William Perkins and the New Pelagians: Another Look at the Cambridge Predestination Controversy of the 1590’s -- By: Mark R. Shaw

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 58:2 (Fall 1996)
Article: William Perkins and the New Pelagians: Another Look at the Cambridge Predestination Controversy of the 1590’s
Author: Mark R. Shaw


William Perkins and the New Pelagians: Another Look at the Cambridge Predestination Controversy of the 1590’s

Mark R. Shaw

In 1598, in the normally quiet hamlets of Asgarby and Aswarby in Lincoln shire, William Williams was accused of heresy by eleven of his fellow ministers. The charge was for promoting papist teaching. The case became the topic of conversation and fine points of doctrine were spun and split in “public inns and private chambers, in back-yards, on horseback between towns, in a shared bed at the end of a day.”1 Williams was eventually called before the court of the Bishop William Chaderton. He was questioned about the sermon he had delivered in August to an assembly of clergy. Williams had been heard to proclaim the “universality of grace to every sinner” and the primacy of the human will in choosing or rejecting that grace for “God did not violently draw or inevitably force any man to receive grace.”2 Election was not final either for man might freely choose to “fall away from God.” Indeed, the church of England “did attribute too much to Calvin” and had strayed from the scriptures with all of its verbiage about “predestination and reprobation and I know not what.”3 Williams was accused of “tending toward popish religion” and was reminded that his views were in conflict with William Perkins’ writings. Williams’ reply was tart. He had read all of Perkins works, except the most recent one on predestination and found them “a lump of extreme folly.”4 Some of his accusers, notably, Anthony Hill of Billingborough and Thomas Russell of Bassingthorpe had been undergraduates at Christ’s when Perkins was a fellow, and would have taken offense at these words against their old and beloved tutor. Their comfort was, in the words of John Newell, one of the newer ministers in the area, that “if Mr. Williams were at Cambridge and should go about to maintain as much as

he hath now delivered…in two or three questions he would be so put down that he should not have a word to say.”5

The case of William Williams is a reminder that the debates concerning predestination and assurance that unsettled Cambridge in the 1590’s were more than academic exercises. The voices of Peter Baro (Cambridge professor and a champion of the “new Pelagians”) and William Perkins (Cambridge Fellow and one of the Augustinian opponents of Baro) echoed into the parishes of England. The wider events in the land that eventually enabled men like ...

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