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‘Blessed Joseph! I would thou hadst more fellows’: John Bunyan’s Joseph

Abstract and Keywords

Exploring the most renowned and troubled of biblical readers, this chapter addresses John Bunyan’s deployment of the vernacular scriptures, and how his position outside the established church contributed to his frames of biblical reference. In his daily reading and meditating on biblical texts Bunyan sought hints of his own future, particularly whether he was numbered among the saved or the reprobate. The Joseph of Genesis was exemplary in his willingness to speak truth to power, even when the act of speaking exacted a heavy personal price. Similarly, a reading of Esau increased the preacher’s already unbearable fear as to his own salvation. This chapter is an examination of ways in which Bunyan constructed the narration of his own suffering and redemption in representative texts on the basis of his reading of biblical characters: Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (spiritual diary), Mr Badman (allegory), and The Acceptable Sacrifice (sermon-tract).

Keywords: Bunyan, reading, Genesis, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Mr Badman, The Acceptable Sacrifice, Exodus, identity

John Bunyan’s famous Apology, the rhymed introduction to The Pilgrim’s Progress in which the author describes how he ‘Fell suddenly into an Allegory’, serves as a convenient introduction to the preacher’s use of biblical characters as a means both to understand his own life and to create fictional characters. The Apology is devoted to a justification of the metaphors upon which the story of Christian’s and Christiana’s journey is based:

  • Solidity, indeed becomes the Pen
  • Of him that writeth things divine to men:
  • But must I needs want solidness, because
  • By Metaphors I speak; Was not God’s Laws,
  • His Gospel-Laws, in older time held forth
  • By Types, Shadows and Metaphors? …
  • [The sober man] rather stoops,
  • And seeks to find out what by pins and loops,
  • By Calves, and Sheep, by Heifers, and by Rams;
  • By Birds, and Herbs, and by the blood of Lambs,
  • God speaketh to him.1

As U. Milo Kaufmann points out: ‘There is a conspicuous tension between the didactic and literalist methods widespread in Puritanism and the imaginative methods native to the grand tradition in literature’.2 Kevin Killeen, however, notes that:

Literal interpretation in early-modern thought permitted phenomenal latitude. For all that the central Protestant dictum, sola scriptura, the sufficiency of the Bible alone, might (p. 534) be thought to imply a lack of engagement with non-scriptural learning, the interpretative habits of the commentary tradition are underpinned very much by their receptivity to non-theological material to explicate the scriptures. Sola Scriptura, in the mid-seventeenth century, at least, did not imply the Bible’s insularity as much as its primacy.3

John Bunyan did not need such latitude. His use of biblical characters, both in his sermons and in his imaginative writing, served less to interpret the holy text than to interpret his own life: his overall approach to the Bible was indeed literal. In Killeen’s terms, Bunyan reversed the interpretative paradigm; in his practice of commentary, scriptural material was used to explicate non-theological material. In this sense Bunyan did not lay himself open to charges—or, perhaps more important, to self-recrimination—for overuse of allegory. When Bunyan implies or draws a comparison between himself and Joseph the falsely accused prisoner, or Joseph who pays a heavy price for speaking the truth, he relates to the biblical character as detailed in the literal words of the text.

This chapter opens with an overview of Bunyan’s reading practice vis-à-vis the Bible; the Joseph character of Genesis is then discussed; finally examples of Bunyan’s use of the character in three representative texts are touched upon: The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, an allegory which details how the Christian should conduct his or her daily affairs as merchant, friend, parent, spouse; The Acceptable Sacrifice: a sermon-tract; and Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan’s highly popular spiritual diary.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century there was general acceptance of the legitimacy of translations of the Bible into English. There remained, however, an undertone of discomfort with the very accessibility of the English text, to which Patrick Cary (c.1624–57) gave expression:

  • Our church still flourishing w’had seene
  • If th’holy-writt had ever beene
  • Kept out of lay-men’s reach;
  • But, when ’twas English’d , men halfe-witted,
  • Nay women too, would be permitted
  • T’expound all texts, and preach.
  • Then what confusion did arise!
  • Coblers, devines gan to dispise,
  • Soe that they could but spell:
  • This, ministers to scorne did bring;
  • Preaching was held an easy thing,
  • Each-one might doe’t as well.4

The availability of the holy texts in English was especially important to John Bunyan, whose literacy differed from that of a majority of English-speaking clergymen of the time; Bunyan could have been the artisan-turned-preacher whom Cary had in mind. While most seventeenth-century clergymen, whether owing allegiance to the established church or to dissenting frameworks, could be assumed proficient in Latin, to some extent in Greek, and possibly in Hebrew, Bunyan, as far as is known, could not read any (p. 535) of the classical languages. He does not, however, apologize for this ignorance. Indeed he notes—one assumes with the proverbial tongue in cheek—that ‘Christ’s little ones … are not gentlemen; they cannot with Pontius Pilate speak Hebrew, Greek and Latin’.5

According to Christopher Hill:

By the seventeenth century the Bible was accepted as central to all spheres of intellectual life: it was not merely a ‘religious’ book in our narrow modern sense of the word religion. Church and state in Tudor England were one; the Bible was, or should be, the foundation of all aspects of English culture. On this principle most Protestants were agreed.6

John Bunyan was persecuted for being unwilling to accept that, in Hill’s words, the institutions of ‘Church and state were one’; he refused to refrain from preaching, even when ordered to do so by local lay magistrates committed to enforcing the strictures of the restored Church of England.7 As part of one’s overall approach to life in this world and the next, however, Bunyan would not have understood the possibility of a boundary between what is now termed ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular’. Scripture, after all, does not generally differentiate between religious and extra-religious spheres. The God of the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament—is a hands-on deity: he is involved in issues of daily life, whether of direct religious significance (male circumcision; construction of altars; animal sacrifice8) or seemingly extra-religious, even intimate family and sexual questions: dietary issues; a woman’s inability to become pregnant; how to treat one’s servant-girl; accidentally viewing one’s father’s nakedness.9

The degree to which what came to be known as the secular was not differentiated from the religious may be seen in an almost randomly chosen example: chapter 12 of Leviticus. In this one chapter the deity speaks to Moses, ordering him to pass on instructions to the people as to actions behooving a woman who has recently given birth. A boy-child is to be circumcised on his eighth day. There is medical advice: the mother is considered unclean, and should be separated for a period of time dependent on whether the child is male or female. At the end of the period of bleeding following the birth, the mother is to bring an offering to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. If the family is of limited means, turtledoves or pigeons—more easily available to the poor—should be substituted for a lamb. Religious, medical, and economic practices are interwoven; the reader hardly notices where one ends and the next begins.

For Bunyan, the Bible was thus not only central to all spheres of religious and intellectual life; it was a book to live by, or in Hill’s words, ‘for most men and women the Bible was their point of reference in all their thinking … the Bible was the source of virtually all ideas; it supplied the idiom in which men and women discussed them’.10 Bunyan looked to (p. 536) the sacred text for enlightenment both as to the world to come and as to this world. In his daily reading and meditating on biblical texts he sought hints of his own future: was he numbered among the elect or the reprobate? Meditating on Esau (one who is duped into selling his birthright and then cheated out of his father’s blessing) increased the preacher’s almost unbearable fear as to his own salvation. He simultaneously found in the various biblical literary genres—poetry, tales, dialogues, historiography, wisdom collections, word-play—illuminating depictions of human life, both in terms of past history and as to how one should conduct daily interactions with others. The shopkeeper deciding whether to extend credit to the poor widow could look to scripture for guidance just as surely as should the preacher searching for a topic for the coming Sunday’s sermons.

It is generally accepted that one of the defining aspects of the Protestant Reformation was the emphasis placed on the believer’s unmediated connection with the sacred texts of his creed. Generations of Protestant Christians were thus raised on the stories told in the Old Testament, and especially on the tales of the patriarchs in Genesis and the life of Moses and his family in Exodus. Bunyan would arguably have agreed with Leveller leader William Walwyn’s unmediated approach to the holy texts: ‘there is no place in Scripture too hard for us: shew us the mysteries we cannot reveale: the Parables that wee cannot clearely open’. Addressing those believers who lacked a university education, Walwyn argues: ‘why may not one that understands English onely, both understand and declare the true meaning of [the text] as well as an English Hebrician, or Grecian, or Roman whatsoever?’11

Bunyan, of course, did not function in an intellectual or religious vacuum, and while he hesitated to allegorize biblical texts, he did belong to a community of interpreters. As Maxine Hancock notes, he had been ‘initiated by sermon-hearing and intense discussion into the Calvinistic community of nonconforming English puritanism as his interpretive community’.12 For Bunyan, preaching was his own road to salvation:

I was made to see that the Holy Ghost never intended that men who have Gifts and Abilities should bury them in the earth, but rather did command and stir up such to the Exercise of their Gift, and also did commend those that were apt and ready to do so, They have addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints.13

Bunyan’s nonconformist preaching was said to be talented, articulate, convincing, and therefore dangerous to the newly restored monarchy and its established church. The local Bedfordshire gentry regarded him as a troublemaker, a rabble-rouser who must, in today’s terms, either shut up or be shut up.

Steeped as he was in scripture, Bunyan was intimately familiar with the leading characters of the Genesis-Exodus family romance: figures such as Jacob and Esau served him as models of the believer’s attitude towards election or reprobation. Simultaneously these figures could be taken as role-models: when faced with a moral dilemma, one could learn from the choices made by a biblical figure. Yet metaphorizing a biblical narrative could (p. 537) easily be seen as distancing oneself from the literal text. Thus Bunyan trod a fine line between respect for the literal text, while dramatizing tales or figures, and uses of the biblical characters which might seem unacceptably metaphorical.14 He succeeded in treading this line by using the literal, the uninterpreted, text to interpret an individual life. A construction of Bunyan’s imaginary is beyond the scope of this chapter; but it may be argued that his use of a biblical character to better understand the nature of a living, historical, or literary character is what enabled Bunyan to produce living, breathing, imaginary creations. Bunyan’s use of the Joseph figure of Genesis illustrates the problematics of cleaving to the biblical text, while making imaginative use of one of the major characters of the Old Testament as a means to understand and interpret one’s own choices. If John Bunyan was, as is generally agreed, one of the forefathers of the novel, the latter achievement results in no small part from his response to biblical figures.

In any discussion of responses to written texts believed to be sacred, it is difficult to avoid a certain amount of specification as to what is meant by reading. Recent scholarship has begun, albeit tentatively, to question what Philip Benedict terms ‘the hoariest of all generalizations about the long-term consequences of the Reformation, namely, that the establishment of Protestantism encouraged Bible reading and thus literacy’.15 For Bunyan, however, as for most of his literate co-religionists, whether Church of England or dissenting, reading was central to daily religious practice. The latter consisted of reading portions of the holy text silently and aloud, both in the privacy of one’s ‘closet’ and with family, household, and congregation members; meditating on individual words, verses and stories; regular, even daily, writing of spiritual diaries whose content was in large measure based on one’s reading of the Bible; sharing of those diaries with one’s clergyman and fellow congregants.

Diarmaid MacCulloch suggests that: ‘For someone who really delighted in reading, religion might retreat out of the sphere of public ritual into the world of the mind and the imagination’.16 And as Monica Furlong points out, for Bunyan, as for many of his contemporaries, the Bible was ‘the world of books, plays, poetry, learning, which his poverty and lack of education denied him’.17 John R. Knott, Jr. notes the importance of Bunyan’s comparative lack of formal education in any attempt to analyse his work. Bunyan, in Knott’s words,

approached the Bible as only a relatively uneducated person of the seventeenth century could, with an acute sense of the power of the Word to terrify or comfort one who wrestled with it … His torment is that of an unlearned man who must search the Scripture with the conviction that any one verse can save or damn him.18

Yet while the preacher’s commitment to sola scriptura was total, claims that he was unfamiliar with extra-scriptural texts should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. Bunyan is known to have read certain of Martin Luther’s works of biblical exegesis, and his extra-scriptural reading was arguably broader and more sophisticated than is traditionally (p. 538) acknowledged. Arthur Dent’s The Plaine Man’s Pathway to Heaven, with which Bunyan was familiar, contains references to a wide range of classical authors, whether religious or secular: Homer, Sophocles, Hesiod, Demosthenes, Euripides, to name but a few.19 According to the practice of the time, the margins of each page were dotted not only with sources of citations from the Old and New Testaments, but with references to other authors and texts, many of which had been rendered into English by the seventeenth century. It would not have been difficult for Bunyan to borrow such texts from those of his colleagues and admirers who possessed well-stocked libraries, and the more one’s familiarity with Bunyan’s writing increases, the more one is aware that the author was well-read in terms of what was available to him in English.

Bunyan’s sensitivity to the problems inherent in interpreting sacred texts (problems that centred upon assigning meaning to the specific text above—or below—its so-called literal meaning) directed his practice as a reader. His meditation on the holy text enabled him to use the characters and situations depicted in the Bible to interpret events in his own life and in the lives of others. Kaufmann suggests that the Puritan tradition of heavenly meditation, in which Bunyan was immersed, was founded on the ‘assumption that for the individual to improve his conceptions of things above, he must compare them with things below’. According to Kaufmann, when Bunyan says that:

‘My dark and cloudy words they do but hold / The Truth, as Cabinets inclose the Gold’, his conception of the relationship between truth and words is conventionally Puritan: truth was ‘contained’ in words, ready to be emptied into the mind in the simple process of reading; but little allowance was made for the possibility that it might be incommensurate with its containers, that the event might perhaps be a slightly more commodious vessel than the word.20

Meditation on the lives of biblical characters was especially important to Bunyan, since he did not expect God’s ways to be immediately comprehensible via cognition. This flows from his basic Calvinist approach according to which the individual cannot know for sure that he is one of the fortunate elect, neither by way of sensing that he is saved, nor by performing good works, which would be a sign of election. In Calvin’s words:

It is asked, how it happens that of two, between whom there is no difference of merit, God in his election adopts the one, and passes by the other? I, in my turn, ask, Is there any thing in him who is adopted to incline God towards him? If it must be confessed that there is nothing, it will follow, that God looks not to the man, but is influenced entirely by his own goodness to do him good. Therefore, when God elects one and rejects another, it is owing not to any respect to the individual, but entirely to his own mercy which is free to display and exert itself when and where he pleases.21

According to Bunyan’s autobiographical descriptions in Grace Abounding, while meditating upon a particular biblical verse or short passage he often sensed that a specific word or phrase was forcing itself into his mind. Bunyan felt this to be a process over which he had little, if any, control. He took these attacks seriously, seeing in them sacred messages; (p. 539) he was tortured by his inability to interpret these messages, almost telegraphic in their terseness.22 Scholars have long pondered the nature of what for Bunyan were terrifying attacks. Richard L. Greaves suggests, albeit cautiously, that during the 1650s and early 1660s Bunyan suffered at least two bouts of what is now known as clinical depression. For Greaves, the specific words and phrases which Bunyan perceived as forcing themselves upon his consciousness are symptoms, while the process of their sudden appearance and disappearance outlines a pathology and its cure.23 Although Grace Abounding may convincingly serve as a psychiatric case study, Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography can—and generally is—read as the record of the progress of the pilgrim’s union with his saviour, a union which is not necessarily permanent, but is repeatedly sought. In his discussion of Grace Abounding, Brainerd P. Stranahan emphasizes the significance of the ‘dramatic appearance of biblical passages in [Bunyan’s] mind: the sudden arrivals of these texts are among the most important happenings in the narrative … we cannot tell when a new text will ambush the hero and produce either intense joy or despair’.24

Bunyan’s practice may be usefully compared to an earlier, non-Christian interpretative tradition. Joseph Heinemann notes that since the sages who created the aggadot (the post-biblical Hebrew legends)

assumed that the meaning of Scripture was manifold, they felt it was necessary to try to extract the full range of implications not only from the contents of the biblical text but from every apparently superfluous word as well. The assumption that ‘one biblical statement may carry many meanings’ (B. Sanhedrin 34a) led to their interpretation of every locution in the biblical text, often in disregard of its meaning in context … They were of the opinion that the Bible intended to impart moral and religious instruction, to teach us how to live, rather than to supply dry factual information of a geographical or genealogical nature, for example.25

Bunyan would probably not have agreed that ‘the meaning of Scripture was manifold’. He would have agreed, however, that no word in the holy text could be superfluous; and while his experience of being, as it were, attacked by individual words or phrases could be seen as removing the word or phrase from its original context, he might not have seen the validity of differentiating between the meaning of a word within and without its context.

The Joseph of Genesis (chapters 37–50) served Bunyan as a moral exemplar in his willingness to speak truth, even when the act of speaking exacted a heavy personal price. Joseph’s willingness to speak truth to power is seen in his response to sexual temptation and false accusation on the part of his master’s wife, as well as in his response to undeserved imprisonment. His refusal to lie with his master’s wife is, perhaps surprisingly, not (p. 540) presented by the biblical narrator as an example of the overcoming of sexual desire (the reader knows that Joseph was young and handsome, but is given no information as to the attractions of Potiphar’s wife). Rather the young man’s rejection of his mistress’s advances is shown as another example of his willingness to speak honestly to those in positions of power, even at the price of lengthy imprisonment.

The Joseph character of Genesis might now be called a man of multiple meanings: a talented economist and manager both on the local and national level, his ability to interpret dreams indicates psychoanalytic brilliance. For those interested in family roles and their literary expression—whether in ancient mythology or the more recent bildungsroman—he is an archetype of the motherless younger son, favoured by his father but thoroughly disliked by his siblings, sent away from home, forced into servitude, to face a series of challenges which will test him and enable him to grow into his intended role of responsible adult. In his discussion of the tales of the patriarchs from Genesis, Thomas H. Luxon points out that:

[R]eading out of these stories a clear case for true identity as a redemption/ transformation experience requires that many of their details be ignored or allegorized, but the Joseph story presents even harder problems. Taken as a whole, it is too willing to meditate on the contradictions, ironies, and contingencies of identity and the self’s relation to God. Perhaps this is why Protestantism never adopts it as a model for the redeemed self as it did the others. Joseph, at so many points, is both self and other—Hebrew patriarch and Egyptian master, a son of Abraham and adoptively a son of Ishmael, both a Jacob (an ambitious younger son) and an Esau (excluded from the messianic line).26

Because of clear parallels between their life-experiences, Bunyan found in Joseph ‘a model for the redeemed self’ in two of Joseph’s personae: the unfairly accused sexual harasser and the prisoner. In Joseph’s lengthy incarceration the two overlapped; he was imprisoned for allegedly assaulting his master’s wife. For John Bunyan the two were not connected: after the Restoration of the monarchy and the re-establishment of the Church of England he spent some twelve years in prison for refusing to promise to refrain from preaching. At other stages in his career as a dissenting minister, whose London sermons were sometimes attended by hundreds of eager listeners, the preacher faced slander when a rumour circulated that he was seen in the company of loose women; although these rumours infuriated Bunyan, they were apparently not taken seriously, and did not damage his career or reputation.

The Genesis narrative tells of two periods in which Joseph was incarcerated. At the age of 17 he unwisely strengthens his brothers’ already strong dislike: having been sent out to help tend the flocks of his half-brothers, the sons of the serving maids Bilhah and Zilpah, on his return he ‘brought unto his father their ill report’ (Genesis 37: 2).27 The reader is not surprised when the brothers, away from parental supervision, cast Joseph into a pit, thus enabling a group of Midianite traders to sell the youth to a caravan of Ishmaelites on their (p. 541) way to Egypt (Genesis 37). It is, however, only chapters and years later, when the brothers come to Egypt and recall their earlier behaviour, that we learn of Joseph’s screams and pleading while he lay in the pit: ‘And they said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear’ (Genesis 42: 21).

The young Joseph’s anguish and pleas contrast with his stoical behaviour years later when he languishes in prison on an unjust accusation; we are not told of screams and pleading on his part. Joseph’s imprisonment in Egypt, of course, is lengthier than the hours, or at most days, which he had spent in the pit near Dothan. Moreover in the dungeon Joseph’s abilities are recognized and he is put in charge of the whole prison household. Eventually his patience is rewarded but until pharaoh’s chief butler remembers him, he is seemingly content to wait.

In his view of Joseph, Bunyan may be said to cleave to the Genesis depiction of the hero’s character and motivation. Joseph is shown to be patient, certainly a loving son, a responsible servant, and one who understands his role as a tool of the Deity. He does not lack a sense of pride, however, and willingly accepts both the responsibilities placed upon him and the concomitant status symbols: the coat of many colours which his father, perhaps unwisely, bestows on his adored son; years later, pharaoh’s ring, the use of a chariot, the daughter of a high-ranking Egyptian as wife. In his role of leader he does not project humility: once revealed to his brothers he is kind and forgiving, but maintains his pride and dignity.

This may be contrasted with the character as depicted by Rene de Cerisiers (1609–62) in The Innocent Lord, or, the Divine Providence. Being The incomparable History of Joseph (available to Bunyan in an English translation by William Lowre, though there is no evidence that he was familiar with it). De Cerisiers’s young Joseph is little less than perfect: ‘he had all the vertues of his father, and the beauty of his mother. So many graces perfectionated his body … Oftentimes the neighbors would come unto the house of Laban, to see onely his visage’. Moreover:

To see him on his knees, his hands joyned, his eyes halfe shut, one would have thought that it was a statue of marble, if those lips had not given some motion to his prayer, or an Angel, if he had not sighed sometimes. I speak not of the reverence with which he honoured his parents; the belief thereof is easie through the sweetness that rendred him pleasing to all the world.28

Bunyan might not have been disturbed by de Cerisiers’s anachronisms, had he encountered them: Hebrews did not pray on their knees, and as a rule did not address the Deity silently. He would, however, have noticed contradictions with the biblical text: Joseph angered his father on more than one occasion; he was surely not ‘pleasing to all the world’; and of all possible descriptives, ‘sweet’ is arguably not one of the first to come to mind. For Bunyan, unlike for de Cerisiers, the biblical text was not a jumping-off point from which one could develop a character via additions whose source was in the writer’s imagination. In other words, Bunyan did not engage in wishful thinking: he accepted the biblical tale in its literal version, even when the behaviour depicted was not what he would have wanted it to be.

(p. 542) Bunyan’s Life and Death of Mr Badman is an allegory couched in the framework of a dialogue: a conversation between Mr Wiseman and Mr Attentive, neighbours in an English market town, who fall in together while out on a walk and have a long, comfortable gossip about their neighbour Mr Badman, lately deceased. Although much of the text critiques the protagonist’s financial behaviour, many of the most vivid sections of the dialogue detail Badman’s marriages and relationships with women other than his wife. While canvassing Badman’s penchant to fall into ‘the deep pit’ of the flattering mouth of a strange woman, and conversely to tempt maids ‘to commit uncleanness with him’, Attentive and Wiseman compare such men to Joseph: ‘But how far off are these men from that Spirit and Grace that dwelt in Joseph’.29

Wiseman and Attentive at first speak disparagingly of Joseph’s mistress, even calling her unclean, a whore, culminating in Attentive’s apostrophe ‘Blessed Joseph! I would thou hadst more fellows!30 This lack of generosity, of Christian charity, is mitigated by Wiseman’s next comment:

Mr. Badman has more fellows than Joseph, else there would not be so many Whores as there are: For though I doubt not but that that Sex is bad enough this way, yet I verily believe that many of them are made Whores at first by the flatteries of Badmans fellows. Alas! there is many a woman plunged into this sin at first even by promises of Marriage.31

Joseph is here depicted by Bunyan as concerned both with his duty to his master and with his own salvation; at the same time he appears to bear a didactic duty towards his mistress. In his appeal to the latter Joseph speaks first on the social/ legal level, and then appeals to religion. There is an unspoken contract between the handsome young Israelite and his Egyptian master: Joseph has been granted the run of the house, and of course the running of the household, on condition that he has no sexual involvement with his mistress. When this argument does not convince the lady, Joseph asks ‘how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?’ (Genesis 39: 9). As a composer of sermons, and as a counsellor to his parishioners, Bunyan knew that it could be useful to raise more than one argument in order to convince: some listeners might be convinced by a presentation of a social contract, while others might be convinced by a statement of the Deity’s pleasure or displeasure at a certain act. In his envisioning of Joseph in Mr Badman, Bunyan does not add to or interpret the biblical text. Those elements of Joseph’s narrative which apply to Bunyan’s own life story—his role as honest servant and teacher, his acceptance of imprisonment, his determination to act according to religious strictures—are emphasized.

Bunyan’s ‘The Acceptable Sacrifice: or the Excellency of a Broken Heart: shewing the Nature, Signs and Proper Effects of a Contrite Spirit’ was probably one of his last writings, and indeed was in press at the time of his death in 1688. ‘The Acceptable Sacrifice’ might be termed a midrash on Psalm 51, also known as the Penitential Psalm or the Miserere, after its Latin opening ‘Miserere mei Deus’. A written sermon some eighty pages in length, ‘The Acceptable Sacrifice’ focuses on verse 17: ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise’. As is clear from the text’s subtitle, Bunyan meditates upon and explicates the nature, signs, and effects of a broken heart and (p. 543) spirit. If the pre-eminent sacrifice of all time was that offered by Jesus Christ via his suffering on the cross, the suffering, the mental anguish figured by the ‘broken heart’ is the believer’s way of partaking of Christ’s sacrifice. Bunyan refers to Joseph’s predicament as part of his depiction of the signs of a broken heart: ‘When Joseph’s Mistress tempted him to lie with her, he was afraid of the Word of God; How shall I do this great Wickedness, said he, and sin against God? He stood in awe of God’s Word, durst not do it, because he kept in Remembrance, what a dreadful thing ’twas to Rebel against God’s Word’. 32

As was the case in Badman, Bunyan’s description of Joseph’s thoughts, as the latter, alone in his master’s villa with his eager mistress, decides on his course of action, does not include any reference to overcoming sexual desire. It may be that the biblical text’s lack of reference to the possibility of romantic interest in his mistress on Joseph’s part was convenient for Bunyan, in the sense that by cleaving to his source he avoided what might have been an uncomfortable issue. In Bunyan’s view, Joseph apparently hoped that an appeal to a religious authority would be more convincing than an appeal to the wife’s presumed loyalty to her husband. As a religious leader and public preacher, Bunyan was aware that a warning of divine retribution might be effective in convincing a sinner to refrain from committing his or her ‘darling sin’.33 In ‘Acceptable Sacrifice’ he points to Joseph’s use of a religious argument in his attempt to avoid his mistress’s attentions. In Joseph’s case, this argument was not successful; he might have learned from his boyhood conflicts with his brothers and parents that preaching, occupying the moral high ground, is not always helpful in making one’s point. Bunyan, however, who believed in the ultimate efficacy of preaching, and was willing to pay a heavy personal price in his struggle against those who would deny him a pulpit, was aware of the efficacy of appealing to his interlocutor on more than one level.

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, first published in 1666, is Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, chief representative of the genre of diaries in which the believer records his or her spiritual struggles while working toward a sense of salvation. Grace Abounding and ‘A Relation of the Imprisonment of Mr. John Bunyan’, which since 1765 has been published in tandem with Grace Abounding, includes sections detailing Bunyan’s hardships—physical, familial, and spiritual—while in jail. Bunyan details his pain at being separated from his wife and children, as well as his fears for their well-being, and especially that of his beloved blind daughter. Although Joseph is not mentioned by name in Grace Abounding, Bunyan may be said to have taken a page from the book of the young Joseph in the pit near Dothan who gave loud, anguished expression to his anger and pain. For Bunyan, the adult Joseph’s quiet acceptance of his patently unjust imprisonment in Egypt may have served as an example possibly to be admired, though not followed.

Sid Sondergard has suggested that the prison metaphors occurring throughout Bunyan’s work are intentional and didactic. They establish and authenticate his spiritual authority. Such authentication may have been necessitated by Bunyan’s physical separation from his congregation; moreover according to Sondergard the preacher’s lack of ‘formal rhetorical training may explain why his use of images of violence and imprisonment seems designed (p. 544) to address its audiences at the level of human empathy and experience’.34 Although lengthy imprisonment can enhance one’s reputation as a leader, its effect on the individual may be long-term and unexpected. As Sondergard suggests, the idea that ‘the experience of imprisonment precludes the possibility of ever being truly free again’ is specifically asserted in The Life and Death of Mr Badman.35 For Bunyan, sin was a prison from which one could never be completely free: as Mr Wiseman states, ‘[t]he Prisoner that is to dye at the Gallows for his wickedness, must first have his Irons knock’t off his legs; so he seems to goe most at liberty, when indeed he is to be executed for his transgressions’.36 But if Bedford Gaol served as a figure for sin in the sense that neither could be escaped from, Bunyan’s suffering and that of his family, as depicted in Grace Abounding, was literal. It can therefore be argued that Joseph’s first imprisonment—in the pit in the wilderness near Dothan—from which his cries could be heard clearly, served Bunyan as a predictor of his own reaction to lengthy imprisonment.

Bunyan’s descriptions of his and his family’s suffering may be compared to a scene described by Edmund Calamy in a biblical paraphrase. Calamy (who had been imprisoned for three months in 1662 for preaching a sermon, although ‘by reason of his inconformity’ he was ‘disabled to preach or read any Lecture or Sermon’) describes Eli (1 Samuel 4: 13–18) as the latter sat watching a battle in which his two sons took part:

now let us consider what old Eli was doing all the while the battel was fighting. The good old man was 98. years old, he was not able to go to the battel; but he got upon a seat by the way side, near the battel where it was fought, and there he sits watching what will become of the Ark: And lo Eli sat upon a seat by the way side, watching; for his heart trembled for fear of the Ark of God: For fear lest the Ark of God should be taken. He was not troubled what would become of his two Sons, he was not troubled what should become of the people of Israel; but all his trouble was for the Ark of God; he sat by the way side watching, for his heart trembled for the Ark of God.37

A look at the biblical text reveals that Eli collapsed and died after learning of the capturing of the Ark and of the death of his sons. One wonders what Bunyan would have made of Calamy’s suggestion that Eli was not troubled by what should befall his sons; the latter claim has no textual basis. Just as the biblical redactor did not hide Joseph’s suffering, Bunyan did not delegitimize his own pain as a father.

As did Joseph in his Egyptian imprisonment, Bunyan utilized his years in jail both to raise his own status and to help others. By reading and writing he was able to remain in touch with his followers, encouraged by the hope that his ‘Brief and Faithful relation of the Exceeding Mercy of God in Christ to his poor Servant … would help in the support of the weak and tempted people of God’.38 In this sense the details of his sufferings which fill Grace Abounding need not be seen as whining: the preacher was sharing them with his parishioners in order to show them that they could overcome their own struggles.

(p. 545) In conclusion, John Bunyan’s references to Joseph are best seen in the light of his sense that the Bible, its characters, and stories constituted the world outside his own home and congregation. Bunyan’s use of Joseph is less allegorical than dramatic: he assumes that his readers and listeners are familiar with the biblical tales of the patriarchs and draws a comparison or contrast between Joseph in a certain situation, or vis-à-vis a specific trait, and himself, or a literary character of his creation, who is faced with a similar situation. Bunyan’s use of Joseph, the prisoner, the unfairly accused, as a point of reference in his constant examination of his own conduct, helped him to assign meaning to events in his own life—lengthy imprisonment, unfair accusations of misconduct—which he might otherwise have found difficult to accept and interpret. His examination of Joseph’s life also enabled him to use Joseph in his own life’s work of convincing his parishioners and readers via preaching and imaginary writing. Finally, his use of the character is reflected in the images of the less-than-perfect pilgrim who served as a model for the rounded, human characters of what would become the novel.

Further Reading

Benedict, Philip. Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).Find this resource:

    Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress, ed. James Blanton Wharey, 2nd edn, rev. Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960).Find this resource:

      Bunyan, John. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, ed. Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962).Find this resource:

        Bunyan, John. The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, ed. James F. Forrest and Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).Find this resource:

          Bunyan, John. The Acceptable Sacrifice, Last Sermon, etc., ed. W. R. Owens (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).Find this resource:

            Furlong, Monica. Puritan’s Progress (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1975).Find this resource:

              Greaves, Richard L. Glimpses of Glory: John Bunyan and English Dissent (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002).Find this resource:

                Hill, Christopher. The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (London: Allen Lane, 1993).Find this resource:

                  Kaufmann, U. Milo. The Pilgrim’s Progress and Traditions in Puritan Meditation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966).Find this resource:

                    Killeen, Kevin. Biblical Scholarship, Science and Politics in Early Modern England: Thomas Browne and the Thorny Place of Knowledge (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).Find this resource:

                      Knott, John R., Jr. The Sword of the Spirit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).Find this resource:

                        Luxon, Thomas H. Literal Figures: Puritan Allegory and the Reformation Crisis in Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).Find this resource:

                          MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: A History (New York: Penguin, 2003).Find this resource:

                            Rosenfeld, Nancy. The Human Satan in Seventeenth-Century English Literature: From Milton to Rochester (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).Find this resource:

                              Underdown, David. Fire from Heaven: Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth Century (London: HarperCollins, 1992).Find this resource:


                                (1) John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, ed. James Blanton Wharey, 2nd edn, rev. Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), 1, 4.

                                (2) U. Milo Kaufmann, The Pilgrim’s Progress and Traditions in Puritan Meditation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 5.

                                (3) Kevin Killeen, Biblical Scholarship, Science and Politics in Early Modern England: Thomas Browne and the Thorny Place of Knowledge (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 66–7.

                                (4) Patrick Cary (Carey), Trivial Poems, and Triolets: Written in Obedience to Mrs. Tomkin’s Commands (1651; London: John Murray, 1820), 15–16.

                                (5) John Bunyan, Miscellaneous Works, gen. ed. Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976–94), i. 304.

                                (6) Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-century Revolution (London: Penguin Books, 1994), 7.

                                (7) The situation of dissenters in Bedford may be contrasted with that of their fellows in e.g. Dorchester. As David Underdown notes, Dorchester in the 1660s ‘was a haven for dissenters, protected by magistrates who had no interest in enforcing the punitive Clarendon Code, as Cavalier justices in the county were doing. The town’s JPs deliberately avoided disturbing the nonconformist conventicles that met both in and outside the Gaol’. David Underdown, Fire from Heaven: Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth Century (London: HarperCollins, 1992), 239.

                                (8) See e.g. Lev. 11; Gen. 17; extensive sections of Leviticus, Numbers.

                                (9) See e.g. Gen. 9, 16, 21.

                                (11) William Walwyn, The Power of Love (London, 1643), 9, 46. On Leveller approaches to the Bible, see the chapter by Andrew Bradstock in this volume.

                                (12) Maxine Hancock, ‘Bunyan as Reader: The Record of Grace Abounding’, Bunyan Studies, 5 (1994): 74.

                                (13) John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, ed. Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962). Citations of Grace Abounding (GA) are to paragraph number: para. 270. Quote in Bunyan’s italics is from Foxe’s Acts and Monuments. (In Bunyan’s day addict meant disciple or adherent.)

                                (14) On the literal sense of scripture, see the chapter by Debora Shuger in this volume.

                                (15) Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 431.

                                (16) Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (New York: Penguin, 2003), 75.

                                (17) Monica Furlong, Puritan’s Progress (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1975), 31.

                                (18) John R. Knott, Jr., The Sword of the Spirit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 130, 132.

                                (19) Arthur Dent, The Plaine Man’s Path-way to Heaven (London, 1629).

                                (21) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, tr. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), III.23.9.

                                (22) See GA, para. 91: ‘These words [MY LOVE] came again into my thoughts, and I well remember as they came in, I said thus in my heart, What shall I get by thinking on these two words? … that sentence fell in upon me’; para. 93: ‘I was much followed by this scripture, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you’; para. 94: ‘it [the sound of the latter] would sound so loud within me, yea, and as it were call so strongly after me’.

                                (23) Richard L. Greaves, Glimpses of Glory: John Bunyan and English Dissent (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002), 7–8.

                                (24) Brainerd P. Stranahan, ‘Bunyan’s Special Talent: Biblical Texts as “Events” in Grace Abounding and The Pilgrim’s Progress’, English Literary Renaissance, 11 (1981): 329, 331.

                                (25) Joseph Heinemann, ‘The Nature of the Aggadah’, in Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick (eds), Midrash and Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 48.

                                (26) Thomas H. Luxon, Literal Figures: Puritan Allegory and the Reformation Crisis in Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 119.

                                (28) Rene de Cerisiers, The Innocent Lord, or the Divine Providence, tr. William Lowre (London, 1654) 3, 5.

                                (29) John Bunyan, The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, ed. James F. Forrest and Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988), 54, 55.

                                (32) John Bunyan, ‘The Acceptable Sacrifice, Last Sermon, et al’., The Miscellaneous Works of John Bunyan, xii, ed. W.R. Owens (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 41.

                                (33) Gordon S. Wakefield defines the ‘darling sin’ as ‘that particular sin to which we are constitutionally prone’. ‘“To Be a Pilgrim”: Bunyan and the Christian Life’, in N. H. Keeble (ed.), John Bunyan: Conventicle and Parnassus: Tercentenary Essays (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 121.

                                (34) Sid Sondergard, ‘“This Giant Has Wounded Me as Well as Thee”: Reading Bunyan’s Violence and/ as Authority’, in K. Z. Keller and G. J. Schiffhorst (eds), The Witness of Times: Manifestations of Ideology in Seventeenth Century England (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1993), 220, 218.

                                (37) Edward Calamy, Eli Trembling for Fear of the Ark: A Sermon Preached at St. Mary Aldermanbury, Decemb. 28. 1662. / by Edmund Calamy; upon the Preaching of Which He Was Committed Prisoner to the Gaol of Newgate, Jan 6. 1662 [i.e. 1663] (Oxford, 1663), 2.

                                (38) Bunyan, Grace Abounding, frontispiece.