Echoes of John Bunyan

Pilgrim's Progress quickly entered and affected the English-speaking Protestant consciousness like almost nothing else in print, except, of course, the English Bible itself. Allusions to Bunyan in later writers are thus staggeringly numerous; to choose any one of them as an example is to distort (by appearing to narrow) a student's sense of the impact his book had. That caveat made, it nonetheless seems worthwhile to suggest how Bunyan could work his way into a book written roughly two hundred years and a continent away from his own native environment through the following example.

It comes from a novel by Edward Eggleston, The Circuit Rider. Published in 1873, this book was written by an Indianan then living in Brooklyn, New York (at that time a city in its own right, and not part of New York City), where he was himself a minister. It concerned the lives of early Ohio frontier Methodist ministers ("circuit riders"). Eggleston's novel is not "typical" of anything at all except the pervasiveness of Bunyan's presence in later works. The passage quoted comes from pages 38-39 of a 1913 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons) reprint of the novel, which was copyrighted in 1873 (and again in 1902):

The ride to church was a long one, for there had never been preaching nearer to the Hissawachee settlement than ten miles away. Morton [Goodwin, Eggleston's hero] found the sermon rather more interesting than usual. There still lingered in the West at this time [roughly 1850, when Indiana remained "the frontier"] the remains of the controversy between "Old-side" and "New-side" Presbyterians, that dated its origins before the Revolution. Parson Donaldson belonged to the Old side. With square, combative face, and hard, combative voice, he made war upon the laxity of New-side Presbyterians, and the grievous heresies of the Arminians, and in particular upon the exciting meetings of the Methodists. The great Cane Ridge Camp-meeting was yet fresh in the memories of the people, and for the hundredth time Mr. Donaldson inveighed against the Presbyterian ministers who had originated this first of camp meetings, and set agoing the wild excitements now fostered by the Methodists. He said the Presbyterians who had anything to do with this fanaticism were led astray by the devil, and the Synod did right in driving some of them out. As for Methodists, they denied "the Decrees." What was that but a denial of salvation by grace? And this involved the overthrow of the great Protestant doctrine of Justification by Faith. This is rather the mental process by which the parson landed himself at his conclusions, than his way of stating them to his hearers. In preaching, he [38/39] did not find it necessary to say that a denial of the decrees logically involved the rest. He translated his conclusions into a statement of fact, and boldly asserted that these crazy, illiterate, noisy, vagabond circuit riders were traitors to Protestantism, denying the doctrine of Justification, and teaching salvation by the merit of works. There were many divines, on both sides, in that day who thought zeal for their creed justified any amount of unfairness. (But all that is past!)

Morton's combativeness was greatly tickled by this discourse, and when they were again in the saddle to ride the ten miles home, he assured his mother that he wouldn't mind coming to meeting often, rain or shine, if the preacher would only pitch into somebody every time. He thought it wouldn't be hard to be good, if a body could only have something bad to fight. "Don't you remember, mother, how you used to read to me out of that old "Pilgrim's Progress," and show me the picture of Christian thrashing Apollyon till his hide wouldn't hold shucks? If I could fight the devil that way, I wouldn't mind being a Christian."

The passage just quoted is not the only direct allusion in this book to Bunyan. In addition, the very shape of Eggleston's novel owes much, indirectly, to Pilgrim's Progress.

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