C. H. (Charles Harding) Firth.

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The Pilgrim's Progress is so closely related to the life of Bunyan
that it is impossible to appreciate the one without some knowledge
of the other. How was it, one naturally asks, that a man of little
education could produce two centuries ago a masterpiece which is still
read wherever the English language is spoken, and has been translated
into every European tongue ? It is not sufficient to answer that the
author of the work was a genius : it is necessary to show what the
conditions were which enabled his genius to develop itself, led him to
find the form of expression which best suited its character, and secured
for what it produced both immediate popularity and lasting fame.

Bunyan belonged to a family of Bedfordshire peasants which can
be traced back for many generations in local records, and the theory
that he was of gipsy descent has long been disproved. His father,
Thomas Bunyan, was a tinker, or, as he calls himself in his will, ' a
brasier.' He is described by one of the biographers of his son as
' an honest, poor labouring man, who, like Adam unparadised, had all
the world before him to get his bread in, and was very careful to
maintain his family.' John, who was the eldest son of Thomas
Bunyan, was baptized in Elstow Church on November 30, 1628. Poor
though his parents were, says he, ' it pleased God to put into their
hearts to put me to school to learn both to read and write ; the which
I also attained according to the rate of other poor men's children ;
though to my shame I confess I did soon lose that little I learnt, even
almost utterly.' His school days were over and he was beginning to
learn his father's trade when the civil war began. He joined the
parliamentary army, not as a volunteer, but as one of the j^oung men
whom Bedfordshire, like other counties under the Parliament's control.
Was ordered to impress for military service. His name appears in the
muster roll of a regiment forming part of the garrison of Newport
Pagnell in November 1644, when he was just sixteen years old, and he
served there till the end of May 1645, and perhaps a few months

As he was present with his company at Newport on May 27, 1645,
the story that he fought at the siege of Leicester must be definitely
abandoned, for the king began the investment of that town on
May 28.

In 1647 at the latest Bunyan's military service ended. He had seen
something of a soldier's life in a frontier garrison, but can have taken
part in no fighting more serious than a trifling skirmish, or possibly
the siege of some fortified house. But it must have enlarged the
home-bred country boy's knowledge of men and manners, and what-

* Originally printed in 1898 as an introduction to an edition of the Pilgrim a Progress
published by Messrs. Methueu & Co., and now reprinted by their permission.

* This fact was discovered by Mr. E. G. Atkinson of the Public Record Office, who
found there some muster-rolls proving it. See Notes and Queries, July 18, 1896.



ever he saw and learnt remained in his mind, and was put to good
use when he came to describe the character of a Puritan soldier in the
person of Mr. Great-heart, and the vicissitudes of a besieged to\\Ti in
the history of the City of Mansoul. He returned to his trade, married
about the year 1649 a woman of his own rank whose name is unknown,
and set up housekeeping at Elstow. * This woman and I,' says he,
' came together as poor as might be, not having so much household
stuff as a dish or spoon betwixt us both.' But she brought with her
two books : The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven, by Arthur Dent,
and Bishop Bayly's Practice of Piety. These books they sometimes
read together, ' wherein,' he tells us, ' I found some things that were
not unpleasing to me.' In his younger days Bunyan had been, accord-
ing to his own account, careless and vicious. ' I had but few equals,
especially considering my years, both for cursing, lying and blas-
pheming. ... I was the very ringleader of all the youth that kept me
company, in all manner of \ice and ungodliness.' Yet even then his
imagination was sensitive to supernatural visitings. He was scared
at times by fearful dreams and dreadful visions, and afflicted with
apprehensions of de\'ils. On his marriage he became a reformed and
an outwardly religious man. He felt ' some desires to religion ', he
went to church twice a Sunday, became ' overrun with the spirit of
superstition ', and began to reverence both the church itself and the
clergyman who ministered there with great devotion. ' My neigh-
bours did take me to be a very godly man, a new and religious man,
and did much marvel to see such a great and famous alteration in
my life and manners.' But while others thought him one of the elect
his mind was distracted by doubt and despondency, he doubted the
reality of his conversion, the certainty of his election and salvation.
' I began to sink greatly in my soul, and began to entertain such
discouragement in my heart as laid me as low as Hell. ... I fell at
the sight of my own vileness deeply into despair ; for I concluded that
this condition I was in could not stand with a state of grace. Sure,
thought I, I am forsaken of God ; sure I am given up to the Devil
and to a reprobate mind. And thus I continued a long while, even
for some years together.' He read the Bible diligently, and at times
found comfort in it. More often ' fearful scriptures ' would strike
him down as dead, and ring in his ears for days together. He read
religious treatises too ; some of the books of the Ranters which religious
friends recommended to him fell into his hands, but they gave no
light, but fresh doubts. Another book he lighted on was the story of
Francis Spira — an apostate Protestant — which ' was to my troubled
spirit as salt when rubbed into a fresh wound '. Chance at last threw
into his hands Martin Luther's commentary on the Galatians, in which,
says he, ' I found my condition so largely and profoundly handled as
if his book had been written out of my heart. . . .' It seemed to him
of all the books he had ever seen, the most fit for a wounded conscience.
Much, too, was he helped and comforted by the teaching of John
Gifford — the minister of an Independent congregation which had
St. John's Church at Bedford for its meeting-place. Bunyan was
formally received as a member of this church in 1653. Gifford's
doctrine, he says, ' by God's grace was much for my stability ' ; it
was ' as seasonable to my soul as the former and the latter rain in
their season '. His troubles were not yet ended, but by slow degrees


his mind grew less perturbed and he passed from darkness and terror
to peace and light.

In Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, which he
published in 1666, he told the story of his spiritual life with a minute-
ness that strangely contrasts with his reticence about those outward
things on which most modern autobiographies dilate.

He \\Tites as a man to whom the little world within is the only real
world, and the great one without something unsubstantial and vision-
ary. Grace Aboutiding is the best preface to the Pilgrim's Progress,
and the best comment upon it. Bunyan's allegory is the generalization
of his own experiences, shadowing the incidents of his own history.
The elements of the Pilgrim's Progress are in the earlier work, waiting
for the moment which is to combine them into an allegorical story.
Its style has the same qualities. There is the strong, simple, homely
diction, sometimes touched with imagination, and always full of
passionate sincerity. There is the same vivid realization of things
unseen, which is already becoming a tendency to give concrete form
to the promptings of the heart and the abstractions of the brain.
Bunyan's struggles with temptation are pictured as struggles with a
corporeal tempter, audible and visible. At one time he describes
himself as ' much followed by this scripture, " Simon, Simon, behold
Satan hath desired to have you," ' and ' sometimes it would sound so
loud within me, yea, call so strongly after me, that once above all the
rest I turned my head over my shoulder, thinking that verily some
man behind me called me '. At times as he prayed, ' I have thought
I felt the devil behind me pulling my clothes ; he would also be con-
tinually at me in the time of prayer to have done : " Break off, make
haste, you have prayed long enough, stay no longer." ' Worst of all
was the voice that cried in his ear, ' Sell Christ for this or that.' ' This
temptation did put me into such fears that by the very force of my
imagination in labouring to gainsay and resist this wickedness my very
body would be put into action, by way of pushing or thrusting with
my hands or elbows, still answering as fast as the destroyer said,
*' Sell Him." ' And again, when the temptation is conquered, he says,
* Methought I saw as if the tempter did leer and steal away from me,
as being ashamed of what he had done.' Bunyan's hopes took the
same distinct and concrete form to his mind's eye. ' Now had I an
evidence, as I thought, of my salvation from heaven, with many
golden seals thereon all hanging in my sight. . . . My understanding
was so enlightened that I was as though I had seen the Lord Jesus
look down from heaven through the tiles upon me, and direct these
words unto me.' His natural instinct was to express each change of
feeling, each vicissitude in his spiritual conflict, in figurative or meta-
phorical form. In his despair his tumultuous thoughts ' like ma«terless
hell hounds roar and bellow within him ', his soul was ' like a broken
vessel driven as with the winds ', To describe his despondency, he
employs the very image he subsequently uses to depict Christian's
experiences in the Pilgrim's Progress, and likens himself to a child that
has fallen into a pool, or a horse stuck fast in the mire and struggling
to reach firm ground.

The instinct which made Bunyan seek to realize his mental con-
ceptions of the spiritual world in the most visible and tangible shape,
and to express each vicissitude in his religious experience in a simile


or a figure, led him naturally towards allegory. In the verses in which
he explains the origin of the Pilgrim's Progress, he says :

Thus it was : I writing of the Way

And Race of Saints, in this our Gospel-day,

Fell suddenly into an Allegory

About their Journey, and the way to Glory.

So now in Grace Abounding Bunyan, comparing his forlorn condition
with the lot of those happy in their certain faith, ' fell suddenly into
an allegory.'

' About this time, the state and happiness of these poor people at
Bedford was thus, in a dream or Vision, prescribed to me. I saw as if
they were set on the Sunny side of some high Mountain, there refresh-
ing themselves with the pleasant beams of the Sun, while I was shivering
and shrinking in the Cold, afflicted with Frost, Snow, and dark Clouds.
Methought, also, betwixt me and them, I saw a wall that did compass
about this mountain ; now, through this wall my soul did greatly
desire to pass ; concluding, that if I could, I would go even into the
midst of them, and there also comfort myself with the heat of their Sun.

' About this wall I thought myself to go again and again, still prying
as I went, to see if I could find some way or passage, by which I might
enter therein ; but none could I find for some time. At the last,
I saw, as it were, a narrow gap, like a little doorway in the Wall,
through which I attempted to pass. Now the passage being very
strait and narrow, I made many efforts to get in, but all in Vain, even
until I was well nigh quite beat out, by striving to get in. At last,
with great striving, methought I at first did get in my head, and after
that, by a sidling striving, my shoulders and my whole Body. Then
I was exceeding glad, and went and sat down in the midst of them,
and so was comforted with the light and heat of their Sun.

' Now, this Mountain and Wall, &c., was thus made out to me — the
Mountain signified the Church of the living God ; the Sun that shone
thereon, the comfortable shining of his merciful Face on them that
were therein ; the wall, I thought, was the Word, that did make
separation between the Christians and the World ; and the Gap which
was in this Wall, I thought, was Jesus Christ, who is the way to God
the Father. But forasmuch as the passage was wonderful narrow,
even so narrow that I could not, but with great difficulty, enter in
thereat, it showed me that none could enter into Life, but those that
were in downright earnest, and unless also they left this wicked World
behind them ; for here was only room for Body and Soul, but not for
Body and Soul and Sin.

' This resemblance abode upon my Spirit many days.'

Many years were yet to pass before Bunyan would make a similar
resemblance the groundwork of a story presenting not merely his own
experience, but the general experience of all seekers after righteousness.
In the meantime the training he went through tended to fit him for
the task towards which his natural bent led him. Assiduous reading
of the Bible and of the few religious books he possessed had been to
him a new education, which rej)laced the little school learning he had
forgotten. Assiduous preaching and controversial wTiting completed
the process. Some two years or so after he joined Mr. Gifford's con-
gregation, brethren who had discovered his gift of utterance, pressed
him to exhort the rest in their private meetings, and ' with much


\veakness and infirmity ' he obeyed their desire. Urged by them, he
began to exhort more publicly, and at last, about 1656, he tells us,
' being still desired by the church, I was more particularly called forth
and appointed to a more ordinary and public preaching the Word,
not only to and amongst them that believed, but also to offer the
Gospel to those who had not yet received the faith thereof.' Besides
the desire of the church, he felt in his own mind ' a secret pricking
thereto '. Conscious that he had a gift, he could not be content
unless he exercised it. ' Wherefore,' he says, ' though of all the Saints
the most unworthy, yet I, but with great fear and trembling at the
sight of my oAvn weakness, did set upon the work, and did according
to my gift and the proportion of my faith preach that blessed Gospel
that God had showed me.' Soon from all parts of the country round
men came to hear him in hundreds, and some were touched and greatly
affected in their minds. Ministers of the established church warned
people against ' the wandering preaching tinker '. Quakers con-
troverted him, he was derided and slandered, but nothing could break
the spell M-hich he cast over those who heard him. The secret of his
eloquence was its passion and its sincerity. ' I preached what I felt,
what I smartingly did feel. . . .' 'I carried that fire in my onmi con-
science that I persuaded them to beware of. . . .' 'I have been in my
preaching as if an angel of God had stood at my back to encourage
me. . . .' 'I could not be contented with saying, / believe and am sure,
methought I was more than sure that those things which I then asserted
were true.'

In 1660 the Restoration came, and the forcible suppression of non-
conformity began. On November 12, 1660, Bunyan was arrested at
a hamlet in Bedfordshire just as he was about to begin to preach.
* At the sessions,' he relates, ' I was indicted for an upholder and
maintainor of unlawful conventicles, and for not conforming to the
national worship of the Church of England ; and after some conference
there with the judges, they taking my plain dealing with them for
a confession of my indictment, did sentence me to a perpetual imprison-
ment because I refused to conform.' He not only refused to conform,
but refused to give up preaching. A friend argued with him, that the
powers that be were ordained of God, and that therefore it was his
duty to obey the law. ' Sir,' said Bunyan, ' the law hath provided
two ways of obeying. The one is to do that which I in my conscience
do believe that I am bound to do actively, and where I cannot obey
actively there I am willing to lie down, and to suffer what they shall
do unto me.'

For the next twelve years Bunyan was a prisoner in the county
gaol at Bedford. In 1666 he is said to have been released for a short
time, but if so he was speedily re-arrested. Towards the close of his
imprisonment its rigour was considerably relaxed, for from August
1668 he was able occasionally to attend the meetings of his congrega-
tion, and his name is frequently mentioned in its records. On January
21, 1672, while still a prisoner, he was elected to be its minister, having
been hitherto merely one of its deacons and an occasional preacher.
During liis confinement he maintained himself and his family by
making laces, and perhaps also by some other handicraft. ' I have
been witness,' writes a friend, ' that his own hands have ministered to
his and liis families necessities, making many hundred gross of long


tagged laces to fill up the vacancies of his time, which he had learned
for that purpose since he had been in prison.' He also wTote much.
Four works from Bunyan's pen were published between 1656 and 1660,
and eleven others appeared between 1661 and 1672. One was a curious
' map showing the causes of Salvation and Damnation '. Four of
them were verse compositions, viz., Profitable Meditatio'ns, Prison
Meditations, Ehal and Gerizim, and The Four Last Thitigs. Of the
prose works, Grace Abounding, published in 1666, was the most im-
portant. The friend who visited Bunyan in prison describes him as
having with him there ' his library, the least and yet the best that
ever I saw, consisting only of two books — a Bible and the Book of
Martyrs '. The copy of Foxe's Book of Martyrs, which Bunyan
bought during his imprisonment, is now in the library of the Literary
and Scientific Institute at Bedford. It contains some doggerel verses
on the margins which Southey and other biographers have attributed
to Bunyan himself, but they are in the handwriting of one of the later
owners of the book. Southey is nevertheless right in saying that
Bunyan learnt to versify from Foxe. His earliest verses, and especially
his Prison Meditations, closely resemble both in metre and style ' the
godly letter of Master Robert Smith in metre ', which Foxe inserts
in his account of the sufferings of the martyrs of Mary's reign. And
the farewell speeches of the martyrs to their friends before they passed
through the fixe, probably suggested the similar utterances of Bunyan's
pilgrims before they passed through the river. The influence of Foxe
over Bunyan is further attested by the fact that he is frequently
quoted in Bunyan's religious treatises, and is indeed the only author
so quoted.

In 1672 Charles II, desirous of winning support for the war against
the Dutch, changed his policy towards the English Nonconformists,
and published on March 15, 1672, his Declaration of Indulgence. On
May 8, Bunyan and his fellow prisoners at Bedford petitioned for
their release, and on September 13, 1672, he received with many
others a pardon under the Great Seal. He had obtained his freedom,
however, some months before this formal pardon was granted, and
on May 9, 1672, he was given a licence to preach either in the house of
Josias Ruffhead at Bedford, which was the meeting-place of his little
congregation, or in any other licensed building. Ruffhead's house, or
rather his barn, and the orchard in which it stood, were conveyed to
Bunyan and his congregation in August 1672, and the present Bunyan
Meeting at Bedford now stands upon its site.

This respite from persecution was only temporary. Parliament
obliged Charles II to amiul his Declaration of Indulgence within a year
of its promulgation, and the toleration it had guaranteed came to an
end. In 1675, probably towards the end of the year, Bmiyan was
again imprisoned, and remained a prisoner till the spring of the follow-
ing year. This time the place of his confinement was the town gaol
of Bedford, which stood on the bridge over the Ouse, and served the
double purpose of a prison and a toll-house. The gaol on the bridge
was ' the den ' to which Bunyan refers, in the opening lines of the
Pilgrim's Progress, as the place in which he laid himself down to sleep
and dreamed his dream. Dr. John Brown — the last and best of
Bunyan's biographers — has proved the time and the circumstances
under which the composition of the Pilgrim's Progress was begun by


an ingenious and convincing series of arguments. Bunyan occupied
himself during the first part of his imprisonment by writing a catechism
entitled, Instruction for the Ignorant, which he dedicated to his con-
gregation at Bedford. In the preface to this work, which was pub-
lished in 1675, he describes himself as ' being driven from you in
presence, not affection ', obviously alluding in these words to his
confinement. He then began a discourse called ' The Strait Gate, or
the great difficulty of going to heaven, plainly proving by the Scrip-
tures, that not only the rude and profane, but many great professors
will come short of that kingdom '. After dwelling on the narrowTiess
of the gate, Bunyan enumerated the different kinds of professing
Christians who would seek to enter by it and would be unable, and
characterized them one by one. As he wTote a new idea flashed across his
mind. He would \vrite not a treatise only but a story, not of the
gate only but of the road, with all its difficulties and perils, representing
not merely pretended saints, but honest wayfarers on their journey
' from this world to that which is to come '.

Such is the account of the origin of the Pilgrim's Progress given by
Bunyan himself in the rough verses prefixed to it, if we interpret
them by the light of the contents and history of the Strait Gate. When
I began to write this, sa3'8 Bunyan, I did not mean to make a book
of it.

Nay, I had undertook

To make another, which when ahnost done

Before I was aware I this begun.

For I was wTiting of the way to Heaven, and of the race of Christians
who live nowadays, when I ' fell suddenlj^ into an allegory '. Bunyan
appears to have intended to make this allegory an episode in his
treatise on the Strait Gate, but one thought kindled another, and the
allegory grew so rapidly that he determined to keep it separate, lest it
should quite swallow up and ' eat out ' the serious treatise. The
various classes of pretenders to religion enumerated at the end of the
Strait Gate appear in the Pilgrim's Progress amongst the persons whom
Christian meets upon the road. Those ' whose religion lieth only in
their tongues ' are represented by Mr. Talkative, the covetous pro-
fessors who make a gain of religion by Mr. By-ends, and the wilfully
ignorant by ' the very brisk lad ' whose name was Ignorance. The
legalist is heard of as Mr. Legality, and the formalist is one of the two
men who ' come tumbling over the wall ' because they think it too far
round to go to the gate.

Bunyan was released from his imprisonment in 1676, and published
The Strait Gate before the close of that j^ear. The Pilgrim's Progress
seems to have been unfinished when he left the gaol, and was com-
pleted outside its walls. Such at least is the inference which has
been drawn from the curious break in the story which occurs on
p. 153. After describing the parting of Christian and Hopeful with
the shepherds on the Delectable Mountains, Bunyan concludes, ' So
I awoke from my dream.' In the next paragraph he continues,
' And I slept and dreamed again, and saw the same two pilgrims going
down the mountains along the highway towards the City.' Dr. Brown
argues with great probability that this breaking of Bunyan's dream
alludes to his release from the den in which he began his dream. When
Bunyan had resumed and completed the first part of the Pilgrim's


Progress, he showed it to some of his friends and asked them whether
he should print it or not. Some had scruples about the treatment of
sacred things in a fictitious narrative, but finding them divided he
determined to publish it, prefixing to it, however, a preface defending
his use of similes and figures for the purpose of instruction. In
December 1677 the book was in the hands of the printer, Nathaniel
Ponder, and was entered by him at Stationers' Hall. It was licensed
on February 18, 1678, and published forthwith in a little octavo

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Online LibraryC. H. (Charles Harding) FirthJohn Bunyan → online text (page 1 of 4)