According to E.P. Thompson, The Pilgrim's Progress and The Rights of Man are the two 'foundation texts' of the English working-class movement. It is above all in John Bunyan, he argues, that we find 'the slumbering Radicalism' which was preserved through the 18th century, and broke out again and again in the 19th.
Bunyan was born in a cottage on the edge of Elstow, a village near Bedford, in November 1628. His father was a brazier. He was 13 when the Civil War broke out, and at 16 joined a regiment garrisoned at Newport Pagnell. During his army years Bunyan witnessed the struggle between Presbyterians, who wanted to reform the Church of England, and radical sectaries. He had a religious awakening in 1650 - the year his blind daughter, Mary, was born - and suffered from a series of nervous illnesses which Richard Greaves unhelpfully approaches by means of psychiatric theory and William Styron's compelling account of his own severe depression. In 1650 Bunyan had heard three or four women discussing religion: they were, he said, 'far above out of my reach', and he began seeking out the company of these people, who were members of a separatist church organised by John Gifford, a former major in the royalist army. A few years later Bunyan started to preach himself, to a Bedford congregation which a contemporary called 'Bunian his society', and this got him into trouble even before the restoration of the monarchy and the traditional church in 1660. He was indicted at the Bedford Assizes in February 1658, probably following a complaint from the local vicar, Thomas Becke, who was a Presbyterian.
LRB 16 December 2004 | PDF Download