Wednesday, 19 May 2010

A Turbulent, Seditious and Factious People: John Bunyan and His Church-by Christopher Hill-Verso 2017.

If anything characterised Christopher Hill’s long career, it was his belief that to understand any historical change one had to believe in the dialectical connection between economics and politics and that the materialist base determines the superstructure of social, intellectual, and political developments. Maintaining this belief was not always easy. He came under fierce attack both inside the Communist Party (he left in 1956) and out. This idea still permeates Verso’s new edition of his biography of John Bunyan.

When this book was originally published, Hill was accused of renouncing his Marxist interpretation of the English Revolution. Later, in life Hill attempted to answer this charge during a talk he gave celebrating the centenary of the publication of Marx’s “Das Kapital”.

He recounted that Marx had accidentally overheard some former comrades from the 1848 revolution. To a man, they had become rich and decided to reflect on old times and asked Marx if he was becoming less radical as he aged. “Do you?” said Marx, “Well I do not”.

Bunyan’s Work

It is not an overstatement to say that John Bunyan’s work has recognised the world over, especially The Pilgrim’s Progress. It is certainly one of the most influential books written in the English language

It has been translated into more than 200 languages. It was and is popular in America, the great Russian writer Pushkin admired it. And was the first English literary work to be translated into Polish.

Today, while it is more likely to read by children, it is safe to say that many households in Britain have a copy. Bunyan wrote from a "class-conscious piety," as one writer puts it “ contempt for the rich and a passionate defence of the poor, that helps to explain why those writings exert an appeal that transcends the circumstances of Bunyan's own age”.

It is true to say that we are still grappling with the great questions posed by the revolution in England in the 17th century. That issues of social inequality, religious freedom, democracy and even communism are still topics of discussion today bear testimony to the importance of studying this period. Hill was correct when he said we are still beginning to catch up with the 17th century.

Hill’s examination of the life John Bunyan was done so in recognition of the rupture of class antagonisms that brought about the English revolution. Books like the Pilgrim’s Progress were an attempt to understand these events and in Bunyan’s case offer a critique as well as a solution.
Hill’s excellent biography A Turbulent, Seditious, and Factious People: John Bunyan and His Church, 1628-1688 2017, traced a multitude of connections between The Pilgrim’s Progress and radical political movements. Both from the 17th century and later political movements.

While reading the book, it should not take the reader long to figure out that this is not just a children’s book. The book has a deeper political meaning and greater social significance. Hill’s book helps us appreciate the political implications of Bunyan's allegory.

The beauty of Hill’s book is that he carefully places Bunyan’s ideas firmly within the context of the religious and political conflicts that shaped the English revolution. As Hill states, he was "the creative artist of dissent,"

Bunyan was not on the same level of political maturity as John Lilburne and certainly not as open in his use of politics to gain power. However leading members of the gentry still saw him saw him as a threat and acted accordingly. Bunyan was to serve large swathes of his adult life in jail.

Hill argued that ‘Bunyan is the most class-conscious writer in English literature”. He took a class stand in the sense of he was always on the side of the poor. It is not an accident that “most of Christian’s opponents in The Pilgrim’s Progress are Lords or gentry”.

Hill believed that Bunyan understood his working-class position and wrote accordingly. But why use the allegorical style of writing. It would not be too much of a stretch of the imagination that someone as intelligent as Bunyan would be blind to the growth of science and philosophy or that Newton, Boyle, Locke, and others had started to put mankind’s understanding of the world on a more rational and materialist basis, so why the allegorical style of writing.

Hill believed that despite tremendous advances in science and philosophy it was still a dangerous time politically for anyone to attack the ruling elite.

Per Richard Ashcraft “Bunyan quite deliberately used allegorical style, heavy-laden with metaphors and flights of fancy to avoid jail. In part, of course, the decision was a tactical one; ridicule is a powerful political weapon, and figurative language provides a rhetorical shield against the sword of the magistrate. But Bunyan was writing primarily for an audience of self-taught literate artisans like himself, and he knew that "words easy to be understood do often hit the mark when high and learned ones do only pierce the air." Bunyan understood the creative power of popular prose, and "The Pilgrim's Progress" was "written by a man of the people for the people."[1]

Having said that even the most stupid member of the elite could not have failed to understand Bunyan’s use of these names which mirror tiered social structure of 17th century England. Lord Hate-good, Mr. Lyar, Sir Having Greedy, Lord Carnal Delight, Mr. By-ends, Mr. Money-love of the town of Coveting. “The pilgrim’s psyche is thus rooted in social and material life”.[2]


Bunyan was a teenager when he went into the Parliamentary army. He was to receive a very quick education both militarily but more importantly, this sensitive young man would have been exposed to the political cauldron that was brewing in the army and in wider society.

Rank and file soldiers such as himself were exposed to radical ideas about religion, democracy, social inequality, and early communist ideas. As Hill brings out in his book, this would have led him to believe that another world was possible
Bunyan's radicalization did not take an overtly political form. His writings took the form of an organised but allegorical attack on the religion of the day. To do this, it was necessary to in the words of one writer “adopt a distinctive political position in the context of 17th-Century English society”.

While Bunyan had been a soldier during the Revolution as he grew into adulthood, he would have witnessed the ebb of the revolution and felt at first hand the years of reaction.

He would have been alarmed at the rate that the revolution was being expunged from memory. It led him to write the book Mansoul (in the Holy War) to cognize and oppose what was going on.

It is true is that Bunyan had a lot of years to think about these issues. Having spent 12 years in prison. But like John Lilburne, the Leveller leader, it seemed to only make him stronger politically.


Even as I write this review of Hill’s book, I know that the first line of attack will be that Hill’s work is outdated and should be studied only as period pieces.

Unlike Mark Kishlansky who once wrote “It is becoming difficult to remember how influential Christopher Hill once was when E.P. Thompson dedicated Whigs and Hunters to ‘Christopher Hill, I do not believe that Hill is outdated. In fact, a more objective review of his work is long overdue. Also, it is quite scandalous that no major biography of him has appeared.

When Kishlansky reviewed the book, he believed that Hill was “about to enter the most productive years of his career. Two not altogether unconnected impulses characterised them. The first was to champion groups and individuals who placed personal freedom above political necessity; this resulted in his masterpiece, The World Turned Upside Down (1972). The second was the flowering of his interest in the great literary figures of the age, which yielded Milton and the English Revolution (1977) and A Turbulent, Seditious and Factious People (1988), his book on Bunyan. Hill now turned violently against the mainstream of the Revolution he had spent decades illuminating and towards the radical fringe groups and iconoclastic individuals who posed extreme challenges to the social order and religious discipline that successive revolutionary governments attempted to maintain. Cromwell and Ireton at Putney became as oppressive a power structure as Laud and Strafford had been at Whitehall. Hill called this history variously, ‘history from below’, ‘total history’, or the ‘history of the dispossessed’, though few of his subjects derived their social origins from within even the bottom half of 17th-ccntury society and most were so self-consciously unconventional as to defy generalizations based on their behavior[3].

“This work became part of a larger project in which Hill sought to represent the dispossessed throughout history. He identified himself with such ‘radicals’, once instructing a group of US scholars to turn their attention to the study of Native Americans, and in a spirit of cleansing self-criticism proclaimed: ‘One of the things I am most ashamed of is that for decades I proudly illustrated the spread of democratic ideas in 17th-century England by quoting the ringing Leveller declaration, “the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he” ... Every he? Every man? What about the other 50 percent of the population?’ Here he may be anticipating the movement for children’s rights, as even the Levellers were advocating only an adult franchise and adults comprised only about 55 percent of the Early Modern population”.[4]
He went on to call Hill a Rolodex historian who was “immune to criticism”. The attack on Hill was wrong and was driven by political considerations. I am not against healthy debate, but Kishlansky’s almost vendetta like attacks were “clumsy and resentful”.

Hill was defended by his friend fellow former Communist Party Member E. P Thomson who wrote “The testimony of Baxter, Bunyan, Muggleton, George Fox and all Quakers, is disallowed because this served the polemical purposes of marking out the permissible boundaries of sectarian doctrine. This (which was McGregor’s old thesis) may indeed be true, but it by no means disproves the reality of a Ranter ‘moment’. It is notorious that in sectarian history (whether religious or secular) some of the fiercest polemics are between groups which draw upon a common inheritance and share certain premises. In its earliest years, Quakerism was involved in unseemly polemics with the Muggletonians, in which each side accused the other of having gathered up former Ranters among their adherents. I cannot see any reason this may not have been true of both since both originated in the Ranter ‘moment’ and both defined their doctrines and practices in part as a rejection of Ranter excess.[5]

Hill’s insistence that Bunyan ‘moved in Ranter circles in his youth’ – was backed up by 14 references to Bunyan’s Works in his book the World Turned Upside Down, despite this he was attacked by J C Davis for saying that the Ranters were a separate and coherent group (see J. C. Davis, Fear, Myth, and History: The Ranters and the Historians (Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 224)
Further Criticisms

Tom Shipley writes “Yet in other respects, and having admitted Hill’s immense reservoir of knowledge, it can seem that there is too much in his book of reading backwards from now. One warning sign is the prevalence of phrases like ‘must have been’. Bunyan was in the army of Parliament for several years, and in what appears to have been a particularly ‘bolshie’ unit (the adjective is peculiarly appropriate). It is true that Bunyan hardly ever mentions this, but it ‘must have been an overwhelming experience’; in this milieu, radical ideas circulated so much that the young conscript ‘cannot but have been affected by them’. Maybe not. And quite likely reminiscing about the Civil War would have been ‘contra-indicated’ after 1660. But people can be stubbornly resistant to mere proximity. However, much scholars like to forge connections. It is striking to note, for instance – to take an example from Anne Hudson’s book – that Margery Kempe, about whose orthodoxy there was at least considerable doubt, had as her parish priest William Sawtry, the first man to be burnt to death for Lollardy. If the authorities who interrogated her had known that, they might have felt that this was prima facie proof of contagion. Yet as far as one can tell, Sawtry had no influence on Margery Kempe at all: on all disputed points of doctrine, she was rock-solid. Maybe the teenage Bunyan was as imperceptive. At least the evidence for his revolutionary radicalism must be stretched a bit.[6]

Although not a historian Shipley makes the case that Hill cannot be sure that moving in radical circles inside the army Bunyan became radicalised or that he was influenced to some extent.
Again, this kind of argument is petty. Because no one hears a tree fall in the forest does not mean that the tree did not fall. Shipley attack on Hill’s historical materialist outlook has been the stock and trade of every revisionist historian of the 20th and 21 centuries.

When Hill was attacked by Kishlansky for being “immune to criticism” he was in some regards playing him a backhanded compliment given the ferocity of the attacks like the one from Hugh Trevor-Roper he would have needed to very thick skinned. Trevor-Roper complained of that Hill’s ‘scholarship is transformed into advocacy’. It is true that Hill was a partisan historian and was proud of it.

As Ann Talbot wrote “As a historian, he stands far above his detractors and his books deserve to be read and reread, and if, with a critical eye, it should always be with the knowledge that his limitations and faults as much as his great historical insights and innovations are the product of his time. He may be bettered, but never dismissed, and only bettered by those who have studied him closely.[7]

The radical publisher Verso has done a great service in bringing out this new edition of Hill’s biography of John Bunyan. It is hoped that this is only the start of a revival of interest in the work of the great historian.

[5] On the Rant-E.P. Thompson-
[6] Danger-Men-Tom Shippey-

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