I. JOHN BUNYAN: 1628–88

IN THEIR enthusiasm for religion and morality, the Puritans felt no need of secular literature. The King James Bible was literature enough; nearly everything else seemed trivial or sinful dross. A member of Parliament proposed in 1653 that nothing should be studied in the universities except the Scriptures and “the work of Jakob Böhme, and such like.” 1 This seems depressing, but we should note that at the height of the Puritan ascendancy (1653) Sir Thomas Urquhart published his spirited translation of Rabelais,*preferring scatology to eschatology. And in the same year Izaak Walton cast his Compleat Angler upon the waters. Even today, with judicious leaps from one fish to another, that book is refreshing in its simple, fresh-air mood; and it is a reminder that while England was passing through a revolution as violent as 1789, men could go quietly to snare some eager creature in rural streams. “Turn out of the way a little, good Scholar, toward yonder high honeysuckle hedge; there we’ll sit and sing whilst this shower falls so gently upon the teeming earth.” 2

Andrew Marvell kept his head, everywise, during the shuffling of governments between his birth in 1621 and his death in 1678. He welcomed Cromwell’s return from Ireland with a vigorous and melodious ode, but in it he dared to write with sympathy of the dying Charles I:

He nothing common did, or mean,

Upon that memorable scene,

But with his keener eye

The axe’s edge did try.

Nor called the gods with vulgar spite

To vindicate his helpless right,

But bowed his comely head

Down, as upon a bed. 3

Marvell became assistant to Milton as Latin secretary to Cromwell, was elected to Parliament in 1659, helped to save Milton from the vengeance of the triumphant royalists, lived through eighteen years of the Restoration, and condemned its immorality, corruption, and incompetence in satires that he carefully refrained from publishing.

John Bunyan’s classics, like Milton’s epics, were written after the Restoration, but both men were molded under the Puritan regime. “I was of a low and inconsiderable generation [birth],” he tells us, “my father’s house being of that rank that is meanest and most despised of all families in the land.” 4 The father was a tinker—a mender of pots and kettles—in the village of Elstow, near Bedford. Thomas Bunyan earned enough to send John to Bedford School, where the boy learned at least to read and write—enough to “search the Scriptures” and write the most famous of all English books. At home he served as apprentice to his father, who taught him the catechism on Sunday afternoons. From the boys of the town he learned to lie and blaspheme; in these arts, he assures us, “I had but few equals.” 5 Moreover, he was guilty of dancing, playing games, and taking a glass of ale in the tavern—all condemned by the Puritans, who in his youth (1628–48) were not yet in power. “I was the very ringleader . . . in all manner of vice and ungodliness.” 6Such confessions of mighty sins were popular among the Puritans, since they made their reform all the more remarkable, and showed the power of God’s saving grace. As the Puritan teaching spread around him, Bunyan’s deviltry was disturbed by thoughts of death, the Last Judgment, and hell. Once he dreamed that he saw all the sky on fire, and the earth splitting beneath him. He woke in terror, and frightened the family with his cries: “O Lord, have mercy on me! . . . The Day of Judgment is come, and I am not prepared!” 7

At sixteen he was drafted into the Parliamentary army, and he served for thirty months in the Civil War. As a soldier, “I sinned still, and grew more and more rebellious against God, and careless of my own salvation.” 8 Demobilized, he married (1648) an orphan girl whose only dowry was two religious books and her oft-repeated memories of her father’s piety. Bunyan, having succeeded to his father’s shop, supported her by tinkering. He prospered, went to church regularly, and abandoned one by one his youthful sins. Almost daily he read the Bible, whose simple English became his own. Elstow talked of him as a model citizen.

But (he tells us) theological doubts harassed him. He had no conviction that God’s grace had been extended to him, and without that grace he would be damned. He suspected that nearly all the inhabitants of Elstow and Bedford were already lost to everlasting hell. He was troubled with the thought that his Christian beliefs were a geographical accident. “How can you tell,” he asked himself, “but that the Turks had as good scriptures to prove their Mahomet the Saviour, as we have to prove our Jesus is?” 9 “Whole floods of blasphemies against God, Christ, and the Scriptures was poured upon my spirit. . . questions in me against the very being of God and of his only beloved Son, as whether there was in truth a God or Christ? And whether the Holy Scriptures were not rather a fable and cunning story than the holy and pure Word of God?” 10 He concluded that these doubts were due to a devil that had lodged in him. “I beheld the condition of the dog and toad, and counted the estate of everything that God had made far better than this dreadful state of mine . . . , for they had no souls to perish under the everlasting weight of hell or sin, as mine was like to do.” 11

Then one day, as he was walking into the countryside, musing on the wickedness of his heart, he remembered a line of St. Paul’s: “He hath made peace through the blood of His cross.” 12 The thought that Christ had died for him as well as for others grew stronger in his mind, until “I was ready to swoon . . . with solid joy and peace.” 13 He joined a Baptist church in Bedford (1653), was baptized, and entered upon two years of spiritual happiness and tranquillity. In 1655 he moved to Bedford and became a deacon in this church, and in 1657 he was commissioned to preach. His message was Luther’s: that unless a man had firm faith that he had been redeemed from his natural sinfulness by the death of Christ the Son of God, he would—no matter what were his virtues—join the great majority of mankind in going to hell. Only Christ’s divine self-sacrifice could balance the enormity of man’s sins. Children, he thought, should be told this very clearly:

My judgment is that men go the wrong way to learn their children to pray. It seems to me a better way for people to tell their children betimes what cursed creatures they are, how they are under the wrath of God by reason of original and actual sin; also to tell them the nature of God’s wrath, and the duration of misery. 14

Amid these exhortations there was, in Bunyan’s sermons, much wise counsel on the rearing of children and the treatment of employees. Like other preachers he was subjected to heckling by the Quakers, who told him that not the Scriptures but the Inner Light brought understanding and salvation. In 1656 he wrote two books against the troublesome new sect; they replied by accusing him of being a Jesuit, a highwayman, an adulterer, and a witch. 15 Worse difficulties came with the Restoration. The old Elizabethan law was renewed which required all Englishmen to attend Anglican services, and only those; all non-Anglican houses of worship were closed; all non-Anglican ministers were forbidden to preach. Bunyan obeyed to the extent of closing his conventicle in Bedford, but he met his congregation in secret places, and preached to it. He was arrested; he was offered release if he would promise not to preach publicly; he refused; he was committed to Bedford jail (November, 1660). There, with some intervals of limited liberty, he remained for twelve years. At different times the offer of release was renewed, on the same conditions and eliciting the same reply: “If you let me out today I will preach tomorrow.” 16

Perhaps domestic life had become a burden. His first wife had died in 1658, leaving him four children, one blind; and his second wife was pregnant. The neighbors helped to support the family, and Bunyan contributed by making laces in prison and arranging for their sale. His wife and children were allowed to visit him daily, and he was permitted to preach to his fellow prisoners, to leave the jail as he pleased, even to travel to London. 17 But he resumed his clandestine sermons, and was put in closer confinement. In jail he read and reread the Bible, and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs; he warmed his faith at the pyres of Protestant heroes, and reveled in visions of the Apocalypse. He must have been well supplied with pen and paper, for in the first six years of his incarceration he wrote and published eight religious tracts, and one major work, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. This is his spiritual autobiography, an almost frightening revelation of the Puritan mind.

In 1666, under Charles II’s first Declaration of Indulgence, he was released. He preached again, and was returned to jail. In 1672 Charles’s second Declaration of Indulgence allowed nonconformist ministers to preach. Bunyan was freed, and was at once elected pastor of his old church. In 1673 this declaration was withdrawn; the old prohibitions were renewed, Bunyan disobeyed them, he was again imprisoned (1675), but he was soon released.

It was in this third and final term that he wrote Part I of The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come. This was published in 1678; Part II followed in 1684. (In an amusing doggerel preface Bunyan claimed that he had written the book to divert himself, without thought of publication.) He presented the story disarmingly in the form of fantasy:

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept I dreamed a dream. 18

Christian, in this vision, is obsessed with the thought that he must abandon and forget everything else, and seek only Christ and Paradise. He leaves his wife and children, and begins his progress toward the “Celestial City.” He is joined by Hopeful, who expresses the Puritan faith succinctly:

One day I was very said, I think sadder than at any time in my life, and this sadness was through a fresh sight of the greatness and vileness of my sins. And as I was then looking for nothing but hell, and the everlasting damnation of my soul, suddenly, as I thought, I saw the Lord Jesus Christ look down from heaven upon me, and saying “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” 19 But I replied, I am a great, a very great, sinner. And he answered, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” . . . And now was my heart full of joy. 20

The pilgrims, after much tribulation and disputation, reach the Celestial City, and we learn what it is they had hoped for so fervently:

And lo, as they entered, they were transfigured, and they had raiment put on that looked like gold. There were also that met them with harps and crowns, and gave them to them—the harps to praise withal, and the crowns in token of honor. . . . And behold, the City shone like the sun; the streets also were paved with gold, and in them walked many men, with crowns on their heads, palms in their hands, and golden harps to sing praises withal. 21

Poor Ignorance, who has followed them haltingly, not having quite the true faith, comes to the gates of the Celestial City, knocks, is asked for his passport, cannot find it, and is bundled off to hell. 22—The story is engagingly told, but sometimes we sympathize with Obstinate, who says of Christian and his fellows, “There is a company of these crazy-headed coxcombs, that, when they take a fancy by the end, are wiser in their own eyes than even men that can render a reason.” 23

The idea of the soul’s pilgrimage from earthly temptations to heavenly bliss was old; so was the medieval allegorical form; presumably Bunyan had read some of these earlier works. 24 They were now forgotten in the extraordinary success of the new story. Fifty-nine editions were printed in its first century of life; it sold 100,000 copies before Bunyan’s death; it has sold millions since; it has been translated into 108 languages; in Puritan America it was in almost every home. Some of its phrases—the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair, Mr. Worldly Wiseman—entered into common speech. In the twentieth century its popularity has rapidly declined; the Puritan mood is gone; the book is now less a part of man’s belief and furniture; but it is still a well of simple English fresh and clear.

Bunyan wrote some sixty books; they are not required reading today. After his final release in 1675 he became one of the most prominent preachers of his time, the recognized leader of the Baptists in England. He expressed admiration for Charles II, and bade his followers be loyal to the Stuart King as the defender of England against the pope. 25 Three years after Charles declared his deathbed acceptance of Catholicism, Bunyan finished his own career. His end was strangely like Luther’s. A quarrel at Reading having alienated a father and son of whom Bunyan was very fond, he journeyed thither on horseback from Bedford. He reconciled the parties; but on the ride back he was caught in a storm, and was wetted through before he could find shelter on the way. A fever seized him, from which he never recovered. He was buried in the cemetery of the Dissenters at Bunhill Fields, where he still lies, in stone, on his tomb.

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