Holy Boldness

Tom Paulin

  • Glimpses of Glory: John Bunyan and English Dissent by Richard Greaves
    Stanford, 693 pp, £57.50, August 2002, ISBN 0 8047 4530 7
  • Theology and Narrative in the Works of John Bunyan by Michael Davies
    Oxford, 393 pp, £65.00, July 2002, ISBN 0 19 924240 2
  • The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ by Isabel Hofmeyr
    Princeton, 320 pp, £41.95, January 2004, ISBN 0 691 11655 5

According to E.P. Thompson, The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Rights of Man are the two ‘foundation texts’ of the English working-class movement. It is above all in John Bunyan, he argues, that we find ‘the slumbering Radicalism’ which was preserved through the 18th century, and broke out again and again in the 19th.

Bunyan was born in a cottage on the edge of Elstow, a village near Bedford, in November 1628. His father was a brazier. He was 13 when the Civil War broke out, and at 16 joined a regiment garrisoned at Newport Pagnell. During his army years Bunyan witnessed the struggle between Presbyterians, who wanted to reform the Church of England, and radical sectaries. He had a religious awakening in 1650 – the year his blind daughter, Mary, was born – and suffered from a series of nervous illnesses which Richard Greaves unhelpfully approaches by means of psychiatric theory and William Styron’s compelling account of his own severe depression. In 1650 Bunyan had heard three or four women discussing religion: they were, he said, ‘far above out of my reach’, and he began seeking out the company of these people, who were members of a separatist church organised by John Gifford, a former major in the royalist army. A few years later Bunyan started to preach himself, to a Bedford congregation which a contemporary called ‘Bunian his society’, and this got him into trouble even before the restoration of the monarchy and the traditional church in 1660. He was indicted at the Bedford Assizes in February 1658, probably following a complaint from the local vicar, Thomas Becke, who was a Presbyterian.

Bunyan’s legal torments began in earnest when he was invited to preach at the hamlet of Lower Samsell on 12 November 1660. When he got there, a friend told him there was rumoured to be a warrant for his arrest, but he decided to preach anyway, not wanting to set a bad example for recent converts or nonconformists by fleeing. He was arrested for preaching without a licence at an unlawful assembly, put on trial and sentenced to three months in jail. He wasn’t helped by the fact that, during his trial, Thomas Venner led an insurrection of militant Fifth Monarchy men in London, thus bringing all nonconformists under suspicion.

Bunyan’s first wife, whose name has never been recorded, had died, leaving him four children. His second wife, Elizabeth, courageous and pious like his first, presented a petition to secure his release. Angered by the callous attitude of one of the Justices of the Peace, and by the mockery of several bystanders, she denounced the proceedings: ‘Because he is a Tinker, and a poor man; therefore he is despised, and cannot have justice.’ Elizabeth had miscarried when she heard the news of her husband’s arrest, and her experience is glimpsed in the second part of The Pilgrim’s Progress:

A Dream I had of two ill-lookt ones, that I thought did Plot how to make me miscarry in my Journey, that hath troubled me much: Yea, it still runs in my mind, and makes me afraid of every one that I meet, lest they should meet me to do me a mischief, and to turn me out of the way.

After serving his sentence, Bunyan would not be allowed to preach and would have to attend Church of England services or be banished from the realm. If he returned without the monarch’s permission, he would hang, as the statute prescribed. Defiantly, Bunyan replied that if he were freed one day, he would preach the next. Towards the end of his sentence, the Bedfordshire justices sent Paul Cobb, a clerk of the peace, to obtain Bunyan’s submission. Had Bunyan been willing to sue for pardon and to admit that he had wrongfully convened the meeting at Lower Samsell, he would have been freed, but he refused. Bunyan told Cobb he was willing to submit to the government but qualified this by insisting that he was prepared to obey only righteous statutes. Cobb, a member of the gentry, who treated Bunyan with respect and civility, broke off the negotiation.

Bunyan spent most of the next 12 years in Bedford jail, where he supported his family by making long tagged shoelaces, and was made miserable at the thought of their suffering. He was released in 1672 and began to preach again – now with a licence – and to write The Pilgrim’s Progress, which he completed during another spell in prison in 1677; he had been returned there briefly when the government mounted a campaign against conventicles. As Greaves shows, he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, which was published in 1678, not only as a guide to the Christian life, but as an attempt to shape the Restoration crisis of 1667-73 by setting liberty of conscience against the state’s authority and the conformity of the rich, the corrupt, the careerist and the spineless. Greaves says there is ‘no escaping the fact’ that The Pilgrim’s Progress is a ‘profoundly political tract’, but he fails to communicate the pressure of those times and their influence on Bunyan’s work. Noting Jack Lindsay’s statement that Bunyan’s The Holy War, published in 1682 near the end of Charles II’s reign, is a commentary on ‘absolutism against the liberties of the people’, Greaves asserts that this view ‘cannot be sustained’, but doesn’t explain why. Yet Sharon Achinstein, a scholar he cites elsewhere, has convincingly argued that The Holy War is ‘a veiled commentary on the political situation during England’s Exclusion crises’. Greaves’s sense of dissenting culture is bland and uninformed, and his passionless, comfortable prose, composed in the Florida sunshine, betrays no sense of the Dissenters’ experience during the Restoration. He notes that Bunyan could pack London meeting-houses to overflowing at a day’s notice, that The Pilgrim’s Progress had made Bunyan a celebrity, and adds that his printed sermons ‘suggest he was at times a powerful orator’, but he never tries to analyse the power of ‘Bishop Bunyan’. He reduces one of the most powerful, charismatic and influential writers and preachers of his age to a dull and worthy figure. Both Greaves and Michael Davies appear to accept, and even collude with, Bunyan’s diminished presence in contemporary British culture.

Bunyan, however, remains an enduring presence in Ulster Protestantism. In a lecture given many years ago, ‘The Triumph of the Word of God in the Life and Literature of John Bunyan’, Ian Paisley praised this ‘dreamer and penman’ for his ‘strong doctrinal’ preaching, his opposition to the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, the enormous crowds he drew, and for his prose style. This ‘poor unschooled tinker’ became, Paisley argued, ‘the most prominent man of letters . . . as far as English literature is concerned’. He had ‘the tinker’s power of reaching the heart’. ‘Prick him anywhere,’ Paisley said, ‘and you will find that his blood is bibline.’ Bunyan the rebel lives in Paisley’s preaching and fuels his opposition to liberal theology, Catholicism and political change (he exercised a similar influence on Kipling). Bunyan the Commonwealth man and soldier in the Parliamentary army has become one of the avatars of what has until now been the most reactionary and negative form of Ulster Unionism, though there are currently strong signs that the DUP is moving towards a deal with Sinn Fein.

Bunyan still speaks directly to anyone who feels they are in the power of Mr Worldly-Wiseman, ‘my Lord Turn-about, my Lord Time-server, my Lord Fair-speech . . . Mr Smooth-man, Mr Facing-bothways, Mr Any-thing; and the parson of our parish, Mr Two-tongues’. These visionary caricatures remind us that beneath the social and institutional surfaces where we encounter other people – friends, acquaintances, colleagues, enemies and those in between – exist certain forces for good and evil, and certain irrefrangible principles. However much we try to dip, dodge and jeuk in our social and professional lives, there are moments when we fall into what can feel like a bottomless pit. Bunyan, like Milton and Blake, is one of the guides we may summon when we find ourselves taking that plunge.

Perhaps it is unfair to expect a critic to identify with Bunyan’s dream of truth, but Michael Davies’s lengthy study is remarkable for its failure to empathise with Bunyan’s heroic political battles. Davies tries to argue, though in fact he merely states, that ‘non-doctrinal readings’ of Bunyan can be ‘inappropriate (if not pernicious, on occasion)’, because they frequently issue from ‘distinct historical and polemical’ motives. Though Davies properly calls attention to Bunyan’s doctrine of grace, he separates the politics of the period from Bunyan’s dissenting faith and dismisses those critics who have failed to see the light of true doctrine, which states that Bunyan is always keen to point any metaphor or analogy ‘towards the spiritual and away from the political when discussing salvation’. When Bunyan describes grace as setting ‘open the prison doors’ and letting ‘the prisoners go free’, ‘it is not necessarily a politicised experience he is advocating’; he is ‘simply discussing grace as offering the only possible liberty from a range of spiritually perilous factors’. Writing in a slickly chatty style, Davies is concerned to deny the reasons that drew his contemporaries to Bunyan, and which have made his dream vision available in almost every written language.

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