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The Life and Works of John Bunyan

by William J. Long

As there is but one poet great enough to express the Puritan spirit, so there is but one commanding prose writer, John Bunyan. Milton was the child of the Renaissance, inheritor of all its culture, and the most profoundly educated man of his age. Bunyan was a poor, uneducated tinker. From the Renaissance he inherited nothing; but from the Reformation he received an excess of that spiritual independence which had caused the Puritan struggle for liberty. These two men, representing the extremes of English life in the seventeenth century, wrote the two works that stand to-day for the mighty Puritan spirit. One gave us the only epic since Beowulf; the other gave us our only great allegory, which has been read more than any other book in our language save the Bible.

Illustration: JOHN BUNYAN

Life of Bunyan. Bunyan is an extraordinary figure; we must study him, as well as his books. Fortunately we have his life story in his own words, written with the same lovable modesty and sincerity that marked all his work. Reading that story now, in Grace Abounding, we see two great influences at work in his life. One, from within, was his own vivid imagination, which saw visions, allegories, parables, revelations, in every common event. The other, from without, was the spiritual ferment of the age, the multiplication of strange sects,--Quakers, Free-Willers, Ranters, Anabaptists, Millenarians,--and the untempered zeal of all classes, like an engine without a balance wheel, when men were breaking away from authority and setting up their own religious standards. Bunyan's life is an epitome of that astonishing religious individualism which marked the close of the English Reformation.

He was born in the little village of Elstow, near Bedford, in 1628, the son of a poor tinker. For a little while the boy was sent to school, where he learned to read and write after a fashion; but he was soon busy in his father's shop, where, amid the glowing pots and the fire and smoke of his little forge, he saw vivid pictures of hell and the devils which haunted him all his life. When he was sixteen years old his father married the second time, whereupon Bunyan ran away and became a soldier in the Parliamentary army.

The religious ferment of the age made a tremendous impression on Bunyan's sensitive imagination. He went to church occasionally, only to find himself wrapped in terrors and torments by some fiery itinerant preacher; and he would rush violently away from church to forget his fears by joining in Sunday sports on the village green. As night came on the sports were forgotten, but the terrors returned, multiplied like the evil spirits of the parable. Visions of hell and the demons swarmed in his brain. He would groan aloud in his remorse, and even years afterwards he bemoans the sins of his early life. When we look for them fearfully, expecting some shocking crimes and misdemeanors, we find that they consisted of playing ball on Sunday and swearing. The latter sin, sad to say, was begun by listening to his father cursing some obstinate kettle which refused to be tinkered, and it was perfected in the Parliamentary army. One day his terrible swearing scared a woman, "a very loose and ungodly wretch," as he tells us, who reprimanded him for his profanity. The reproach of the poor woman went straight home, like the voice of a prophet. All his profanity left him; he hung down his head with shame. "I wished with all my heart," he says, "that I might be a little child again, that my father might learn me to speak without this wicked way of swearing." With characteristic vehemence Bunyan hurls himself upon a promise of Scripture, and instantly the reformation begins to work in his soul. He casts out the habit, root and branch, and finds to his astonishment that he can speak more freely and vigorously than before. Nothing is more characteristic of the man than this sudden seizing upon a text, which he had doubtless heard many times before, and being suddenly raised up or cast down by its influence.

With Bunyan's marriage to a good woman the real reformation in his life began. While still in his teens he married a girl as poor as himself. "We came together," he says, "as poor as might be, having not so much household stuff as a dish or spoon between us both." The only dowry which the girl brought to her new home was two old, threadbare books, The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven, and The Practice of Piety[168] Bunyan read these books, which instantly gave fire to his imagination. He saw new visions and dreamed terrible new dreams of lost souls; his attendance at church grew exemplary; he began slowly and painfully to read the Bible for himself, but because of his own ignorance and the contradictory interpretations of Scripture which he heard on every side, he was tossed about like a feather by all the winds of doctrine.

The record of the next few years is like a nightmare, so terrible is Bunyan's spiritual struggle. One day he feels himself an outcast; the next the companion of angels; the third he tries experiments with the Almighty in order to put his salvation to the proof. As he goes along the road to Bedford he thinks he will work a miracle, like Gideon with his fleece. He will say to the little puddles of water in the horses' tracks, "Be ye dry"; and to all the dry tracks he will say, "Be ye puddles." As he is about to perform the miracle a thought occurs to him: "But go first under yonder hedge and pray that the Lord will make you able to perform a miracle." He goes promptly and prays. Then he is afraid of the test, and goes on his way more troubled than before.

After years of such struggle, chased about between heaven and hell, Bunyan at last emerges into a saner atmosphere, even as Pilgrim came out of the horrible Valley of the Shadow. Soon, led by his intense feelings, he becomes an open-air preacher, and crowds of laborers gather about him on the village green. They listen in silence to his words; they end in groans and tears; scores of them amend their sinful lives. For the Anglo-Saxon people are remarkable for this, that however deeply they are engaged in business or pleasure, they are still sensitive as barometers to any true spiritual influence, whether of priest or peasant; they recognize what Emerson calls the "accent of the Holy Ghost," and in this recognition of spiritual leadership lies the secret of their democracy. So this village tinker, with his strength and sincerity, is presently the acknowledged leader of an immense congregation, and his influence is felt throughout England. It is a tribute to his power that, after the return of Charles II, Bunyan was the first to be prohibited from holding public meetings.

Concerning Bunyan's imprisonment in Bedford jail, which followed his refusal to obey the law prohibiting religious meetings without the authority of the Established Church, there is a difference of opinion. That the law was unjust goes without saying; but there was no religious persecution, as we understand the term. Bunyan was allowed to worship when and how he pleased; he was simply forbidden to hold public meetings, which frequently became fierce denunciations of the Established Church and government. His judges pleaded with Bunyan to conform with the law. He refused, saying that when the Spirit was upon him he must go up and down the land, calling on men everywhere to repent. In his refusal we see much heroism, a little obstinacy, and perhaps something of that desire for martyrdom which tempts every spiritual leader. That his final sentence to indefinite imprisonment was a hard blow to Bunyan is beyond question. He groaned aloud at the thought of his poor family, and especially at the thought of leaving his little blind daughter:

I found myself a man encompassed with infirmities; the parting was like pulling the flesh from my bones.... Oh, the thoughts of the hardship I thought my poor blind one might go under would break my heart to pieces. Poor child, thought I, what sorrow thou art like to have for thy portion in this world; thou must be beaten, must beg, suffer hunger, cold, nakedness, and a thousand calamities, though I cannot now endure that the wind should blow upon thee.[169]

And then, because he thinks always in parables and seeks out most curious texts of Scripture, he speaks of "the two milch kine that were to carry the ark of God into another country and leave their calves behind them." Poor cows, poor Bunyan! Such is the mind of this extraordinary man.

With characteristic diligence Bunyan set to work in prison making shoe laces, and so earned a living for his family. His imprisonment lasted for nearly twelve years; but he saw his family frequently, and was for some time a regular preacher in the Baptist church in Bedford. Occasionally he even went about late at night, holding the proscribed meetings and increasing his hold upon the common people. The best result of this imprisonment was that it gave Bunyan long hours for the working of his peculiar mind and for study of his two only books, the King James Bible and Foxe's Book of Martyrs. The result of his study and meditation was The Pilgrim's Progress, which was probably written in prison, but which for some reason he did not publish till long after his release.

The years which followed are the most interesting part of Bunyan's strange career. The publication of Pilgrim's Progress in 1678 made him the most popular writer, as he was already the most popular preacher, in England. Books, tracts, sermons, nearly sixty works in all, came from his pen; and when one remembers his ignorance, his painfully slow writing, and his activity as an itinerant preacher, one can only marvel. His evangelistic journeys carried him often as far as London, and wherever he went crowds thronged to hear him. Scholars, bishops, statesmen went in secret to listen among the laborers, and came away wondering and silent. At Southwark the largest building could not contain the multitude of his hearers; and when he preached in London, thousands would gather in the cold dusk of the winter morning, before work began, and listen until he had made an end of speaking. "Bishop Bunyan" he was soon called on account of his missionary journeys and his enormous influence.

What we most admire in the midst of all this activity is his perfect mental balance, his charity and humor in the strife of many sects. He was badgered for years by petty enemies, and he arouses our enthusiasm by his tolerance, his self-control, and especially by his sincerity. To the very end he retained that simple modesty which no success could spoil. Once when he had preached with unusual power some of his friends waited after the service to congratulate him, telling him what a "sweet sermon" he had delivered. "Aye," said Bunyan, "you need not remind me; the devil told me that before I was out of the pulpit."

For sixteen years this wonderful activity continued without interruption. Then, one day when riding through a cold storm on a labor of love, to reconcile a stubborn man with his own stubborn son, he caught a severe cold and appeared, ill and suffering but rejoicing in his success, at the house of a friend in Reading. He died there a few days later, and was laid away in Bunhill Fields burial ground, London, which has been ever since a campo santo to the faithful.

Works of Bunyan. The world's literature has three great allegories,--Spenser's Faery Queen, Dante's Divina Commedia, and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. The first appeals to poets, the second to scholars, the third to people of every age and condition. Here is a brief outline of the famous work:

Argument of Pilgrim's Progress"As I walked through the wilderness of this world I lighted on a certain place where was a den [Bedford jail] and laid me down in that place to sleep; and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream." So the story begins. He sees a man called Christian setting out with a book in his hand and a great load on his back from the city of Destruction. Christian has two objects,--to get rid of his burden, which holds the sins and fears of his life, and to make his way to the Holy City. At the outset Evangelist finds him weeping because he knows not where to go, and points him to a wicket gate on a hill far away. As Christian goes forward his neighbors, friends, wife and children call to him to come back; but he puts his fingers in his ears, crying out, "Life, life, eternal life," and so rushes across the plain.

Then begins a journey in ten stages, which is a vivid picture of the difficulties and triumphs of the Christian life. Every trial, every difficulty, every experience of joy or sorrow, of peace or temptation, is put into the form and discourse of a living character. Other allegorists write in poetry and their characters are shadowy and unreal; but Bunyan speaks in terse, idiomatic prose, and his characters are living men and women. There are Mr. Worldly Wiseman, a self-satisfied and dogmatic kind of man, youthful Ignorance, sweet Piety, courteous Demas, garrulous Talkative, honest Faithful, and a score of others, who are not at all the bloodless creatures of the Romance of the Rose, but men real enough to stop you on the road and to hold your attention. Scene after scene follows, in which are pictured many of our own spiritual experiences. There is the Slough of Despond, into which we all have fallen, out of which Pliable scrambles on the hither side and goes back grumbling, but through which Christian struggles mightily till Helpful stretches him a hand and drags him out on solid ground and bids him go on his way. Then come Interpreter's house, the Palace Beautiful, the Lions in the way, the Valley of Humiliation, the hard fight with the demon Apollyon, the more terrible Valley of the Shadow, Vanity Fair, and the trial of Faithful. The latter is condemned to death by a jury made up of Mr. Blindman, Mr. Nogood, Mr. Heady, Mr. Liveloose, Mr. Hatelight, and others of their kind to whom questions of justice are committed by the jury system. Most famous is Doubting Castle, where Christian and Hopeful are thrown into a dungeon by Giant Despair. And then at last the Delectable Mountains of Youth, the deep river that Christian must cross, and the city of All Delight and the glorious company of angels that come singing down the streets. At the very end, when in sight of the city and while he can hear the welcome with which Christian is greeted, Ignorance is snatched away to go to his own place; and Bunyan quaintly observes, "Then I saw that there was a way to hell even from the gates of heaven as well as from the city of Destruction. So I awoke, and behold it was a dream!"

Such, in brief, is the story, the great epic of a Puritan's individual experience in a rough world, just as Paradise Lost was the epic of mankind as dreamed by the great Puritan who had "fallen asleep over his Bible."

Success of Pilgrim's ProgressThe chief fact which confronts the student of literature as he pauses before this great allegory is that it has been translated into seventy-five languages and dialects, and has been read more than any other book save one in the English language.

As for the secret of its popularity, Taine says, "Next to the Bible, the book most widely read in England is the Pilgrim's Progress.... Protestantism is the doctrine of salvation by grace, and no writer has equaled Bunyan in making this doctrine understood." And this opinion is echoed by the majority of our literary historians. It is perhaps sufficient answer to quote the simple fact that Pilgrim's Progress is not exclusively a Protestant study; it appeals to Christians of every name, and to Mohammedans and Buddhists in precisely the same way that it appeals to Christians. When it was translated into the languages of Catholic countries, like France and Portugal, only one or two incidents were omitted, and the story was almost as popular there as with English readers. The secret of its success is probably simple. It is, first of all, not a procession of shadows repeating the author's declamations, but a real story, the first extended story in our language. Our Puritan fathers may have read the story for religious instruction; but all classes of men have read it because they found in it a true personal experience told with strength, interest, humor,--in a word, with all the qualities that such a story should possess. Young people have read it, first, for its intrinsic worth, because the dramatic interest of the story lured them on to the very end; and second, because it was their introduction to true allegory. The child with his imaginative mind--the man also, who has preserved his simplicity--naturally personifies objects, and takes pleasure in giving them powers of thinking and speaking like himself. Bunyan was the first writer to appeal to this pleasant and natural inclination in a way that all could understand. Add to this the fact that Pilgrim's Progress was the only book having any story interest in the great majority of English and American homes for a full century, and we have found the real reason for its wide reading.

Other Works of BunyanThe Holy War, published in 1665, is the first important work of Bunyan. It is a prose Paradise Lost, and would undoubtedly be known as a remarkable allegory were it not overshadowed by its great rival. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, published in 1666, twelve years before Pilgrim's Progress, is the work from which we obtain the clearest insight into Bunyan's remarkable life, and to a man with historical or antiquarian tastes it is still excellent reading. In 1682 appeared The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, a realistic character study which is a precursor of the modern novel; and in 1684 the second part of Pilgrim's Progress, showing the journey of Christiana and her children to the city of All Delight. Besides these Bunyan published a multitude of treatises and sermons, all in the same style,--direct, simple, convincing, expressing every thought and emotion perfectly in words that even a child can understand. Many of these are masterpieces, admired by workingmen and scholars alike for their thought and expression. Take, for instance, "The Heavenly Footman," put it side by side with the best work of Latimer, and the resemblance in style is startling. It is difficult to realize that one work came from an ignorant tinker and the other from a great scholar, both engaged in the same general work. As Bunyan's one book was the Bible, we have here a suggestion of its influence in all our prose literature.