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Coffee & Wisdom 02.49: Allow Me to Post This Epistle Part 5

David Breeden is speaking all week about writing from prison.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden on the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, and this is Coffee and Wisdom. This week we’ve been looking at epistles and writings that occurred in prison. And today I want to talk about the most popular book in English after the Bible and how it happened to be written in prison. So John Bunyan, sixteen twenty eight, sixteen eighty eight, was born in Bedford, England. He had almost no formal education at all. His father was a tinker and so he became a tinker by trade. That is an itinerant person who goes around fixing pots and pans. This is Bedford, England, today on the River Ouse o. U s e. So he became a Christian after hearing a voice say, well, tell leave those sins and go to heaven or have thy sins and go to hell. As soon as he heard this, he joined the Bedford meeting, which was a nonconformist group. The building is still there today. Now, we call them Puritans in the US. In England, they were called nonconformists. And in the United States, we know who the Puritans are. They were the people around Boston. But in England, the story is much more complicated. Various regions of the country having different kinds of nonconformist movements. Bunyan was never ordained. The sixteen sixty two act of uniformity required preachers to be ordained in the Anglican Church of England tradition and required the use of the Book of Common Prayer in any kind of meeting that might be considered religious in nature.

The charges against Bunyon were that he, quote, devilishly and perniciously abstain from coming to church to hear Divine Service and spoke at several unlawful meetings and Kevin articles to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom. Here we have a wax figure of Bunyon in the John Bunyan Museum in Bedford, UK, and a tradition there is to dress him up, according to the holidays, the wax figure there. So you see what’s going on. He was a good puritan in that he joined the parliamentary army during the English revolution, fought on the side of parliament, which was the Puritan side of things against royalty. Then the restoration occurs. The monarchy comes back in sixteen sixty, and these laws begin to be passed against nonconformists because they are clearly the people who are revolutionary and are resisting government interference in their religious traditions. So he’s going to become a preacher and preacher’s unlawfully because he has not been ordained within the Church of England tradition. This would be a way of controlling the kind of speech that’s coming out of the preachers mouths, and thus he was imprisoned for twelve years. Now, I should hasten to add that his imprisonment is a bit interesting in that the real terms of imprisonment for his offense was three months. But he continued to say over and over again, they would say, John, are you going to preach again? And he would say, heck, yes, I am.

And so they couldn’t let him out of jail for twelve years. It was he was a prisoner of conscience in that way. He said, I will stay in prison until the moss grows on my eyelids rather than just obey God. However, interestingly enough, in Bedford, he was released occasionally. He did preach during that twelve year period and his last child was conceived during his imprisonment and he wrote the book. The Pilgrims progress was written during Bunyan’s imprisonment, but not published until sixteen seventy eight. Six years after his release. It’s been translated into more than two hundred languages and has never been out of print since its publication in sixteen seventy eight. The estimates are that it is the most read book in English. Besides the Bible, very few books have stayed in print that many years. But such is the popularity of the Pilgrims progress. Now, the main character, if you don’t know the story, is a fellow by the name of Christian. This is an allegory and so everything has an allegorical name within the story. Christian leaves the city of destruction where he’s been left. Seeking these celestial city, he passes through such challenges as the snoo of despond, the valley of humiliation, the valley of the shadow of death, hill lucre, Vanity Fair, very well known, doubting Castle. And finally, he crosses the river of death into spoiler alert, the crystal, the celestial city. So there is a traceable path that you can look up online of how these various things go.

And it is basically tracking the life of a Christian from conversion to getting to heaven. That’s the main idea here. And there are some delightful characters in the book that people have come to know and love. Obstinate, pliable Mr. Worldly wise man, timorous Pope Adam, the first talkative Lord Hate good, and here pictured that giant despair. So illustrator’s have gone to town on various of the characters and situations over the years, a very much illustrated and illustrated book with all of those years of publication. Here’s a illustration from Victorian era in which Christian meets up with piety, charity and prudence in the palace. Beautiful. The again illustrators have really enjoyed this book because it has some great scenes there wading through this, the slew of despond. It’s still a book that’s going on today. This is Ken Ham very much with us today is all in one curriculum for the Pilgrims progress, and it does include an illustrated Full-length text. You can see that those are not 17th century illustrations going on there, a character analysis and all kinds of study for your Sunday school group so that you, too, can enjoy the pilgrims progress. There’s also the pilgrims progress simplified. Bunyon was writing in a language that very closely resembles the King James version of the Bible, he being only about 50 years after that was published. So it is a bit hard to understand for people who who haven’t dealt with that kind of language.

And so we do find several simplified books. And nowadays I wanted to look just a little bit at the story because it is a lot of fun and this is the way it starts. As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where I was a den and I laid me down in that place to sleep. And as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed. And behold, I saw a man clothed with rags standing in a certain place with his face from his own house, a book in his hand and a great burden upon his back. I looked and saw him open the book and read their end, and as he read, he wept and trembled, and not being able longer to contain a breakout with a lamentable prize, saying, What shall I do? This then joins a long tradition in England of dream literature in which the purported speaker of the story goes to sleep and dreams of fairy lands or special worlds, and that that kind of thing, very much part of the English pastoral tradition, he answered. Sir, I perceive by the book in my hand that I am condemned to die and after that to come to judgment. And I find that I am not willing to do the first nor able to do the second. And often within the book, Bunyon breaks out in the poetry Christian no sooner leaves the world, but meets evangelists who lovingly him greets with tidings of another and doth show him how to mount to that from this below.

All right, so Christian is going to meet up with the evangelist, this being the kind of creatures that the nonconformist the Puritans believed in, trusted in non ordained Anglican ministers who are going to tell you the truth about the literal meaning of the Bible. Then said evangelist’s, why not willing to die since this life is attended with so many evils? The man answered, Because I fear that this burden that is upon my back will sink me lower than the grave and I shall fall into Tophet. A nice way of saying hell. And sir, if I be not fit to go to prison, I am not fit to go to judgment. And from thence to execution and the thoughts of these things makes me cry. So Christian is very upset. Evangelist says, why would you be afraid of dying? Because, you know, hey, this is part of the Christian message of the day that death is much preferable to life. But Christian answers, I have a burden on my back. This is again, allegorical for all the sins that he has committed in this life. Then, said Evangelist, if this be thy condition, why stand thou still? He and Christian, he answered, because I know not whether to go. Then he gave him a parchment roll and there was written within fly from the rest to come. And so the Bible is going to teach us fly from the wrath to come.

The man therefore read it, and looking upon evangelists very carefully said Whither must I fly then? Said Evangelist, pointing with his finger over a very wide field. Do you see John Wicket Gate. The interesting thing about Bunyan’s riding, by the way, is that he really only traveled once to London, which is actually nowadays very a very close drive to Bedford, where he lived most of his life. So he really didn’t have a geographical understanding of very much outside of his immediate world. Again, he was not an educated person. And so various scholars have traced the various things that are in this book because he was using the world around him, because that’s all he really knew. And there was indeed a wicket gate. The man said no, then said the other, do you see yonder shining light? He said, I think I do. This is Christian speaking then, said Evangelist, keep that light in your eye and go up directly there to socialize. Thou see the gate at which when thou not just it shall be told the what shall do. So I saw in my dream that the man began to run and so he runs to the wicket gate. This is the place in which he becomes a Christian, confesses his sins, and then he’s off on his Christian journey. Through all of these trials that we then run into, such as Vanity Fair. This book has been so popular and it was especially popular during the Victorian age.

You can see why a 17th century book might appeal to Victorians. It was very, very much about duty and Christianity in a very conventional sense. And so writers, especially from that era, really fell in love with the book. Nathaniel Hawthorne, well known allegories in the US, Herman Melville, Moby Dick is all allegory. Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, Unitarian and C.S. Lewis all said that they drew their inspiration from Pilgrim’s Progress. And so the allegory has gone on and on. Thanks a lot for listening this week. We’ve been talking a little bit about various kinds of things that have come from prison. Yes, the most popular book ever published in English besides the Bible was written in prison by a fellow with no formal education, but a very much a conviction in his heart to communicate his idea of what Christianity was all about. Thanks for listening. This week and next week, I’ll be talking about dancing in the chapel, perilous dancing in the chapel, perilous. I’ll be looking at various kinds of union and various symbolic understandings of what dreams in the imagination mean and how those have been used through times, both in literature and in psychology. So that’s next week. Certainly join us at ten thirty a.m. Central Standard Time on Sunday, when we will be hearing from Paula Jones talking about the eighth principle of Unitarian Universalist. Thanks a lot. And I’ll see you Sunday.

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