A Tinker and a Poor Man: John Bunyan and His Church, 1628–1688
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.