William Perkins’s Doctrine of Vocation





William Perkins’s Doctrine of Vocation

William Perkins (1558-1602) has been called the “Father of the Puritans” and the “Principle architect of Elizabethan Puritanism.”1 Perkins was a professor and pastor who sought above all else the glory of God in the lives of those to whom he ministered..2 The aim of this essay is to analyze Perkin’s doctrine of vocation in relation to his ministry. The primary text on this subject is Perkin’s Treatise on the Vocations (published posthumously in 1605).3 We will develop how Perkins related vocational calling to his ministry of preaching, and calling’s relationship to the main purpose of life, the glory of God. The topic of this paper is William Perkins’s doctrine of vocation or calling. One’s calling or vocation, for William Perkins was where piety meets daily life and where workday Christians serve the Lord. What follows introduces and analyzes his thought on the subject. We aim to show that the doctrine of vocation was an integrating point between preaching ministry, christian piety, and social interaction in the thought of William Perkins.

Background and Context

Perkins brought lasting change to the Christian religion in England in the Puritan wing. He not only influenced the way his parishioners thought, but also the way they interacted in society. This is evident in the letter of dedication found in his Works prior to the Treatise. The editor dedicated the printing of the Treatise to a man who worked in the exchequer of the Queen of England, Robert Taillor. Taillor was said to “have been an ancient favouror and wellwiller to learning… and were very lovingly affected unto the author of this treatise wilst he lived.”4 This choice of dedicatory recipient shows the outworking of the general theme of the doctrine of vocation. Life as a Christian in society was not a mere privatized piety, rather it engaged society, including the work of tax collectors like Taillor.

The subject of vocation stands against the backdrop of a medieval sacred-secular divide. Spirituality was thought to be something done in monasteries or by priests. It was separate from the masses of lay people. Not only was it rare for non-clergy to consider their lives in any way spiritually significant, but sacred life was something done behind closed doors by the clergy. It had little to do with the rest of society except when individuals partook of a sacrament or other religious ceremony. Piety had less to do with secular work.

During the 15th century protestant doctrine led to a distinct protestant piety for all of life. Several major factors account for this integrated life. First, the scripture began to return to the language and hands of people. This was due to Bible translations and the invention of the printing press. Ministers also preached in the language of the people. Second, the gospel returned with the definition of man’s condition as a legal criminal before God, and salvation as justification by God’s grace alone, in Christ alone, by faith alone. Third, the experience of spirituality changed. The laity engaged in the worship of God in singing Psalms, being able to understand sermons in their own language, and holding lay office as elder or deacon. Not only did lay Christians engage in conscious worship, but also took up their secular vocations as spiritual service unto the Lord. As Europeans and English people became protestants the piety and spirituality induced by the Gospel returned. Spiritual life was significant for the family and commonwealth, not just he clergy. This piety affected all of life in multiple simultaneous vocations.

Perkins’s doctrine of the Christian life was different than the Roman Catholic one. In the Epistle Dedicatory, its author states that the first of the great offenders against vocational spirituality were,

“Those who live in the bosome of the church, and are not ranged within the compasse of any calling or condition of life, wherein they might give glory unto God, or good unto men. Under these are comprehended all Popish Votaries; as monkes, friars, &c. who have been iustly condemned from auncient times for theeves and robbers, because living apart from the common societies of men, they are neither the members of any body, nor maintainers of the three states before named [church, family and commonwealth]… The lives of these are made so much more odious because they are like the unprofitable drone, that bringeth nothing into the hive, yet feeds upon the hony, that is brought in by the labours of others.”5

The author of this dedicatory epistle propounded an implication of Perkins’s teaching on vocation for the religious practice of the medieval sacred-secular divide. The division of sacred from secular not only resulted in a rejection of vocations as a proper place for the expression of true piety, but replaced it with a false piety of world-flight. To Perkins’s followers that medieval way of religion served neither the good of man, nor the glory of God. Thus they condemned it as a false piety.

The Treatise of the Vocations

Perkins’s works were collected posthumously into two volumes in 1605. The Treatise will guide most of the body of this paper. The Treatise reveals Perkins’s thought on its own terms from his own primary text. What follows is an analysis of his thought with some exposition aided by primary and secondary literature.

Analysis of His Method: The Chief, Secondary, and Tertiary Ends of Man

Perkins was a methodical thinker, trained in the Ramist method of philosophy, in which he learned to do orderly and logical theology.6 This method found the main starting point first, then secondary themes, and then moving down the line to deal with tertiary matter, and so forth. One example of this is his chart of the election and reprobation of sinners in the Golden Chain (1591). The main purpose in human life was God’s glory. Following this main purpose were many other parts of life which fit together in an arranged manner to achieve that highest of all meanings of life. The secondary served the goal of the primary. According to his writing, the doctrine of vocation played this secondary role. Vocation both served man directly, and glorified God indirectly as a result. Perkins wrote, “The cause why I have chosen to speak these words is, because I mean to entreat of this point of vocation or calling, considering few men rightly know how to live and goe on in their callings, so as they may please God.”7 Here he stated his motivation for writing the treatise. That motive was twofold. First, many were ignorant of how to go about their vocations. Second, he stated that the vocation was man’s means of pleasing God. For Perkins, serving God means doing all things in life by virtue of ones vocations. He stated that, “Whatsoever any man enterprizeth or doth, either in worde or deede, he must do in virtue of his calling.”8 This shows how for Perkins vocation relates to God’s glory as a means to the greater end. For Perkins, pleasing God is the goal of human life. Along with worshiping God directly, serving man is a means of pleasing God indirectly. Serving God and man in vocations is that indirect way of serving the main goal of God’s glory. In Perkin’s writing, the glory of God is an overarching purpose for human life, then secondary is vocation.

Vocation makes up a skeletal structure for all human life and discourse in Perkins’s thought. It serves as the integrating point of all of life. For Perkins, callings were structure in which ethics, service to God, an individual’s meaning in life, the basis and purpose for which all human societies exist.

This doctrine in the Treatise on the Vocations parallels that of his Art of Prophesying (1592). Perkins simultaneously was a teaching fellow at Christ’s College in Cambridge and lecturer at the Church of Great St. Andrews. The same year as assuming the role of preacher at Great St. Andrews he wrote The Art of Prophesying.9 His teaching in every way aimed to develop purity of religion in those to whom he ministered.10 In The Art of Prophesying, Perkins pronounced in almost creedal fashion his view of the chief end, “To the Triune God alone be the glory!”11 What he had articulated up to that point was a method of preaching in which the preacher read, explained, resolved the doctrinal truths of, and proclaimed the uses of the text. These uses were for correction of behavior and doctrine.12 The secondary goal was piety. The primary goal for him was God’s glory. God’s glory is the chief end. Vocation is the secondary end. Preaching is a tertiary end, which, it would seem could be set parallel in service to the vocation with prayer.13

Preaching also relates to vocation in Perkin’s writting. For Perkins, preaching was a means to the greater end of piety, and piety to the end of God’s glory. Preaching is not an end in itself, nor is piety, but each is submitted under the primary reason of the existence of man. The pattern could work something like the following. God’s glory is the chief end. In order to reach that chief end God has given the means of direct worship (i.e., instituted means of grace such as prayer and word) and indirect worship (i.e., by way of vocational service). This vocational service serves man indirectly, yet it serves God directly. Preaching the Gospel and law induces the pious living of the Christian in his/her vocation, which in turn serves and brings glory to God.

Perkin’s method was logical and consistent. He wrote that man’s chief end was to please God. Then, two parallel secondary means to that end were vocational callings and preaching. He related preaching to calling by way of means to the end. Preaching was the means of God’s grace in effecting and correcting behavior and thought regarding calling, and thus brought glory to God.

Definition of Vocation

Perkins used the word vocation interchangeably with calling. In use, the terms refer to a status in life in which one serves God and man in society. He developed the theme from 1 Corinthians 7:20, “Let every man abide in the calling in which he was called”14 Perkins then defined calling as, “a certain kind of life, ordained and imposed on man by God for the common good.”15There are several components to his definition. First, he defines it as a certain “kind of life.” That is, it is a status, a station. He went on to describe this by drawing analogy from the battlefield. He described a general who tells men where to go and what to do, and shows how the status they enter is of a certain kind. It is a station set by their master.

Perkins stated that vocation is both ordained and imposed by God. Ordination refers to the natural order of world of human society created by God. He defines society in three parts, as will be shown below. Imposition by God upon a man refers to God’s authority and the reason God is worshiped and served by way of these vocations. Humans serve God in the calling in which God appointed them. A calling, for Perkins, should neither be confused with working for money as a utilitarian means to the end of self improvement (though that may be a tertiary purpose), nor when a person does what they love so that they love what they do. The work is a legitimate thing ordained by God, and in the service of God and man.

He also treated preaching as a God imposed calling. In The Art of Prophesying (1606) Perkins developed the calling of preaching in the second half of the book.16 He applies the same categories from the Treatise on the Vocations to his own calling as a preacher. In contrast to “Moselm” and “Papel” apologists of Perkins’s day, he encouraged true Christian ministers to their work because they have been called by God. He said about this sovereign imposition, “This is enough to encourage any man to give himself to God in his calling… This is a true high commission… They are therefore the commissioners of the high God.”17 The Lord then sets the boundaries and ways the calling is done. For Perkins, this is in principle true of any calling. God sets up the structure of the calling and its relation to other callings. God then calls individuals to execute a vocation and do all things by virtue of that state.

Perkins argued that the vocations were ordained and imposed by God for the common good of society. The secondary goal of the execution of one’s vocation is service to one’s fellows man. Vocational service to man indirectly serves the ultimate end of the glory of God. When Perkins wrote that a calling is “imposed on man by God, for the common good” it is clear that the vocation is not an end in itself, but a way of the full expression of the whole of life as pious way of living for God’s glory.18 Even one’s secular vocation then is a mean to that most primary end.

Kinds of Vocation

Perkins gave a basic taxonomy of the vocations in the second section of the Treatise of the Vocations. He wrote, “Now follow the parts and kinds of Vocations:and they are of two sorts: eneral and Particular. The general calling is the calling of Christianity, which is common to all that live in the church of God. The particular is that special calling which belongs to some particular men: [such] as the calling of a Magistrate, the calling of a Minister, the calling of a Master, of of a father of a childe, of a servant, of a subject, or any other calling that is common to all.”19 He began with the general theme of kinds of calling. He divided the kinds into general and particular. The “general” calling is that of God to those in the visible church. He is not referring to the effectual calling of the Gospel directly, but calling in the sense of the state of being a member of the church. The “particular” calling is that second grouping which is common to all parts of society.

General and Particular Callings

After Perkins described these two divisions he went on to develop them each more fully. He described the general calling by four general duties. He mentioned that there are many more, but here restrained himself to only a few.20 The first is the invocation of the name of Christ, by which he means the bearing of witness as a Christian and prayer in Jesus’ name.21 The second duty is edification of the church.22 Third is service to Christian brothers and the world, and fourth is walking worthy of the calling.23

Perkins also developed the particular calling more fully. He also called the particular calling a “personall calling,” which he defined as the “execution of some particular office, arising from that distinction which God makes between man and man in societie.”24 The personal character of the calling seems to refer to one’s own individual office, distinct from other people’s. He also defined it as official. These offices then fit into society in various God imposed relationships. According to nature then, for Perkins, man is meant for society. In this context of society men and women related to one another in various offices, or callings. He wrote,

For if all men had the same gifts, and all were in the same degree and order, then should all have one and the same calling; but inasmuch as God has given diversitie of gifts inwardly and distinction of order outwardly, hence proceede diversitie of personall callings, and therefore I added, that personall callings arise from that distinction which God maketh between man and man in every societie.25

Here Perkins grounded all of Christian living in the world in the context of vocations in society. For Perkins then, all of life is imposed by God, for God, in the world God created. Society has order and service to God and man because God imposed it as such. Out of that “order” “arises” callings from God to the service of God.

Spheres of Callings

Perkins divides society into three main spheres, church, commonwealth, and family.26 For Perkins, every individual has a calling, if not several simultaneous and overlapping callings in those three spheres. All people live in the commonwealth and in some sort of family relationship. All Englishmen were in some way connected to the Church of England, of which Perkins was a minister.

Perkins made application to the medieval sacred secular division based on this principle. He showed that monks provide nothing as part of society. They have neither family, part in the commonwealth, nor even the church of God since they live separate from the people of God at large.27 He also showed how “vagabonds and beggars” did not contribute to their families or society. He said that they live the lives of “beasts.” both monks and beggars are abnormal because they do not take part in what humans have been created to do in society.28 Not only is the individual destroyed by a lack of calling, but so is society.

Function of Callings

He went on to show how the doctrine of vocation have two basic functions in society. He wrote, “Personall callings be… all such as are of the essence and foundation of any society, without which societie cannot be.”29 He then went on to describe the three sectors of callings again- church, family, and commonwealth. Some callings work for the establishment of society, and others for its improvement, but both work for the world of men as the true expression of humanity.

For Perkins, creation has order. Society is part of that order. Humans live in society in callings or offices in relation to one another. Christians live for God’s glory by executing callings within society. When these structures are in place, people become more than mere beasts, they become servants in relation to God and fellow man.

The Execution of Vocation

In the later sections of The Treatise, Perkins gave several directions for choosing, beginning, continuing, and concluding a calling. We will gather all of these themes under the heading of executing a calling. The reason for this thematic approach is to emphasize how the principles shown above lead to the applications in these sections.

Choosing a Calling

Perkins gave three criteria for choosing a calling, a means, motive, and opportunity. The means is the skills, motive is the desire, and opportunity is the need of the present situation. He also gave direction to seek advice from others.30 He gave several directions to parents for the direction of their children into the choice of a calling. First, the child must be inclined to the thing. Second he/she must have the required gifts. Third, he/she must make a choice of the best calling. The best calling for a particular person is determined both by the need of society and by the preference of the individual. He pointed to the directions which the Apostle Paul gave to the slaves in the christian churches of Corinth. They were to seek their freedom.31 Thus, it seems consistent with the doctrine of vocation to both seek to supply what society has need for, and also to improve one’s own circumstances through the execution of the calling.

Beginning of a Calling

Perkins wrote that each person should enter his/her calling in such a way as “he may truly in conscience say: God hath placed me in this calling.”32 Meaning that not only must one assume an office in society, but must be called by God to that station in life. The one called could confidently know it he holds a station God ordained and imposed. Perkins did not teach that a voice would come from heaven to give direction for on’es calling; rather, in order to be called to a vocation one must have both the gifts and the allowance from man. The gifting of one’s nature comes from God. And the allowance from society shows that other people also affirm those gifts.33 God is the giver of the gifts, but the gift must be present and necessary in order to be called to an office.

Continuing in a Calling

Perkins described the the execution of a calling as continuance. This is after one has chosen and entered the calling and continues in it until completion.34 He says that two main divisions are to be made in continuing in a calling, the duties and the manner.35 For the duties he looked to 1Thessaloninans 4:11, “live in peace… by doing one’s own business.” This returns to a rule he made early, on in the book, that is, one should do all things by virtue of his calling, and should do all duties of his calling.36 In contemporary terms, Perkins defends sphere sovereignty. He taught to stay out of the business of other callings, and stick to the diligent execution of one’s own.37

He gave two rules for the continuing of a calling, “holiness” and “constancie.”38 Holiness refers to that religious service to God by way of new obedience, but it is couched in the context of vocation. Here, for Perkins, ethics takes shape not just with the negative “Thou shall not,” but in the positive in the form a vocation. A positive ethic of Christian world engagement in the contest of vocation is the true expression of Christian holiness. He argued that without Christ’s holiness imputed and empowering the vocation that all men do, no matter how “upright [in] dealing in the end will prove no more than fig leaves before God.”39 That is, the good works are not really acceptable if not in light of and empowered by the Gospel. The unbeliever who does not have this imputed and empowered evangelical holiness then is able to hold an office, but not truly have a calling, nor to please God. Holiness as a rule for continuing then shapes the way one would engage family, workplace, and commonwealth.

As for constancy he described the need to keep on in the calling in this good manner. He said, this is nothing else than a “perseverance in good duties.”40 The point of taking on the calling is to execute its duties. This he says to do constantly. He also showed three impediments to constancy. First is ambition. He called this “a man thinking better of himself than there is cause he should.”41 He pointed to Adam and Eve’s temptation to be as gods as an example of the allurement to abandon one’s vocation of serving God to serve self. Second, he pointed to envy as an impediment to constancy. This is when one sees the calling of another and wants the benefits of it more than one’s own.42 Finally, he described impatience as an impediment to constancy.43

He also wrote about three aids for constancy. These are helps, vacations, and changes. As for helps he refers to the fruit of one’s labors, that is, what one earns as wages. Earning wages, reaping what one sows seems an obvious help which alleviates the temptation to envy and impatience. Second, as a help to constancy, he listed vacations. He described the Sabbath day as a help for the refreshing of the soul. The Sabbath is not a vacation of recreation though, for he will define recreation vacations below. Rather the Lord’s day is for Perkins a means of salvation from perpetual labor to the great help of learning about the things of God. Learning Christ then is a means to the end of not only rest, but also of preparing for the activity for the sake of serving God. He wrote that leaning in this way “is a means to begin, increase, and continue both knowledge and grace.”44 All of this is for the sake of the better service of God in one’s callings. Lastly he mentioned changes as a way of continuing in service of God. At times it is lawful to change one’s vocation.45

Ending a Vocation

The last part of executing a calling is the ceasing of the calling. He gives two directive to those who cease their callings, resignement and account. For William Perkins, resignment, referring to resignation of one’s post must be done in consideration of two things. First is the time. Second is the manner. He argued that the “time is not left to our own choice; for we may not leave our callings when we please.”46 Rather, it is determined by several factors. First, the calling may itself be seasonal or temporary, such as military service. Second, one may be disabled and thus unable to continue in the calling. Third is if a crime or violation happens which disqualifies or removes one from the office. Fourth is death. Fifth is the day of judgment.47 The last two of which are the most obvious, and the third fairly obvious as well. Most interesting though is these criteria do not leave room for early retirement due to accumulation of sufficient wealth. Evidently, for Perkins, if the world needed the vocation, and if one serve God in the vocation, then one should very well continue in the vocation. Otherwise, it would seem Perkins would recommend one to enter a second vocation in which one would continue to serve man by means of serving the church, commonwealth, and family.

Finally, he directed the ending of a calling to an account. He drew analogy from the day of judgment, when all will give an account, to the giving account before God and man that one has finished the race and fought the good fight.48 He pointed to the example of Samuel the Prophet. He described how when Samuel was no longer able to fulfill his duty he gathered the people, accounted before then what he had done, and then called them to affirm with him his faithful service to them.49 Perkins wrote, “The giving of an account is nothing else than the act of a reasonable creature, especially of man, wherein he must make an account before God for all his actions, both of his general and of his particular callings. And by the law of nature wee are bound to this: yea if inferiour officers of the commonwealth are held accountable before the highest magistrate for all their doings, then much more must every creature become accountable to God his creator for the duties of his calling, wherein he doth him homage and service.”50 Thus, callings end in account and resignment based in the law of nature which God ordered analogous to his own relationship to the world.

General Conclusions

Vocation in William Perkins’s theology is a God imposed station in life in which one serves both God and man. Our aim was to analyze Perkins’s doctrine of vocation from the primary text of The Treatise of the Vocations. This was done against the backdrop of the medieval context in which a sacred secular divide was the accepted norm for spirituality. Perkins rejected this division and showed how true piety does integrate all of life. He did not do this with a low view of the church, but with an elevated view of vocation as a true place to indirectly worship God. This analysis also took into account the rational Ramist method Perkins used in theology. The coherence of his thought was demonstrated through parallel writings such as the Art of Prophesying.

We aimed to show that the doctrine of vocation is an integrating point between preaching ministry, christian piety, and social interaction. A few final summary remarks support that this accounts for the evidence. First, Perkins integrated his preaching ministry into the real life experiential piety of the people to whom he wrote and ministered. It is also evident from the testimony of the Letter Dedicatory that he was received by layman as doing such.

Against the backdrop of other-worldly mysticism of the middle ages, Perkins showed his vision for a whole life spirituality. Perkins’s own calling sphere, most clearly as shown above from in The Art of Prophesying, relates to all other offices in the world as one of teaching in the service of God. Thus, for Perkins, pastoral ministry being a professor was in order to shape and educate Christians in the executing of their various callings in society. Thus they served God when they served the commonwealth, the family, and the church.


Perkins, William. “A Treatise of the Vocations or The Callings of Men with the sorts and kinds of them and the right use thereof. 749-779. Cambridge: John Legatt, 1605.

Perkins, William. The Art of Prophesying. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002.

Beeke, Joel R., and J. Stephen Yuille. William Perkins. Welwyn Garden City: EP Books, 2015.

Yuille, J. Stephen. “William Perkins, the “Father of Puritanism”.” ix-xxxviii. Grand Rapids MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014.

Beeke, Joel R., and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006.


  1. 1. J. Stephen Yuille, “William Perkins, the “Father of Puritanism”.” in The Works of William Perkins. vol 1. ed. J. Stephen Yuille, Joel Beeke, Derek. W. H. Thomas. (Grand Rapids MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014) ix.
  2. 2. William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth: 2002) 64-68
  3. 3. William Perkins, “A Treatise of the Vocations or The Callings of Men with the sorts and kinds of them and the right use thereof,in The Works of William Perkins. (Cambridge: John Legatt, 1605) 747-779

4William Perkins, “A Treatise of the Vocations or The Callings of Men with the sorts and kinds of them and the right use thereof, 748

5“Epistle Dedicatory” in The Works of William Perkins. (Cambridge: John Legatt, 1605) 748

  1. 6. Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006) 471

7William Perkins, “The Treatise of the Vocations” 750

8Ibid, 751

9 William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth: 2002 [1592])

10 J. Stephen Yuille, “William Perkins, the “Father of Puritanism”.” xiii

11 William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying. 78-79

12 Ibid, 64

13 Ibid, 77-78

14 William Perkins, Treatise of the Vocations, 750

15 Ibid, 750

16 William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying. 124,

17Ibid, 116

18William Perkins, The Treatise of the Vocations. 750

19Ibid, 752

20Ibid, 753

21Ibid, 753

22Ibid, 753

23Ibid, 754

24Ibid, 754

25Ibid, 755

26Ibid, 755

27Ibid, 755-56

28Ibid, 755

29Ibid, 758

30Ibid, 758

31Ibid, 759

32Ibid, 760

33Ibid, 760

34Ibid, 763

35Ibid, 764

36Ibid, 751

37Ibid, 764

38Ibid, 766

39Ibid, 766

40Ibid, 773

41Ibid, 773

42Ibid, 773

43Ibid, 773-774

44Ibid, 774

45Ibid, 775-776

46Ibid, 776

47Ibid, 777, Perkins is nothing if not thorough.

48Ibid, 777

49Ibid, 777

50Ibid, 777