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Tolstoy in Embryo

A Tinker and a Poor Man: John Bunyan and His Church, 1628–1688

by Christopher Hill
Knopf, 394 pp., $22.95

Christopher Hill, former fellow of All Souls and until recently master of Balliol College at Oxford, the author of twelve influential and valuable books on the history of the seventeenth century, is well known among contemporary historians. He has made no secret of his philosophical premises, which are Marxist in the full-blooded populist British tradition (as distinguished from the abstract, highly dialectical strain most often encountered in American universities). Over the years Hill has not been without his opponents and detractors, but he is a prodigiously well-informed as well as a vociferous man; and he has persuaded enough disciples and silenced enough doubters so that it is really not inaccurate to refer to the age of the Puritan revolution and Civil Wars in England as “Hill’s half century.”

John Bunyan, on the other hand—who lived most of his life during this half-century—was and remains today a very shadowy figure. He was born in humble circumstances, perhaps not as humble as he liked to make out, but humble enough to discourage most of his literate contemporaries from taking any active biographical interest in him. Apart from a few municipal records and the slanders of polemical enemies, most of Bunyan’s life is known only from his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners; and this, having been published in 1666, can tell us nothing about the last twenty-two years of the writer’s life. Besides, like most spiritual autobiographies, it is more concerned to edify than to inform; accordingly, it scants (where it does not hopelessly confuse) dates, places, and concrete details. Almost certainly it exaggerates the “improving” features of Bunyan’s story, such as his abject poverty, his youthful wickedness, and his untutored inspiration. There seems general agreement that he had some knowledge of the tinker’s trade, that he served as a soldier during the 1640s, began acting as a lay Baptist preacher in the early 1650s, was arrested and imprisoned for unlicensed preaching by the restored monarchy in the 1660s, and that he wrote the first part of his masterpiece, Pilgrim’s Progress, in the 1670s. But at each step there are many open questions about him.

Our knowledge of John Bunyan is as limited and uncertain as our knowledge of Christopher Hill is precise and well documented. Unfortunately, Hill’s new book on Bunyan doesn’t do much to change this imbalance. The problems with the book as a study of Bunyan come primarily from the unquestionable strengths of the author. Where Bunyan has told us little about himself, and that cloudily, Hill provides substitute materials from his own copious store. Sometimes this useful matter derives from a better documented part of Bunyan’s life or a more explicit area of his writings. Thus a reader who is proceeding peacefully through an account of Bunyan in the 1650s suddenly finds he is being regaled with material from the posthumous writings, dating from as much as thirty years later. More often, the deficient records of Bunyan’s life are supplemented with copious material about his possible acquaintances, his fellow residents of Bedfordshire, his more or less remote fellow travelers—a good many people, in other words, whom he may or may not have known, or even heard of.

Bunyan might have been impressed with this or that—if he had had the faintest inkling of its existence”: the construction raps again and again on the door of a questioning reader’s awareness. An account of the exploits of Paul Hobson, who in 1644 or 1645 stirred up the Particular Baptists of Newport Pagnell at a time when Bunyan was doing his military service there concludes rather lamely that Hobson may or may not have influenced Bunyan. Association has been Hill’s usual method in writing his histories, and in history, where one isn’t ordinarily concentrating on a particular person’s consciousness, not much can be said against it. But if Bunyan is thought to be the center of Hill’s new book, there is a radical disproportion between the copious background material, the few strands of Bunyan biography that float in it, and the thin relation between the two.

Hobson can be thought of as part of the “climate of opinion” in which Bunyan grew up, when circumstances tossed him, raw and untutored, into the wars between king and Parliament. But did he follow with keen interest and aroused understanding the political and economic arguments of the most knowing participants? Hill has few doubts. Referring to James Harrington, Lawrence Clarkson, and Gerrard Winstanley, he writes, “For a country boy to be plunged into the middle of discussions like this, on subjects which could never before have been openly talked about by ordinary people, must have been an overwhelming experience.” Overwhelming it must have been, if there were a shred of evidence that Bunyan knew the first thing about Harrington, Clarkson, or Winstanley—none of whom published their distinctive books until years after Bunyan had been dismissed from the military.

The depth of Bunyan’s engagement is very much in question; he may have been conscripted, may have joined up to get away from a new and disagreeable stepmother, may have been trying to support his new wife. Actually, he was supposed for many years to have been, not in the parliamentary armies, but in the royal armies. If it was at the siege of Leicester, in June of 1645, that he had a close call when a substitute took his place in the assault force, then he must have been with the king’s troops. Grace Abounding, though it mentions his service as a soldier, says nothing at all of which army he served in, or of any ideological questionings or convictions. Hill attributes this silence to post-Restoration caution, but indifference seems just as feasible an explanation. When he had a conviction, John Bunyan was not as a rule timid about expressing it.

An interesting if awkward biographical question on another level gets from Hill only a vague answer: To what extent was Bunyan really a tinker? The word is in Hill’s title and recurrently in his text, but there’s only a passing phrase early in the book about Bunyan’s actually practicing the craft, nor does it seem wholly compatible with his known activities during sizable periods of his life. When in prison, for example, he could hardly have followed the calling of an itinerant mender of pots and pans; and when he wasn’t in prison, he was apt to be preaching, either to his own little congregation, to conventicles in London, or at voluntary assemblages throughout the countryside. There is at least one story,not mentioned by Hill, that while in prison Bunyan learned to tag laces. (Our modern shoe laces are a last vestige of what was then a much more popular and various article of apparel.) That work would be compatible with residence in a jail, and the story is that laces were a main source of his income, both then and afterward. But Bunyan had special reasons for wanting to be known as a tinker.

Bunyan’s father, who aspired to higher status, actually had a shop and a forge in which he fixed pots and pans; but he called himself a brazier. Bunyan the son much preferred to call himself a tinker, because, being vagabonds and outcasts, tinkers had a bad reputation. A tinker in the pulpit would be a striking novelty, a strong testimony to the power of the Spirit to touch as with a glowing coal the lips and hearts of even the lowliest. Mechanic preachers, a recognized group with traditions of their own, vied with one another in emphasizing the humbleness of their callings. Bunyan had to compete with the likes of Arise Evans the godly tailor, Samuel How the preaching cobbler, and Jeremiah Ives the inspired cheesemonger; in that contest for public attention the reputation of a preaching tinker was invaluable to him. But in real life, he had a wife and children at Elstow, as well as congregations regular and irregular before which he was in great demand; he is unlikely to have followed for long the life of a vagabond mender of pots and pans. He may have done so for a while, but most of his later life, it seems clear, was devoted to activities that earned him a very different label; he became widely known, and only half-jokingly, as “Bishop” Bunyan.

Part of his role as tinker-preacher was to scoff at the university-educated clergymen who occupied the pulpits of the established church; and for this purpose innocence of book-learning was a useful convention of the popular preacher. How ignorant and untutored was Bunyan, as a matter of fact? No man who produces more than two thousand closely printed pages on any subject at all can be supposed very close to illiteracy. Still, there’s some evidence that Bunyan, in his youth at least, had trouble with spelling, punctuation, and orthography. Unquestionably he knew the Bible by heart, and Pilgrim’s Progress provides evidence of acquaintance with popular and perhaps allegorical romances. Literacy in the seventeenth century tended to be measured by familiarity with the Latin and perhaps the Greek classics; in those terms, of course, Bunyan was illiterate. But he knew the books he wanted to know, he knew them maybe too well (there are insinuations of plagiarism); and his command of his native idiom was beyond praise. How much of his wicked youth, with which Macaulay had such fun, derived ultimately from Saint Augustine, perhaps through a tradition of pious pulpit actors and histrionic revivalists, is hard to say. About his spiritual agonies there is no possible doubt; but he makes as much wickedness out of tipcat and bell-ringing as Augustine does out of that stolen pear. These are not by any means novel topics, but Hill gives us few grounds for forming a considered judgment on them.

Hill is essentially a political and economic thinker, while Bunyan had few and not very coherent ideas on both topics. Some of the preacher’s confusions came out interestingly toward the end of his life, when he came very close to expressing support for James II on the basis of the latter’s duplicitous Declarations of Indulgence (1687 and 1688). James, a Catholic absolutist in the pay of Louis XIV, offered exemptions and privileges to both dissenters and Catholics with the transparent intention of getting support from the former against the Church of England in order to promote the permanent powers of the latter. Bunyan was almost taken in by this maneuver.

Hill explains Bunyan’s support of James as the consequence of Bunyan’s overriding interest in toleration. But “toleration” in the seventeenth century was a very slippery concept. Bunyan professed to be violently against “persecutors” of every sort. That, if we look at the concept in his terms, would include Anglican gentry and clergy, kings and their ministers, the “Norman” aristocracy, all the descendants of Cain who brought inequality into the world and perpetuated it. Needless to say, most of this ferocity was only verbal; Bunyan was in no position to visit retribution on anybody. But the intent by itself sharply attenuates that “toleration” that Hill finds to be the central value of Bunyan’s political thinking. Toleration for himself and his friends seems to include the right to exterminate—under the name of “persecutors”—all of their enemies. Hill is quite frank on the point. “Bunyan,” he says, “was not interested in the rights of any but…this [i.e., his]…church.” This doesn’t seem like a practical political position (or, for that matter, a very charitable religious) position. From some remote corner of my past I recall a satiric versicle from a German poem on the Marxist view of brotherly love:

Und willst du nicht mein Bruder sein,
So schlag ich dir den Kopf hinein.

(And if you do not want to be my brother, then I’ll bash your head in.)

It’s not quite clear, after all, how close Hill would come to endorsing Bunyan’s shifty and uncertain notions of toleration for good guys exclusively.

The question is of some interest because Hill clearly proposes Bunyan as an author and Pilgrim’s Progress as an inspirational book for the underprivileged and oppressed of our own time. Analogically, to be sure, there is no limit to the number of underdog- and struggle-situations to which Bunyan’s story of search and striving could be applied, as one recalls Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. But all sorts of techniques in the writing—from the heavy allegory to the antiquated machinery of castles, dragons, and sword fights—conspire to make Bunyan’s masterpiece less accessible now than it used to be, even among the social classes (shopkeepers, servants, provincial entrepreneurs) to whom it originally appealed.* Thus the judgment that “Bunyan leap-frogged Milton, the seventeenth-century radical, in popular esteem,” and “came to be accepted as the creative artist of dissent, in a way that the university classicist Milton never could be” seems to conceal a number of jokers. Milton never proposed himself or was taken by his readers as the “creative artist of dissent”; and ranking an author as erudite as Milton by “popular esteem” places him automatically far below the awful Francis Quarles. At least one element in a literary judgment is the capacity of a text to reward sustained meditation and analysis. This doesn’t seem to require a university or a classical education, as witness the poetry of Blake, Yeats, and Dylan Thomas; it does call for more density and fullness of thought than one finds in Bunyan.

Hardly anyone, I suspect, gets much lift out of the doctrinal dialogues between Christian and Hopeful in the last pages of Pilgrim’s Progress:

CHRISTIAN. Why, what was it that brought your sins to mind again?

HOPEFUL. Many things, as,

  1. If I did but meet a good man in the streets; or,

  2. If I have heard any read in the Bible; or,

  3. If mine head did begin to ache; or,

  4. If I were told that some of my neighbours were sick; or,

  5. If I heard the bell toll for some that were dead; or,

  6. If I thought of dying myself; or,

  7. If I heard that sudden death happened to others;

  8. But especially, when I thought of myself, that I must quickly come to judgment.

CHRISTIAN. And could you at any time with ease get off the guilt of sin when by any of these ways it came upon you?

HOPEFUL. No, not latterly, for then they got faster hold of my conscience. And then, if I did but think of going back to sin (though my mind was turned against it) it would be double torment to me.

CHRISTIAN. And how did you do then?

HOPEFUL. I thought I must endeavour to mend my life, for else, thought I, I am sure to be damned.

CHRISTIAN. And did you endeavour to mend?

HOPEFUL. Yes, and fled from, not only my sins, but sinful company, too, and betook me to religious duties, as praying, reading, weeping for sin, speaking truth to my neighbours, &c. These things I did, with many others, too much here to relate.

CHRISTIAN. And did you think yourself well then?

HOPEFUL. Yes, for a while; but at the last…

The passage teeters on the edge of low comedy, as when telling truth to one’s neighbors is made a notable religious chore, or the onset of a headache inspires a conviction of mortal sin.

But Bunyan is all of a piece; his silliness and his heroism are made of the same cloth. What sticks in the mind from his great book is the courage and companionship of the pilgrims as they trudge along, singing now and then an improvised doggerel verse to keep themselves in courage—or the dry, contemptuous wit with which Mr. By-Ends and Mr. Worldly-Wiseman are dismissed—and the dreadful smile of Christian after his desperate victory over the foul fiend Apollyon. These are the work not of a folk-artist, but of an imaginative artist who needs no apologies or limitations. But…there is an inevitable But. One has to make concessions. The book’s genuine and impressive moral drive pushes it into tedious and barren discourses that a man devoted to his art rather than his lesson would have sacrificed. Bunyan seems to say, if you can’t stand my moral pounding, you’re not a pilgrim of my sort. He was, so to speak, a Tolstoy in embryo; it’s surprising that the parallel hasn’t been pursued.

By the very high standards Christopher Hill has made his own, his book on Bunyan isn’t one of his best; cloudy, erratic Bunyan gets too often in the way of hard-headed Hill. Like Swift, who loathed everything he stood for, Bunyan was a moral gadfly who liked nothing better than to sting the morally complacent, the comfortable, and the organized of his own party. (By a belated pun, the full beauty of which he couldn’t appreciate, he refers to them as “professors.”) Following G.B. Shaw, another provocative protestant, Hill appreciates this quality generously. To be sure, scrupulous devotion to the minutest articles of conscientious religious truth carries a negative overtone. As they enter into the Heavenly City, the exultant pilgrims are particularly exhilarated by the sight of lgnorant being shunted down a garbage chute to eternal torment and reprobation. I’m not ashamed to suppose I could well be found there with Ignorant; spiritual enlightenment never was my long suit. But beside us both, it’s consoling to think, we might very well find the former master of Balliol, whose tough and reasonable mind would, I suspect, not be altogether attuned to that of an enthusiastic, visionary Baptist.

Letters

Bunyan’s Progress April 13, 1989

  1. *

    Hill cites a study showing that only one in seven American seventeen-year-olds could identify Bunyan’s book. I would be amazed if the number were anything like that high. In the America I know, one in seven hundred would be a generous estimate. In the college library to which I resorted for this review, of the three volumes of Offor’s edition o bunyan’s Works (the 1973 AMS reprint only one had ever been checked out to reader—just one reader, nine years ago; the other two volumes were unsullied.

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