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  • Glimpses of Glory: John Bunyan and English Dissent
  • John Spurr
Glimpses of Glory: John Bunyan and English Dissent. By Richard L. Greaves. (Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2002. Pp. xxi, 693. $75.00.)

Richard Greaves is a redoubtable historian of seventeenth-century English Protestantism. Since the 1960's he has published a stream of weighty books, including three volumes on radicals and Nonconformists in the Restoration, a dictionary of seventeenth-century British radicals, and several books on Irish Dissenters. In the meantime he has been an eminent Bunyan scholar as editor of four volumes in the Oxford edition of Bunyan's works, president of the International John Bunyan Society, and author of two previous studies of Bunyan. He has now poured this lifetime of scholarship into an immense biography of Bunyan. In the absence of any substantial personal records, Bunyan's published writings become his biographer's raw material. Greaves gives every publication scrupulous attention. He suggests a provisional date of composition for each and every work, which he then summarizes, quotes, and discusses at length, and it is always the historical resonances and circumstances which determine his dating and analysis rather than the more literary qualities of the text. It is striking that while Greaves is so clearly at home with, and, one may surmise, sympathetic [End Page 556] toward English Dissent, there is no hint of hagiography in this book. This account is deeply rooted in historical particularities and decidedly wary of value judgments. The author has rolled up his sleeves and tracked down individuals, editions, and manuscripts. His book offers surprising nuggets of information, such as the pages devoted to the suicide of John Child or the passing account of Bunyan's attitude toward black people, and many more substantial discussions of Bunyan's religion and theology in all its complexity, including his debt to Luther, a millenarian strain, and a pastoral preoccupation which leads Greaves to name it "evangelical Calvinism." "Magisterial" is an overworked adjective among reviewers, but in this case it seems justified. Greaves happily revises his own earlier suggestions, just as he firmly but politely corrects fanciful interpretations or errors by others; he always explains how he has arrived at a dating or why he has had second thoughts; the historical scene is set from a conventional, whiggish, perspective and in plain prose. As a consequence, even those with little prior knowledge of the seventeenth century will find this a useful, if rather heavy, vade-mecum while they read Bunyan. Those who already know Bunyan will be struck by Greaves's suggestion, based on two posthumously published tracts which he dates to the early 1680's, that Bunyan may have espoused the right of "lesser magistrates" to resist a tyrannical ruler. They will, I believe, be convinced by the argument that Bunyan was no unlettered "mechanick" but rather an earnest autodidact. No doubt they will be intrigued by the book's claim that Bunyan suffered major depressive episodes in the 1650's and when first imprisoned in the early 1660's. Greaves has detected parallels between the modern psychological literature on depression and Bunyan's own experiences as he described them in Grace Abounding, his spiritual autobiography of 1666. Although there is perhaps an excess of detail from modern medical papers, Greaves generally pursues this point with restraint. Whether he is alluding to the possible significance of Bunyan's childhood nightmares or the slaying of Giant Despair, or suggesting that Bunyan was able to capture in allegory the psychic experience of confinement and release because he had lived it, Greaves never pretends to be offering a new key to the man and his works but simply adding a further dimension to our understanding of them both. Nor, thankfully, is there any attempt to generalize the psychological portrait of John Bunyan to explain Puritanism or Protestantism as movements. And yet for all this, Bunyan the man somehow eludes Greaves. A very few pages in the conclusion describe an individual troubled by pride, fond of animals, music, and children, but with his eyes set on the next world in confident Calvinist conviction of personal election. As too often in life, the author is a disappointment...


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