Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

The Unbearable Inner Light: John Bunyan's Controversy with the Quakers

Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

The Unbearable Inner Light: John Bunyan's Controversy with the Quakers

Article excerpt

John Bunyan's first published works, Some Gospel-Truths Opened (1656) and A Vindication of the Book Called, Some Gospel-Truths Opened (1 657) emerged from a controversy with Edward Burrough, the young Quaker whose evangelical efforts in Bedfordshire in the middle 1 650s threatened the stability of the Bedford congregation, which was now sending Bunyan to preach throughout the region. Insofar as Bunyan's first publications were an attack on Quaker theology, William York Tindall writes, 'Bunyan became involved in a war to end wars, which was not unlike other wars of this character'.' Regarding this conflict, Roger Sharrock goes even further, arguing that, apart from evangelical rivalry, Bunyan

was genuinely terrified at the early Quaker doctrine of the inner light and at their treatment of Scripture. His literal, objective type of mind laid supreme stress on the Bible as a precise historical narrative so that Quaker emphasis on an inner Christ seemed to him a blasphemous neglect of Scripture; and his smarting sense of sin made him intolerant of the apparent complacency of those who claimed to possess Christ in their hearts.2

Many critics have remarked that his early treatises against the Quakers are not among Bunyan's most elegant writings: they are filled with aggression, and read as a first round in a long career of theological disputes. Yet Bunyan's doctrinal controversies with the Quakers give us a foretaste of the dread that comes to dominate his spiritual autobiography; what's more, Bunyan's exposure of the folly and errors of the Quaker doctrines and practices remains a pervasive project throughout his career, long past their immediate relevance to his personal narrative. In Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan portrays the radical subjectivity of Quaker doctrine as a thorn in his side that was never dislodged. The Quaker way represents not just repudiated, heretical doctrines, but also comes to embody a lifelong enemy. The Friends take on a special, almost spectral role, throughout his career, returning as a revenant of a former self, with its temptations, torments, and terrors. The Bunyan who acknowledges the 'ridiculous' excesses of his imaginings, and who pictures himself as demon possessed, or a man tortured on a rack,3 is the same Bunyan who comes to describe the Quaker way as madness. He consolidates, in a clear 'enemy', certain forces that torment him within, and tempt him from without.

Henri Talon claims in fact that each of Bunyan's major targets in his life - the Quaker Edward Burrough as well as the Latitudinarian Edward Fowler - appeared at the right time and had they not appeared when they did would have had to have been 'invented' in some other way in order for Bunyan to emerge as a speaker and writer. Bunyan makes clear that the Lord raises up enemies for him at appointed times. He picks enemies according to the feelings that dominate him during the formative periods of his youth. Hugh Barbour and Ted Underwood have gone to great lengths to reconcile Bunyan to the Quakers in their demonstrations of how contiguous the early Quakers were to the Puritan doctrines and how, experientially, Bunyan's positive encounter with scriptural revelation looks a lot like the Openings' of George Fox. And Richard Greaves is not the first to note that it is one of the great ironies of Bunyan's life that his lifelong enemies end up sharing his prison cells in his last imprisonment and his ultimate release from prison is in tandem with Quaker prisoners. But Bunyan's lifelong expressive contempt for the Quakers remains a marker of his mentality. Thus I am concerned less here with who the Quakers really were, and more with who they became for the embattled John Bunyan. How did they function within his mind, and within his writings?

This essay will argue that while Bunyan's dispute with Quaker theology is serious, and sustained, it is, nevertheless, rooted as much in his psychology as his theology. …

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