townhouse, Samuel Eliot Morison turned the attention of the members of the Colonial Society to a young Harvard professor of American literature. The paper that Perry Miller proceeded to read laid down the general lines of interpretation that have dominated the discussion of Puritan theology in general and Puritan conversion theory in particular for several decades.1 “The Marrow of Puritan Divinity” with eloquent boldness asserted that the Calvinism of Calvin which had its essence in an “inscrutable God” whose arbitrary will and decree takes man by storm had been whittled down to the pragmatic Yankee God of seventeenth-century Puritans by covenant theology:

Even if the specific doctrines of Calvinism were unchanged at the time of the migration to New England, they were already removed from pure Calvinism by the difference of tone and of the method. It was no longer a question of blocking in the outlines; it was a question of filling in the chinks and gaps, of intellectualizing the faith, of exonerating it from the charge of despotic dogmatism, of adding demonstration to assertion of making it capable of being ‘understood, known and committed to memory.’2

While he states that the process of theological decline does not occur until after 1630 he nonetheless follows the lines of English covenant theology back to William Perkins who “is in every respect a meticulously sound and orthodox Calvinist.”3 Yet Miller

finds seeds in Perkins’ morphology of conversion which began to enlarge man’s role in salvation at the expense of Calvin’s God who formerly “took the heart by storm.” Miller reports that, for Perkins,

man can start the labor of regeneration as soon as he begins to feel the merest desire to be saved. Instead of conceiving of grace as some cataclysmic, soul transforming experience, he whittles it down to almost the vanishing point: He says that it is a tiny seed planted in the soul, that it is up to the soul to water and cultivate it, to nourish it into growth.4

From this bad beginning, Puritan theology goes on to worse things, becoming scarcely discernible from certain strains of Arminianism by the time of Cotton Mather. Jonathan Edwards is seen as a theological Josiah, rediscovering decretal Calvinism and restoring it to prominence thro...

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