From Darkness into Light: Or, how God used the Giant “Despair” to shape the Life of John Bunyan. Part Two of Two.

Taken from, “Brave Men and Women”
Edited by, Osgood E. Fuller, Published in 1886
Biography written by, Thomas Babington Macaulay

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Counter-irritants are of as great use in moral as in physical diseases.

It should seem that Bunyan was finally relieved from the internal sufferings which had embittered his life by sharp persecution from without. He had been five years a preacher when the Restoration put it in the power of the Cavalier gentlemen and clergymen all over the country to oppress the Dissenters; and, of all the Dissenters whose history is known to us, he was, perhaps, the most hardly treated. In November, 1660, he was flung in to Bedford jail; and there he remained, with some intervals of partial and precarious liberty, during twelve years.

His persecutors tried to extort from him a promise that he would abstain from preaching; but he was convinced that he was divinely set apart and commissioned to be a teacher of righteousness, and he was fully determined to obey God rather than man. He was brought before several tribunals, laughed at, caressed, reviled, menaced, but in vain. He was facetiously told that he was quite right in thinking that he ought not to hide his gift; but that his real gift was skill in repairing old kettles. He was compared to Alexander the coppersmith. He was told that, if he would give up preaching,he should be instantly liberated. He was warned that, if he persisted in disobeying the law, he would be liable to banishment; and that if he were found in England after a certain time, his neck would be stretched. His answer was, “If you let me out to-day, I will preach again to-morrow.” Year after year he lay patiently in a dungeon, compared with which the worst prison now to be found in the island is a palace. His fortitude is the more extraordinary because his domestic feelings were unusually strong.

Indeed, he was considered by his stern brethren as somewhat too fond and indulgent a parent. He had several small children,and among them a daughter who was blind, and whom he loved with peculiar tenderness. He could not, he said,bear even to let the wind blow on her; and now she must suffer cold and hunger, she must beg, she must be beaten. “Yet,” he added, “I must, I must do it.” While he lay in prison,he could do nothing in the way of his old trade for the support of his family. He determined, therefore, to take up a new trade. He learned to make long tagged thread-laces; and many thousands of these articles were furnished by him to the hawkers. While his hands were thus busied, he had other employment for his mind and his lips. He gave religious instruction to his fellow-captives, and formed from among them a little flock, of which he was himself the pastor. He studied indefatigably the few books which he possessed. His two chief companions were the Bible and Fox’s ” Book of Martyrs.”

His knowledge of the Bible was such that he might have been called a living concordance; and on the margin of his copy of the “Book of Martyrs” are still legible the ill spelled lines of doggerel in which he expressed his reverence for the brave sufferers, and his implacable enmity to the mystical Babylon.

At length he began to write, and though it was some time before he discovered where his strength lay, his writings were not unsuccessful. They were coarse, indeed, but they showed a keen mother-wit, a great command of the homely mother-tongue, an intimate knowledge of the English Bible, and a vast and dearly bought spiritual experience. These writings, therefore,when the corrector of the press had improved the syntax and the spelling,were well received by the humbler class of Dissenters.

Much of Bunyan’s time was spent in controversy. He wrote sharply against the Quakers, whom he seems always to have held in utter abhorrence. It is, however, a remarkable fact that he adopted one of their peculiar fashions; his practice was to write, not “November” or “December,” but “eleventh month” and “twelfth month.”

He wrote against the liturgy of the Church of England. No two things, according to him, had less affinity than the form of prayer and the spirit of prayer. Those, he said with much point, who have most of the spirit of prayer are all to be found in jail; and those who have most zeal for the form of prayer are all to be found at the ale-house. The doctrinal articles, on the other hand, he warmly praised, and defended against some Arminian clergymen who had signed them. The most acrimonious of all his works is his answer to Edward Fowler, afterward bishop of Gloucester, an excellent man, but not free from the taint of Pelagianism.

Bunyan had also a dispute with some of the chiefs of the sect to which he belonged. He doubtless held with perfect sincerity the distinguishing tenet of that sect, but he did not consider that tenet as one of high importance, and willingly joined in communion with pious Presbyterians and Independents. The sterner Baptists, therefore, loudly pronounced him a false brother. A controversy arose which long survived the original combatants. In our own time the cause which Bunyau had defended with rude logic and rhetoric against Kiffin and Danvers was pleaded by Kobert Hall with an ingenuity and eloquence such as no polemical writer has ever surpassed.

During the years which immediately followed the Restoration Bunyan’s confinement seems to have been strict; but as the passions of 1660 cooled, as the hatred with which the Puritans had been regarded while their reign was recent gave place to pity, he was less and less harshly treated. The distress of his family, and his own patience, courage, and piety, softened the hearts of his persecutors. Like his own Christian in the cage, he found protectors even among the crowd of Vanity Fair. The bishop of the diocese, Dr. Barlow, is said to have interceded for him. At length the prisoner was suffered to pass most of his time beyond the walls of the jail, on condition, as it should seem, that he remained within the town of Bedford.

He owed his complete liberation to one of the worst acts of one of the worst governments that England has ever seen. In 1671 the Cabal was in power. Charles II had concluded the treaty by which he bound himself to set up the Roman Catholic religion in England. The first step which he took toward that end was to annul, by an unconstitutional exercise of his prerogative, all the penal statutes against the Roman Catholics; and in order to disguise his real design, he annulled at the same time the penal statutes against Protestant Non-conformists. Bunyan was consequently set at large. In the first warmth of his gratitude, he published a tract in which he compared Charles to that humane and generous Persian king who, though not himself blessed with the light of the true religion, favored the chosen people, and permitted them, after years of captivity, to rebuild their beloved temple. To candid men, who consider how much Bunyan had suffered, and how little he could guess the secret designs of the court, the unsuspicious thankfulness with which he accepted the precious boon of freedom will not appear to require any apology.

Before he left his prison he had begun the book which has made his name immortal. The history of that book is remarkable. The author was, as he tells us, writing a treatise in which he had occasion to speak of the stages of the Christian progress. He compared that progress, as many others had compared it, to a pilgrimage. Soon his quick wit discovered innumerable points of similarity which had escaped his predecessors. Images came crowding on his mind faster than he could put them into words: quagmires and pits, steep hills, dark and horrible glens, soft vales, sunny pastures; a gloomy castle, of which the courtyard was strewn with the skulls and bones of murdered prisoners town all bustle and splendor, like London on the Lord Mayor’s Day; and the narrow path, straight as a rule could make it,running on uphill and down hill, through city and through wilderness, to the Black River and the Shining Gate. He had found out –as most people would have said, by accident; as he would doubtless have said, by the guidance of Providence –where his powers lay. He had no suspicion, indeed, that he was producing a masterpiece.

He could not guess what place his allegory would occupy in English literature, for of English literature he knew nothing. Those who suppose him to have studied the “Fairy Queen,” might easily be confuted, if this were the proper place for a detailed examination of the passages in which the two allegories have been thought to resemble each other. The only work of fiction, in all probability, with which he could compare his pilgrim, was his old favorite, the legend of Sir Bevis of Southampton. He would have thought it a sin to borrow any time from the serious business of his life, from his expositions, his controversies, and his lace tags, for the purpose of amusing himself with what he considered merely as a trifle. It was only, he assures us, at spare moments that he returned to the House Beautiful, the Delectable Mountains, and the Enchanted Ground. He had no assistance. Nobody but himself saw a line till the whole was complete. He then consulted his pious friends. Some were pleased. Others were much scandalized. It was a vain story, a mere romance about giants, and lions, and goblins, and warriors, sometimes fighting with monsters, and sometimes regaled by fair ladies in stately palaces. The loose, atheistical wits at Will’s might write such stuff to divert the painted Jezebels of the court; but did it become a minister of the Gospel to copy the evil fashions of the world? There had been a time when the cant of such fools would have made Bunyan miserable. But that time was passed, and his mind was now in a firm and healthy state. He saw that in employing fiction to make truth clear and goodness attractive, he was only following the example which every Christian ought to propose to himself; and he determined to print.

The “Pilgrim’s Progress” stole silently into the world.

Not a single copy of the first edition is known to be in existence. The year of publication has not been ascertained. It is probable that during some months, the little volume circulated only among poor and obscure sectaries. But soon the irresistible charm of a book which gratified the imagination of the reader with all the action and scenery of a fairytale, which exercised his ingenuity by setting him to discover a multitude of curious analogies, which interested his feelings for human beings, frail like himself, and struggling with temptations from within and from without, which every moment drew a smile from him by some stroke of quaint yet simple pleasantry, and nevertheless left on his mind a sentiment of reverence for God and of sympathy for man, began to produce its effect. In Puritanical circles, from which plays and novels were strictly excluded, that effect was such as no work of genius, though it were superior to the “Iliad,” to “Don Quixote,” or to “Othello,” can ever produce on a mind accustomed to indulge in literary luxury.

In 1668 came forth a second edition, with additions; and then the demand became immense. In the four following years the book was reprinted six times. The eighth edition, which contains the last improvements made by the author, was published in 1682, the ninth in 1684, the tenth in 1685. The help of the engraver had early been called in, and tens of thousands of children looked with terror and delight on execrable copperplates, which represented Christian thrusting his sword into Apollyon or writhing in the grasp of Giant Despair. In Scotland and in some of the colonies, the Pilgrim was even more popular than in his native country. Bunyan has told us, with very parable on vanity, that in New England his Dream was the daily subject of the conversation of thousands, and was thought worthy to appear in the most superb binding. He had numerous admirers in Holland and among the Huguenots of France. “With the pleasure, however, he experienced some of the pains of eminence. Knavish booksellers put forth volumes of trash under his name, and envious scribblers maintained it to be impossible that the poor ignorant tinker should really be the author of the book which was called his.

He took the best way to confound both those who counterfeited him and those slandered him. He continued to work the gold-field which he had discovered, and to draw from it new treasures; not, indeed, with quite such ease and in quite such abundance as when the precious soil was still virgin, but yet with success which left all competition far behind. In 1684 appeared the second part of the “Pilgrim’s Progress.” It was soon followed by the “Holy War,” which, if the ” Pilgrim’s Progress” did not exist, would be the best allegory that ever was written.

Bunyan’s place in society was now very different from what it had been. There had been a time when many Dissenting ministers, who could talk Latin and read Greek, had affected to treat him with scorn. But his fame and influence now far exceeded theirs. He had so great an authority among the Baptists that he was popularly called Bishop Bunyan. His episcopal visitations were annual. From Bedford he rode every year to London, and preached there to large and attentive congregations. From London he went his circuit through the country, animating the zeal of his brethren, collecting and distributing alms, and making up quarrels. The magistrates seem in general to have given him little trouble. But there is reason to believe that, in the year 1685, he was in some danger of again occupying his old quarters in Bedford jail. In that year, the rash and wicked enterprise of Monmouth gave the government a pretext for prosecuting the Non-conformists; and scarcely one eminent divine of the Presbyterian, Independent, or Baptist persuasion remained unmolested. Baxter was in prison; Howe was driven into exile; Henry was arrested.

Two eminent Baptists,with whom Bunyan had been engaged in controversy, were in great peril and distress. Danvers was in danger of being hanged, and Kiffin’s grandsons were actually hanged. The tradition is, that during those evil days, Bunyan was forced to disguise himself as a wagoner, and that he preached to his congregation at Bedford in a smock-frock, with a cart-whip in his hand. But soon a great change took place. James the Second was at open war with the Church, and found it necessary to court the Dissenters. Some of the creatures of the government tried to secure the aid of Bunyan. They probably knew that he had written in praise of the indulgence of 1672, and therefore hoped that he might be equally pleased with the Indulgence of 1687. But fifteen years of thought, observation, and commerce with the world had made him wiser. Nor were the cases exactly parallel. Charles was a professed Protestant; James was a professed papist. The object of Charles’s indulgence was disguised; the object of James’s indulgence was patent. Bunyan was not deceived. He exhorted his hearers to prepare themselves by fasting and prayer for the danger which menaced their civil and religious liberties, and refused even to speak to the courtier who came down to remodel the corporation [township] of Bedford, and who, as was supposed, had it in charge to offer some municipal dignity to the bishop of the Baptists.

Bunyan did not live to see the Revolution. In the Summer of 1688 he undertook to plead the cause of a son with an angry father, and at length prevailed on the old man not to disinherit the young one. This good work cost the benevolent intercessor his life. He had to ride through heavy rain. He came drenched to his lodgings on Snow Hill, was seized with a violent fever, and died in a few days. He was buried in Bunhill Fields; and the spot where he lies is still regarded by the Non-conformists with a feeling which seems scarcely in harmony with the stern spirit of their theology. Many Puritans, to whom the respect paid by Roman Catholics to the relics and tombs of saints seemed childish or sinful, are said to have begged with their dying breath that their coffins might be placed as near as possible to the coffin of the author of the ” Pilgrim’s Progress.”

The fame of Bunyan during his life, and during the century which followed his death, was indeed great, but was almost entirely confined to religious families of the middle and lower classes. Very seldom was he, during that time, mentioned with respect by any writer of great literary eminence. Young coupled his prose with the poetry of the wretched D’Urfey. In the “Spiritual Quixote,” the adventures of Christian are ranked with those of Jack the Giantkiller and John Hickathrift. Cowper ventured to praise the great allegorist, but did not venture to name him. It is a significant circumstance that, till a recent period, all the numerous editions of the “Pilgrim’s Progress” were evidently meant for the cottage and the servants’ hall. The paper, the printing, the plates were all of the meanest description. In general, when the educated minority and the common people differ about the merit of a book, the opinion of the educated minority finally prevails. The “Pilgrim’s Progress” is perhaps the only book about which, after the lapse of a hundred years, the educated minority has come over to the opinion of the common people.

0 king without a crown,
0 priest above the line
Whose course is through the ages down,
What wondrous eyes were thine !
As in the sea of glass,
So pictured in those eyes
Were all the things that come to pass
Beneath, above the skies ;
Between two worlds the way,
The sun, the cloud, the snares,
The pilgrim’s progress day by day,
The gladness God prepares.
Enough, enough this vision,
By thee built into story,
To crown thy life by Heaven’s decision,
With monumental glory.

 

2 thoughts on “From Darkness into Light: Or, how God used the Giant “Despair” to shape the Life of John Bunyan. Part Two of Two.

  1. I truly love John Bunyan and his works. Thanks for sharing this. 🙂

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