In a back street in Bedford is a museum dedicated to one of the world’s most translated authors. The author is John Bunyan, born in 1628 in the village of Elstow near Bedford. His writing, principally Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678 and still remains in print nearly 350 years later. It is estimated to have been translated into more than 200 languages.
The John Bunyan Museum is a small, simple and succinct dedication to the clergyman author who, since 1678, has never been out of print. The 19th century site of the Museum is also home to the descendant congregation of Bunyan’s own.
John Bunyan’s most prominent work, Pilgrim’s Progress, was published in 1678 and is an allegorical telling of the Christian journey from sinfulness to the ‘Celestial City’. The Museum’s low key presentation could itself be allegorical of the humility and lack of ostentation typical of the 17th century Puritan Christian tradition, of which Bunyan was a part.
Pre-dating an abundance of secular works, Pilgrim’s Progress has cemented the discovery story or quest, into a literary canon that lives on today . It is an elongated dream sequence that tells of Christian, a man burdened with a sense of his own apparent sinfulness.
With the weight of the world on his back, Christian sets out on a journey of discovery, spiritual enrichment and fulfillment. His burden lightens as he travels through an undulating and often precipitous landscape. He takes several wrong turns, meets a litany of reprobate characters -some obviously so and others masquerading as friends – and passes through places that could easily have slipped out of modern day fantasy literature such as “The Palace Beautiful”, “The Enchanted Ground” and “The Slough of Despond”. Christian goes on to be imprisoned and beaten, but time after time he is guided back to the right path and onward to continue his journey.
Bunyan’s own life journey was from poor-ish son of a tinsmith to literary posterity, via two marriages, the military, non-conformist Christian ministry – during a time when conformity was decreed in law, and a decade in 17th century prison for failing to observe the religious requirements of the day. He wrote Pilgrim’s Progress while a prisoner.
At the Museum visitors can experience Bunyan’s pulpit and his prison, and learn more about the allegorical nature of his writing. The local Bedfordshire countryside is also revealed as an inspiration for the metaphysical landscapes contained in the Pilgrim’s story.
Don’t be disappointed at the apparent brevity of the display or the unfussy interpretation. Its worth pondering on what’s there and some knowledgeable guides will happily bring the story of the Pilgrim or Bunyan even more alive.
If you visit as a devotee of Bunyan you may feel you are walking on somewhat hallowed turf. If visiting provides an introduction to him and his writing, you might just be tempted to purchase one of the many versions of Pilgrim’s Progress available in the Museum shop, even if just to find out where or what on earth ‘The Slough of Despond’ is.
See: John Bunyan Museum
© Laura Claire H 2016