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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Edwin Pond Parker (1836–1920)

By John Bunyan (1628–1688)

JOHN BUNYAN, son of Thomas Bunnionn Junr and Margaret Bentley, was born 1628, in the quaint old village of Elstow, one mile southwest of Bedford, near the spot where, three hundred years before, his ancestor William Boynon resided. His father was a poor tinker or “braseyer,” and his mother’s lineage is unknown. He says,—“I never went to school to Aristotle or Plato, but was brought up at my father’s house in a very mean condition, among a company of poor countrymen.”

He learned to read and write “according to the rate of other poor men’s children”; but soon lost “almost utterly” the little he had learned. Shortly after his mother’s death, when he was about seventeen years of age, he served as a soldier for several months, probably in the Parliamentary army. Not long afterward he married a woman as poor as himself, by whose gentle influence he was gradually led into the way of those severe spiritual conflicts and “painful exercises of mind” from which he finally came forth, at great cost, victorious. These religious experiences, vividly described in his ‘Grace Abounding,’ traceable in the course of his chief Pilgrim, and frequently referred to in his discourses, have been too literally interpreted by some, and too much explained away as unreal by others; but present no special difficulty to those who will but consider Bunyan’s own explanations.

From boyhood he had lived a roving and non-religious life, although possessing no little tenderness of conscience. He was neither intemperate nor dishonest; he was not a law-breaker; he explicitly and indignantly declares:—“If all the fornicators and adulterers in England were hanged by the neck till they be dead, John Bunyan would still be alive and well!” The particular sins of which he was guilty, so far as he specifies them, were profane swearing, from which he suddenly ceased at a woman’s reproof, and certain sports, innocent enough in themselves, which the prevailing Puritan rigor severely condemned. What, then, of that vague and exceeding sinfulness of which he so bitterly accuses and repents himself? It was that vision of sin, however disproportionate, which a deeply wounded and graciously healed spirit often has, in looking back upon the past from that theological standpoint whence all want of conformity to the perfect law of God seems heinous and dreadful.

  • “A sinner may be comparatively a little sinner, and sensibly a great one. There are two sorts of greatness in sin: greatness by reason of number; greatness by reason of the horrible nature of sin. In the last sense, he that has but one sin, if such an one could be found, may in his own eyes find himself the biggest sinner in the world.”
  • “Visions of God break the heart, because, by the sight the soul then has of His perfections, it sees its own infinite and unspeakable disproportion.”
  • “The best saints are most sensible of their sins, and most apt to make mountains of their molehills.”
  • Such sentences from Bunyan’s own writings—and many like them might be quoted—shed more light upon the much-debated question of his “wickedness” than all that his biographers have written.

    In John Gifford, pastor of a little Free Church in Bedford, Bunyan found a wise friend, and in 1653 he joined that church. He soon discovered his gifts among the brethren, and in due time was appointed to the office of a gospel minister, in which he labored with indefatigable industry and zeal, and with ever-increasing fame and success, until his death. His hard personal fortunes between the Restoration of 1660 and the Declaration of Indulgence of 1672, including his imprisonment for twelve years in Bedford Gaol; his subsequent imprisonment in 1675–6, when the first part of the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ was probably written; and the arduous engagements of his later and comparatively peaceful years,—must be sought in biographies, the latest and perhaps the best of which is that by Rev. John Brown, minister of the Bunyan Church at Bedford. The statute under which Bunyan suffered is the 35th Eliz., Cap. 1, re-enacted with rigor in the 16th Charles II., Cap. 4, 1662; and the spirit of it appears in the indictment preferred against him:—“that he hath devilishly and perniciously abstained from coming to Church to hear Divine service, and is a common upholder of several unlawful meetings and conventicles, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this Kingdom,” etc., etc.

    The story of Bunyan’s life up to the time of his imprisonment, and particularly that of his arrests and examinations before the justices, and also the account of his experiences in prison, should be read in his own most graphic narrative, in the ‘Grace Abounding,’ which is one of the most precious portions of all autobiographic literature. Bunyan was born and bred, he lived and labored, among the common people, with whom his sympathies were strong and tender, and by whom he was regarded with the utmost veneration and affection. He understood them, and they him. For nearly a century they were almost the only readers of his published writings. They came to call him Bishop Bunyan. His native genius, his great human-heartedness and loving-kindness, his burning zeal and indomitable courage, his racy humor and kindling imagination, all vitalized by the spiritual force which came upon him through the encompassing atmosphere of devout Puritanism, were consecrated to the welfare of his fellow-men. His personal friend, Mr. Doe, describes him as “tall in stature, strong-boned, of a ruddy face, with sparkling eyes, nose well set, mouth moderately large, forehead something high, and his habit always plain and modest.” His portrait, painted in 1685, shows a vigorous, kindly face, with mustachios and imperial, and abundance of hair falling in long wavy masses about the neck and shoulders,—more Cavalier-like than Roundhead.

    Bunyan was a voluminous writer, and his works, many of them posthumous, are said to equal in number the sixty years of his life. But even the devout and sympathetic critic is compelled to acknowledge the justice of that verdict of time which has consigned most of them to a virtual oblivion. The controversial tracts possess no elements of enduring interest. The doctrinal and spiritual discourses are elaborations of a system of religious thought which long ago “had its day and ceased to be.” Yet they contain pithy sentences, homely and pat illustrations, and many a paragraph, rugged or tender, in which one recognizes the stamp of his genius, and an intimation of his remarkable power as a preacher. The best of these discourses, ‘The Jerusalem Sinner Saved,’ ‘Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ,’ and ‘Light for Them that Sit in Darkness,’ while they sparkle here and there with things unique and precious to the Bunyan-curious student, would seem dull and tedious to the general though devout reader. In many a passage we feel, to use his phrase, his “heart-pulling power,” no less than the force and felicity of his most original images and analogies; but these passages are little oases in a dry and thirsty land. The ‘Life and Death of Mr. Badman’ vividly presents certain aspects of English provincial life in that day; but they are repulsive, and the entire work is marred by flat moralizings and coarse, often incredible stories.

    The ‘Holy War,’ which Macaulay said would have been our greatest religious allegory if the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ had not been written, has ceased to be much read. The conception of the conquest of the human soul by the irresistible operation of divine force is so foreign to modern thought and faith that Bunyan’s similitude no longer seems a verisimilitude. The pages abound with quaint, humorous, and lifelike touches;—as where Diabolus stations at Ear-Gate a guard of deaf men under old Mr. Prejudice, and Unbelief is described as “a nimble jack whom they could never lay hold of”;—but as compared with the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ the allegory is artificial, its elaboration of analogies is ponderous and tedious, and its characters lack solidity and reality.

    All these works, however, exhibit a remarkable command of the mother tongue, a shrewd common-sense and mother wit, a fervid spiritual life, and a wonderful knowledge of the English Bible. They may be likened to more or less submerged wrecks kept from sinking into utter neglect by the bond of authorship which connects them with the one incomparable work which floats, unimpaired by time, on the sea of universal appreciation and favor. Bunyan’s unique and secure position in English literature was gained by the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ the first part of which was published in 1678, and the second in 1685.

    The broader, freer conception of the pilgrimage—as old in literature as the ninetieth Psalm, apt and fond, as innumerable books show, from De Guileville’s ‘Le Pelerinage de l’Homme’ in the fourteenth century to Patrick’s ‘Parable’ three hundred years later—took sudden possession of Bunyan’s imagination while he was in prison, and kindled all his finest powers. Then he undertook, poet-wise, to work out this conception, capable of such diversity of illustration, in a form of literature that has ever been especially congenial to the human mind. Unguided save by his own consecrated genius, unaided by other books than his English Bible and Fox’s ‘Book of Martyrs,’ he proceeded with a simplicity of purpose and felicity of expression, and with a fidelity to nature and life, which gave to his unconsciously artistic story the charm of perfect artlessness as well as the semblance of reality. When Bunyan’s lack of learning and culture are considered, and also the comparative dryness of his controversial and didactic writings, this efflorescence of a vital spirit of beauty and of an essentially poetic genius in him seems quite inexplicable. The author’s rhymed ‘Apology for His Book,’ which usually prefaces the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ contains many significant hints as to the way in which he was led to

  • “Make truth spangle, and its rays to shine.”
  • He had no thought of producing a work of literary excellence; but on the other hand he had not, in writing this book, his customary purpose of spiritual edification. Indeed, he put his multiplying thoughts and fancies aside, lest they should interfere with a more serious and important book which he had in hand!

  • “I only thought to make
  • I knew not what: nor did I undertake
  • Thereby to please my neighbor; no, not I:
  • I did it mine own self to gratify.
  • *****
  • Thus I set pen to paper with delight,
  • And quickly had my thoughts in black and white.”
  • The words are exceedingly suggestive. In writing so aimlessly—“I knew not what”—to gratify himself by permitting the allegory into which he had suddenly fallen to take possession of him and carry him whithersoever it would, while he wrote out with delight his teeming fancies, was not Bunyan for the first time exercising his genius in a freedom from all theological and other restraint, and so in a surpassing range and power? The dreamer and poet supplanted the preacher and teacher. He yielded to the simple impulse of his genius, gave his imagination full sweep, and so, as never before or elsewhere, soared and sang in what seemed to many of his Puritan friends a questionable freedom and profane inspiration. And yet his song, or story, was not a creation of mere fancy,—

  • “It came from my own heart, so to my head,
  • And thence into my fingers tricklèd;”—
  • and therefore, we add, it finds its way to the heart of mankind.

    Hence the spontaneity of the allegory, its ease and freedom of movement, its unlabored development, its natural and vital enfolding of that old pilgrim idea of human life which had so often bloomed in the literature of all climes and ages, but whose consummate flower appeared in the book of this inspired Puritan tinker-preacher. Hence also the dramatic unity and methodic perfectness of the story. Its byways all lead to its highway; its episodes are as vitally related to the main theme as are the ramifications of a tree to its central stem. The great diversities of experience in the true pilgrims are dominated by one supreme motive. As for the others, they appear incidentally to complete the scenes, and make the world and its life manifold and real. The Pilgrim is a most substantial person, and once well on the way, the characters he meets, the difficulties he encounters, the succor he receives, the scenes in which he mingles, are all, however surprising, most natural. The names, and one might almost say the forms and faces, of Pliable, Obstinate, Faithful, Hopeful, Talkative, Mercy, Great-heart, old Honest, Valiant-for-truth, Feeble-mind, Ready-to-halt, Miss Much-afraid, and many another, are familiar to us all. Indeed, the pilgrimage is our own—in many of its phases at least,—and we have met the people whom Bunyan saw in his dream, and are ourselves they whom he describes. When Dean Stanley began his course of lectures on Ecclesiastical History at Oxford, his opening words were those of the passage where the Pilgrim is taken to the House Beautiful to see “the rarities and histories of that place, both ancient and modern”; and at the end of the same course, wishing to sketch the prospects of Christendom, he quoted the words in which, on leaving the House Beautiful, Christian was shown the distant view of the Delectable Mountains.

    But for one glance at Pope and Pagan, there is almost nothing to indicate the writer’s ecclesiastical standing. But for here and there a marking of time in prosaic passages which have nothing to do with the story, there is nothing to mar the catholicity of its spirit. Romanists and Protestants, Anglicans and Puritans, Calvinists and Arminians,—all communions and sects have edited and circulated it. It is the completest triumph of truth by fiction in all literature. More than any other human book, it is “a religious bond to the whole of English Christendom.” The second part is perhaps inferior to the first, but is richer in incident, and some of its characters—Mercy, old Honest, Valiant-for-truth, and Great-heart, for instance—are exquisitely conceived and presented. Here again the reader will do well to carefully peruse the author’s rhymed introduction:—

  • “What Christian left locked up, and went his way,
  • Sweet Christiana opens with her key.”
  • “Go then, my little Book,” he says, “and tell young damsels of Mercy, and old men of plain-hearted old Honest. Tell people of Master Fearing, who was a good man, though much down in spirit. Tell them of Feeble-mind, and Ready-to-halt, and Master Despondency and his daughter, who ‘softly went but sure.’

  • “When thou hast told the world of all these things,
  • Then turn about, my Book, and touch these strings,
  • Which, if but touched, will such a music make,
  • They’ll make a cripple dance, a giant quake.”
  • This second part introduces some new scenes, as well as characters and experiences, but with the same broad sympathy and humor; and there are closing descriptions not excelled in power and pathos by anything in the earlier pilgrimage.

    In his ‘Apology’ Bunyan says:—

  • “This book is writ in such a dialect
  • As may the minds of listless men affect.”
  • The idiom of the book is purely English, acquired by a diligent study of the English Bible. It is the simplest, raciest, and most sinewy English to be found in any writer of our language; and Bunyan’s amazing use of this Saxon idiom for all the purposes of his story, and the range and freedom of his imaginative genius therein, like certain of Tennyson’s ‘Idylls,’ show it to be an instrument of symphonic capacity and variety. Bunyan’s own maxim is a good one:—“Words easy to be understood do often hit the mark, when high and learned ones do only pierce the air.”

    Of the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ in both its parts, we may say in the words of Milton:—

  • “These are works that could not be composed by the invocation of Dame Memory and her siren daughters, but by devout prayer to that eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and send out his Seraphim, with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases, without reference to station, birth, or education.”
  • Let Bunyan speak for his own book:—

  • “Wouldst thou be in a dream, and yet not sleep?
  • Or wouldst thou in a moment laugh and weep?
  • Wouldst thou lose thyself and catch no harm,
  • And find thyself again, without a charm?
  • Wouldst read thyself, and read, thou knowst not what,
  • And yet know whether thou art blest or not
  • By reading the same lines? O then come hither!
  • And lay my book, thy head, and heart together.”
  • Bunyan died of fever, in the house of a friend, at London, August 12th, 1688, in the sixty-first year of his age. Three of his four children survived him; the blind daughter, for whom he expressed such affectionate solicitude during his imprisonment, died before him. His second wife, Elisabeth, who pleaded for him with so much dignity and feeling before Judge Hale and other justices, died in 1692. In 1861 a recumbent statue was placed on his tomb in Bunhill Fields, and thirteen years later a noble statue was erected in his honor at Bedford. The church at Elstow is enriched with memorial windows presenting scenes from the ‘Holy War’ and the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ and the Bunyan Meeting-House in Bedford has bronze doors presenting similar scenes.

    The great allegory has been translated into almost every language and dialect under the sun. The successive editions of it are almost innumerable; and no other book save the Bible has had an equally large circulation. The verdict of approval stamped upon it at first by the common people, has been fully recognized and accepted by the learned and cultivated.