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By KEVIN BELMONTE
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Kevin Belmonte
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Chapter OneLEGACY AND MEMORY
Genius knows no laws save its own, observes no precedents, but wherever it occurs, it remains one of the perennial human mysteries. John Bunyan in his day personified that mystery. -Ola Winslow
Bedford, England, 1838. The ancient and celebrated cottage on St. Cuthbert Street was to be demolished. No historical commission intervened, and someone surely should have, for the cottage had once been home to John Bunyan, whose book The Pilgrim's Progress has earned an unassailable place in the literary canon.
And so the home where Bunyan lived from 1655 until his death passed into memory, its site now marked by one of the ubiquitous blue plaques that dot the British landscape. No one would ever again be able to ascend stairs upon which the great man had walked, or look out from windows from which he had seen the wider world.
But the cottage, and Bunyan himself, had one final legacy to reveal: workers removing bricks from the cottage chimney discovered a Deed of gift he had written and hidden in 1685, bequeathing his entire estate to his wife, Elizabeth. Twice imprisoned, he had been fearful that the authorities might arrest him yet again and seize his possessions. The discoveryof this document meant that yet another of his legacies had transcended the years.
Of course, Bunyan's most transcendent legacy is a literary one. The imagery conjured by The Pilgrim's Progress fired the artistic vision of William Blake. Its themes led the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams to pen an opera. Writers from Thackeray to C. S. Lewis have drawn inspiration from the tinker whose simple cadences transformed the language. George Eliot, Samuel Johnson, Coleridge, and Macaulay-as well as presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt-have all acknowledged the greatness of The Pilgrim's Progress. It is, quite simply, one of the finest works in the English language.
Nor is the claim of Bunyan's book to immortality confined to the sanctions of the great-whether literary lions or leaders whose images grace the peak of Mount Rushmore. It was Macaulay who observed in an Edinburgh Review essay that many early editions of The Pilgrim's Progress were "evidently meant for the cottage and the servant's hall." It was, then, very much a book for the common people.
Macaulay was not one to suffer fools gladly, and he did not hesitate to puncture pomposity, whether literary or cloistered within the halls of academe. In his essay, he took direct aim at both. "In general," he observed, "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."
We can be grateful that Bunyan's book found an enduring place in cottages and servants' halls. Its availability in cheap editions ensured that the young Abraham Lincoln could absorb and distill its rhythms and style. Homes of the time, if they had any books, were most likely to have a copy of The Pilgrim's Progress. Echoes of the King James Bible, along with Bunyan's prose, influenced the spare and graceful cadences of the Gettysburg Address.
The Pilgrim's Progress, apart from its considerable literary legacy, has a fascinating history-one only hinted at in what has been said above. And if ever a book were to have a biography written about it, Bunyan's book is most deserving of one.
Chapter TwoTIMES THAT TRIED MEN'S SOULS
There are, [I] think, some characters and scenes in The Pilgrim's Progress, which can be fully comprehended and enjoyed only by persons familiar with the history of the times through which Bunyan lived. -Thomas Babington (Lord Macaulay)
Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward." So we read in the book of Job (5:7 KJV). But these words could well describe the world in which John Bunyan lived. It was tumultuous and tragic by any measure. Wars and religious conflicts threatened to tear Britain apart, and very nearly did.
In January 1649, when Bunyan was twenty, Charles I was beheaded outside the palace of Whitehall. This regicide had been preceded by two civil wars in four years, and it was followed by the establishment of the Commonwealth of England. A republic had replaced the monarchy. On December 16, 1653, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of Britain. He died in early September 1658, and was succeeded by his son Richard.
However, in the spring of 1659, Richard Cromwell was forced to resign. George Monck, now head of the army, briefly assumed power. Less than one year later, he was deposed when the monarchy was restored, and Charles II became king in May 1660.
This second Charles, as royal a rake as ever has been, had his revenge. In 1661, Oliver Cromwell's body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey, and on January 30, the same date Charles I had been executed, Cromwell's body suffered a posthumous execution. They beheaded him, threw his body into a pit, and displayed his severed head on a pole outside Westminster Abbey for the next twenty-four years. In what has to be one of the more macabre side notes of British history, Cromwell's head was treated as a ghastly souvenir, passing through several owners over the next century and a half. As late as 1814, it was sold to one Josiah Henry Wilkinson. Another 146 years would pass before Cromwell's remains found something like a final rest. His head was buried on the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1960, almost three hundred years after being exhumed.
One regicide, two civil wars, five heads of government in twelve years. Sporadic outbreaks of religious persecution contingent on who was in power. Under the Commonwealth of Cromwell, Catholics in Ireland were treated brutally. Thousands were dispossessed of their lands during this violent regime. Cottages and houses were burnt, and their owners "cut down or hanged without mercy." The Sack of Wexford and Siege of Drogheda became bywords for massacre and treachery. At Wexford, the garrison commander was trying to negotiate a surrender when parliamentary troops stormed in, killing soldiers and civilians alike. Thousands died.
After the Commonwealth's demise, and under the reign of Charles II, conditions for dissenters were no less life threatening. During his trial in 1661, the presiding judge threatened Bunyan with perpetual banishment if he refused to "leave off preaching." Further, he was told that if he were to be banished, and "was again found in the country without special licence to return from the King, he would stretch by the neck for it."
One year later, in 1662, the Act of Uniformity was passed. It was then, Roger Sharrock wrote, that "the full tide of persecution fell upon the dissenters."
Hundreds of ministers who would not accept the Book of Common Prayer or episcopal ordination were ejected from the [clerical positions] they held under the Commonwealth. In 1664 a new and more severe Conventicle Act was passed which prescribed crippling fines or imprisonment for [dissenters adjudged guilty]; the Five Mile Act of 1665 drive the ministers [from] city limits and outside their former [districts]. Not till the expiration of the Conventicle Act in 1668 ... was there any relaxation of these measures.
Like so many dissenters, Bunyan was in prison, where he would remain for twelve years. In a dirty, overcrowded cell, his blind daughter, Mary, visited, bringing the solace of food and soup for his supper in a stoneware jug now housed in the museum that bears his name. Beyond the doors of the Bedford county gaol, ministers went into hiding. Thousands of dissenters cherished their faith in secret, and many feared for their lives.
With good reason. For an extended period, beginning in May 1670, the government redoubled its efforts to put an end to all religious services outside the Church of England. Local magistrates created a network of spies to hunt down and inform on people who took part in nonconformist religious gatherings. John Bunyan was already in prison, but his friends and loved ones were not, and when the district between Bedford and Cambridge was placed under surveillance, it put them in danger.
This nationwide system of espionage had been more or less at work ever since the passing of the Act of Uniformity in 1662; but in 1670-71, it became far more active. Spies earned handsome rewards for hunting down peaceable people. Once offenders were identified, the authorities reported their names to the central government where they were entered in a "Spy Book." People were never sure who to trust. By night, spies used stealth and infiltration to find out where dissenters were holding their meetings. By day, the spies hid in trees and combed forests to search out hidden places of meeting.
Other crises emerged. An outbreak of plague threw London into a panic in 1665. At its height, as many 6,000 died a week-perhaps as many as 100,000 in all. People were only just beginning to return to the city in 1666, when the great Fire turned the skies into a scene from the apocalypse.
Seismic political shocks were far from over. In April 1685 James II was crowned king, succeeding his brother Charles, who died without leaving an heir.
However, Charles's illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, wasn't about to countenance his uncle 's accession to the throne. Rebellion broke out on two fronts, led by Monmouth in southern England and his ally, the Duke of Argyll, in Scotland.
Monmouth declared himself king; but forces loyal to James quickly quashed the rebellion. They captured Monmouth following the battle of Sedgemoor and beheaded him. Rebels who had sided with him were treated with extreme cruelty in a series of trials called the "Bloody Assizes." Judge Jeffreys, known as the "hanging judge," presided over the trials of thousands of these prisoners, ordering hundreds to be hanged immediately, and others to be hanged first, then drawn and quartered. Nor were the aged and infirm spared. The assize found one elderly gentlewoman, Dame Alice Lisle, guilty of treason and sentenced her to be burned at the stake. Here some mockery of mercy intervened, and the sentence was commuted to beheading.
Nearly a thousand souls were transported by the government to the West Indies as slaves, deemed to be worth more alive than dead as a source of cheap labor. Many others who had been imprisoned in filth and squalor died of "gaol fever" or typhus.
The assize that took place in the great Hall of Taunton Castle was representative. Of the more than 500 prisoners brought before the court in two days, 144 were hanged, and their bodies displayed throughout the county as a grisly object lesson. Some 284 were enslaved and transported to the West Indies amidst horrific conditions.
James may have won the battle, but he lost the figurative war. Increasingly dictatorial, he greatly exacerbated already internecine religious tensions by installing Catholic supporters in key governmental positions.
By the summer of 1688, a group of Protestant noblemen appealed to Prince William of orange (whose wife, Mary, was a safely Protestant heir to the British throne) to stage an invasion. William's forces landed on November 5, and the glorious Revolution-or Bloodless Revolution, as it is sometimes called-ensued. The disgraced James sought sanctuary in France, where King Louis XIV gave him a home and generous pension. In many ways, it was the final chapter of the religious conflicts and wars that had followed Henry VIII's death many years before in 1547. Britain and her people were finally accorded a measure of peace.
John Bunyan died on the eve of William's invasion. Just sixty years old, he never saw the onset of a political peace that might have graced his final years. Violence and bloodshed, persecution and upheaval-this was the only world he knew. It was a world that would twice imprison him. It was a world described in his masterwork, The Pilgrim's Progress. Against such a setting, the amazing thing is that he ever wrote a book at all.
Chapter ThreeA PARISH IN THE HUNDRED
Bunyan draws quite naturally on common life and the culture of the countryside ... he can echo the very tones of the parables, because he has grown up close to the soil. -Roger Sharrock
When traveling on the Bedford Southern Bypass, one might hardly notice the sign marking the tiny hamlet of Harrowden, England. It is, literally, a "one-street hamlet" that runs from east to west parallel and to the south of the A421. Nestled in a low hillside, Harrowden is so unassuming a place that it seems almost entirely overshadowed by two giant hangars that dominate the horizon-imposing reminders of the days of Britain's airship industry. It was from Harrowden that the ill-fated R-101 airship departed on its maiden voyage in 1930, crashing in northern France with the tragic loss of forty-eight lives-the death toll surpassing even that of the Hindenburg's fiery demise seven years later.
Today, Harrowden-the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Hearg-dun, meaning "Temple Hill"-is a place of thatched cottages with whitewashed walls and neatly kept gardens. Close by, checkerboard cornfields with alternating hues of green and amber bear witness to the region's agricultural past and present. It is in one of these cornfields that a stone marker can be found-a rough-hewn, red stone reminder of Harrowden's greatest claim to fame. For it was here, in the late summer or early autumn of 1628, that Bunyan was born. The legend on the stone reads simply: "This stone was erected in the Festival of Britain Year to mark the birthplace of John Bunyan, 1628-1688."
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Harrowden is where the cottage that was Bunyan's birthplace once stood. But the nearby village of Elstow (one mile southwest) is the place most closely associated with the years of his youth. There, in the abbey church of St. Mary and St. Helena, one may see the Norman-era font in which he was baptized. It was there that he and his family worshiped during his boyhood.
The abbey was found in 1078 by Countess Judith, a favored niece of William the Conqueror. In time, it became one of the richest of Benedictine nunneries. When the dissolution of the monasteries took place during Henry VIII's reign, St. Mary and St. Helena ceased to be an abbey. It was substantially reduced in size during the reign of Elizabeth I. Its dimensions today date from that time, and it is now a parish church graced with a lovely green. Still, during the 1630s, the years of Bunyan's youth, memories of what the former abbey had been were relatively fresh-as were memories of the religious strife that had so altered its fate and appearance.
"Elstow, a parish in the hundred of Redbornstoke, county of Bedford, one quarter mile from Bedford, containing 548 inhabitants." So reads Samuel Lewis's description of the village where Bunyan was born, as featured in A Topographical Dictionary of England (published in 1831).
When Samuel Lewis put pen to paper, Elstow was little changed from Bunyan's time. When the Reverend John Brown wrote his authoritative and copious biography fifty-four years later, John Bunyan: His Life, Times and Work, Elstow's defiance of change and the march of time had continued unabated.
It is worth taking time to talk about John Brown. Perhaps Bunyan's most assiduous biographer, he is still one of the most important. And though his substantial tome was published in 1885-the copy I have before me runs to 504 pages of close-set ten-point type-he has placed all scholars of Bunyan in his debt. A successor to Bunyan in pastoral ministry at Bedford, and keeper of such Bunyan relics and documents as had survived into the late nineteenth century, he was ideally placed (and suited) to write his biography. The impression one gets when leafing through his handsome, carefully documented work is that of a man who has undertaken his own pilgrimage-seeking to recover, as much as can be done, all of the sights, sounds, and settings that shaped John Bunyan.
Brown performed his task admirably. The table is set when we encounter a title-page companion illustration taken from Robert White's superb line drawing of Bunyan. It is an arresting image. One's attention is drawn immediately to the eyes, which are at once purposeful and charismatic. White presents us with a Bunyan who looks very contemporary. In his sparing use of lines, he evokes a hint of the Puritan garb Bunyan wore. But our focus, as it should be, is drawn to Bunyan's face, the most fully realized aspect of the drawing. There are hidden depths here, and a glimpse of the racy wit that Bunyan surely possessed. Another quality is present as well-sturdiness is the word that comes to mind. Here is a man who can lean into the wind amidst a storm. He will not break.
Excerpted from JOHN BUNYAN by KEVIN BELMONTE Copyright © 2010 by Kevin Belmonte. Excerpted by permission.
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