The New Zealand Evangelist
Biographical Notice — John Bunyan, As a Theologian and a Preacher.
John Bunyan, As a Theologian and a Preacher.
The following truthful and graphic sketch of the author of the “Pilgrim's Progress,” is extracted from a life of Bunyan, by the Rev. James Hamilton, D.D., of London, prefixed to a volume of Bunyan's Sermons, in Nelson's Puritan Divines. This is a series of beautiful, cheap volumes on practical divinity, from the writings of Baxter, Bunyan, Howe, Adams, Janeway, Charnock, &c.; of which one is published quarterly, and all enriched with biographical sketches of the authors and notices of the page 228 character of their writings, by some of the most distinguished Evangelical Ministers of the present day. So well was this undertaking received, that before the first volume was ready, the publisher had obtained seventy thousand subscribers. The volumes have since been reprinted in America. The increasing demand on the part of the reading public for the substantial, searching theology of the seventeenth century, we hail as a token for good.
Invaluable as a theologian, Banyan stands alone as a contributor to theological literature. In recent times no man has done so much to draw the world's delighted attention to the subjects of supreme solicitude. No production of a mortal pen has found so many readers as one work of his; and none has awakened so frequently the sighing behest, “Let me die the death of the righteous.”
None has painted the beauty of holiness in taints more lovely, nor spoken in tones more thrilling to the heart of universal humanity. At first the favourite of the vulgar, he is now the wonder of the learned; and from the obscurity, not inglorious, of smoky cupboards and cottage chimneys, he has been escorted up to the highest places of classical renown, and duly canonized by the pontiffs of taste and literature. The man, whom Cowper praised anonymously,
“Lest so despised a name should move a sneer.”
has at last extorted emulous plaudits from a larger host of writers than ever conspired to praise a man of genius, who was also a man of God. Johnson and Franklin, Scott, Coleridge, and Southey, Byron and Montgomery, Macintosh and Macaulay, have exerted their philosophical acumen and poetic feeling to analyze his various spell, and account for his unequalled fame; and though the round-cornered copies, with their diverting woodcuts, have not disappeared from the poor man's ingle, illustrated editions blaze from the shelves of every sumptuous library, new pictures, from its exhaustless themes, light up the walls of each annual exhibition : and amidst the graceful litter of the drawing-room table, you are sure to take up designs from the Pilgrim's Progress. So universal is the ascendancy of the tinker-teacher, so world-wide the dicease of him whom Whitefield created Bishop Bunyan, that probably half the ideas which the outside-world entertains regarding experimental piety, they have, in some form or other, derived from him. One of the most popular preachers in his day; in hislittle treatises, as well as in his longer allegories, he preaches to countless thou-sands still. The cause of this unexampled popularity is a question of great practical moment.
And, first of all, Bunyan speaks to the whole man,—to his imagination, his intellect; his heart. He had in himself all these ingredients of full-formed humanity, and in his book he lets all page 229 of them out. French writers and preachers are apt to deal too exclusively in the one article—fancy; and though you are amused for the moment with the rocket-shower of brilliant and many-tinted ideas which fall sparkling around you, when the exhibition is ended, you are disappointed to find that the whole was momentary, and that from all the ruby and emerald rain scarcely one gem of solid thought remains.* Scottish writers and preachers are apt to indulge the argumentative cacoethes of their country, and cramming into a tract or sermon as much hard-thinking as the Bramah-pressure of hydrostatic intellects can condense into the iron paragraphs, they leave no room for such delicate materials as fancy or feeling, illustration, imagery, or affectionate appeal;† whilst Irish authors and pulpit-orators are so surcharged with their own exuberant enthusiasm, that their main hope of making you think as they think, is to make you feel as they feel. The heart is their Aristotlo; and if they cannot win you by a smile or melt you by a tear, they would think it labour lost to try a syllogism. Bunyan was neither French, nor Scotch, nor Irish. He embodied in his person, though greatly magnified, the average mind of English—playful, affectionate, downright. His intellectual power comes chiefly out in that homely self-commending sense—the brief business-like reasoning, which might be termed Saxon logic, and of which Swift in one century, and Cobbett in another, are obvious instances. His premises are not always true, nor his inferences always legitimate; but there is such evident absence of sophistry, and even of that refining and hairsplitting which usually beget the suspicion of sophistry—his state-ments are so sincere, and his conclusions so direct, the language is so perspicuous, and the appeal is made so honestly to each reader's understanding, that his popularity as a reasoner is in-evitable. We need not say that the author of the Pilgrim possessed imagination; but it is important to note the service it rendered to his preaching, and the charm which it still imparts to his miscellaneous works. The pictorial power he possessed in a rare degree. His mental eyes perceived the truth most vividly. Some minds are moving in a constant mystery. They see men like trees walking. The different doctrines of the Bible all wear dim outlines to them, jostling and jumbling; and after a perplexing morrice of bewildering hints and half discoveries, they vanish into the misty back-ground of nonentity. To Bunyan's bright and broad-waking eye all things were clear. The men walked and the trees stood still. Everything was seen in sharp relief and definite outline—a reality. And besides the pictorial, he possessed in page 230 highest perfection the illustrative faculty. Not only did his own mind perceive the truth most vividly, but he saw the very way to give others a clear perception of it also. This is the great secret of successful teaching. Like a man who has clambered his difficult way to the top of a rocky eminence, but who, once he has reached the summit, perceives an easier path, and directs his companions along its gentler slopes, and gives them a helping-hand to lift them over the final obstacles; it was by giant struggles over the debris of crumbling hopes, and through jungles of despair, and up the cliffs of apparent impossibility, that Bunyan forced his way to the pinnacle of his eventual joy; but no sooner was he standing there, than his eagle-eye detected the easier path, and he made it the business of his benevolent ministry to guide others into it. Though not the truth, an illustration is a stepping-stone towards it; an indentation in the rock which makes it easier to climb. No man had a happier knack in hewing out these notches in the cliff, and no one knew better where to place them, than this pilgrim's pioneer. Besides, he rightly judged that the value of these suggestive similes—these illustrative stepping-stones—depend vary much on their breadth and frequency. But Bunyan appeals not only to the intellect and imagination, but to the hearts of men. There was no bitterness in Bunyan. He was a man of kindness and compassion. How sorry he is for Mr. Badman! and how he makes you sympathize with Christian and Mr. Ready-to-hait and Mr. Feeble-mind, and all the other interesting companions of that eventful journey! And in his sermons how piteously he pleads with sinners for their own souls! and how impressive is the undisguised vehemency of his yearning affections! In the same sentence Bunyan has a word for the man of sense, and another for the man of fancy, and a third for the man of feeling; and by thus blending the intellectual, the imaginative, and the affectionate, he speaks home to the whole of man, and has made his works a lesson-book for all mankind.
Another secret of Bunyan's popularity is the felicity of his style. His English is vernacular, idiomatic, universal; varying with the subject; Homely in the continuous narrative; racy and pungent in his lively and often rapid discourse; and, when occasion requires,“a model of unaffected dignity and rythmical flow;” but always plain, strong, and natural. However, in speaking of his style, we do not so much intend his words as his entire mode of expression. A thought is like a gem; but like a gem it may be spoiled in the setting. A careless artist may chip it and grievously curtail its dimensions; a clumsy craftsman, in his fear of destroying it, may not sufficiently polish it; or in his solicitude to shew off its beauty, may overdo the accompanying ornaments. Bunyan was too skilful a workman so to mismanage the matter. His ex-pression neither curtails nor encumbers the thought, but makes the most of it; that is, presents it to the reader as it is seen by writer. Though there is a great appearance of amplitude about his compositious, few of his words could be wanted. Some styles are an ill-spun thread, full of inequalities, and shaggy from be-page 231ginning to end with projecting fibres which spoil its beauty, and add nothing to its strength; but in its easy continuousness and trim compactness, the thread of Bunyan's discourse flows firm and smooth from first to last. Its fulness regales the ear, and its felicity aids the understanding.
* Pascal was an exception. D'Aubigne, so far as writing in French makes a Frenchman, is another. Their works are full of fancy, but it is the fancy which gives to truth its wings. The rocket is charged, not with coloured sparks, but burning jewels.
† Here, again, exceptions occur, and the greatest of our Scottish preachers is a contradiction to the characteristics style of his country.