Profile of DTS Grad John Perkins: Living History
With energetic but melancholy eyes beaming behind wire-rimmed glasses, John Perkins (ThM, 84) plunges into teacher mode. “It is the war that made our country what it is today,” he says. “Before the Civil War, when people talked about the United States, they would say, ‘The United States are.’”
Curious students perk up, and he asks, “What do we say today?”
“Is,” someone replies. “We say, ‘The United States is.’”
“That’s right,” Perkins responds. “We used to view our country as a collection of individual states; today we view ourselves as an individual nation.”
Leaning on the edge of his desk, Perkins lowers his voice to address a brutal reality. “In the short term, this war devastated us,” he says. “Over 623,000 Americans were killed, each of them by fellow Americans. And think about all of those who were maimed, losing an arm or a leg, or just shell-shocked. You cannot have four years of war without people becoming desensitized to war, and for those soldiers, killing got easier.
A theologian, historian, and true Texan, John Perkins serves as associate professor of history at Tarrant County College in Arlington, Texas. Perkins pairs his gift of teaching and love for history to introduce people to God. Secular education in his view provides an unparalleled ministry opportunity.
“I’ve got Muslims in my class,” Perkins said. “I’ve got agnostics. I’ve got a few Christians, and I’ve got a bunch of kids just bee-boppin’ along in life.”
During his Protestant Reformation lectures, every one of Perkins’s students learns Christianity’s central message. “I make clear the teaching of Luther and Calvin, and I tell my students, ‘Calvin would say that you’re basically evil, that you’ve got a serious problem, and that you’re in need of a Savior,’” he said. “So I get to lay the message out on the line, but I’m just teachin’ history.”
Judith Carrier, president of TCC, said, “Many can impart facts, but John makes them come alive.” Having worked with Perkins for twelve years, she said he is a “gift to our campus,” a “strong leader but not a showoff,” and a “master teacher.”
Perkins’s curiosity toward history began, in part, with a Christmas gift from his parents: an American Heritage book titled The Civil War, by Bruce Catton. Two years after receiving the present, his mother took eleven-year-old Perkins and his two sisters on a trip from their home in Mount Pleasant, Texas, to the Shiloh Civil War battlefield in Tennessee.
“Walking through those fields,” his mother, Lois Perkins, said, “John stopped and just stayed in one place. The girls were not as interested as John was, and they were whining, ‘Come on. Come on, John!’
“And he said, ‘Be quiet. I’m standing where General Beauregard died.’ He put his hand over his heart and stood at attention. That was a sacred moment for him.
“Of course, his sisters just died laughing,” she said.
Perkins’s life-long friend, Wilson Renfroe (ThM, 1984), remembers that he and John would gear-up in military fatigues, belts and canteens. “We played Army,” Renfroe said of their childhoods, “and we dug deep, sometimes water-filled, foxholes in the backyard, much to my mother’s chagrin.”
Yet Perkins’s love of history took him far beyond backyard World War II reenactments. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from East Texas State University, now Texas A&M, where he majored in history and physical education. He did serve in the U.S. Air Force, but defense downsizing cut his military career to less than two years.
In 1979, Perkins met his wife, Paula, in Portland, Oregon, while completing Multnomah Bible College’s graduate program. The couple married two years later, when he was twenty-eight years old.
After Perkins graduated, entering vocational ministry became first priority, so he returned to Texas to attend Dallas Theological Seminary, where he graduated with the class of ‘84, earning his ThM in Bible Exposition.
Still, the historical hardcovers beckoned—packed with war strategies, political developments, religions, and people too interesting to pass by. So Perkins returned to school once again. In 1995 he earned a master’s degree in U.S. history from the University of North Texas.
After that Perkins discovered an opening for a history professor at TCC’s then newly constructed campus in Arlington, Texas. So he called.
“They hired me right on the telephone—sight unseen—one week before classes started,” Perkins said. “Just as Proverbs 21:1 says, ‘The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hands of the Lord; He turns it whichever way he wills.’ There’s no doubt that God caused the people in command to especially like me.”
After ten years there, in 2006, Perkins received the college’s most distinguished honor: the Chancellor’s Award for Exemplary Teaching.
“He is your all-around, good guy,” Perkins’s wife, Paula, said. “I had to ask him out, though,” she said. “He absolutely would not ask me, and I had decided that he was irresistible.”
Now, after 26 years of marriage, Paula describes him as a “fun, kind, and passionate” spouse, noting, too, that he is gifted and respected teacher.
“But you know,” Perkins’s mother said, “John does have a temper, and when he gets mad, the Perkins side shows up in him. That’s not from my side of the family. It’s a Perkins trait.”
Paula says his triggers are cell-phones in the classroom, painting a room with him or helping him hang pictures, though she’s quick to add, “John has raised his voice maybe only five times throughout our marriage.”
John Perkins believes an understanding of historical background helps people know who they are today. “The developed perspective that results allows them to analyze current events and make decisions with something beyond the modern media’s ten-second sound bite.”
Perhaps, the richest gain from Perkins’s diligent study of the past has been a unique outlook on the continuum of God’s work. “You cannot study history,” he said, “without seeing how evil mankind is and therefore how desperately we all need the Savior.”
SIDEBAR: John Perkins is also the author of Daniel’s Battery: The 9th Texas Field Battery. Daniel's battery was organized in 1862, and the men fought for three years, though according to Perkins they did a lot more marching than fighting.
Benjamin Tertin graduated from the journalism program at Multnomah School of the Bible, where John Perkins was the school’s alumnus of the year in 2007.