John Bunyan: Geneva Bible Only?
Robert L. Vaughn
“I do not claim that Bunyan never read or used the Geneva Bible. Nevertheless, the Geneva Bible was not his primary Bible. Claims to the contrary are lacking in support. Prior Bunyan researchers have noticed and documented his propensity to quote the King James Bible…”
There is a stream running around the World Wide Web that would sweep us down its path to believe that John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, was a “Geneva Bible Only” (GBO) man. They don’t say it just that way, but the underlying perception given is that Bunyan rejected the King James Version and used the Geneva Bible instead.[i] Not so fast. Not so. It is a piece of curious folklore. Its presence on the internet is somewhat like the Lernaean Hydra; when you find and cut off one head, two others pop up!
One of the more egregious examples is found at Reformed Reader in Michael H. Brown’s 1988 “An Introduction to the Geneva Bible.” (According to A Puritan’s Mind, L. L. Brown Publishing places this introduction in their Geneva Bible 1599 Edition. I found this to be true in the 1991 printing of it at Archive.org, p. i.)
“William Shakespeare, John Bunyan, John Milton, the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620, and other luminaries of that era used the Geneva Bible exclusively.” [bold emp. mine]
The first inkling of a problem with this scenario is that it is often stated but seldom supported. I have contacted numerous purveyors of this info on the Web. Many of them have been very gracious, noting that the support for this seems to be slim, a few even correcting the Bunyan-Bible statements on their web pages. Some did not respond. A few were argumentative – even without documentation to support their claim. It appears they have a “vested interest” in the matter (i.e., promoting the Geneva Bible), and are determined to preserve their “misinformation without documentation.” One humorous example is a respondent who “documented” the undocumented webpage claim by sending me to another undocumented claim:
“It was the Bible of Shakespeare and Paul Bunyan and Cromwell’s Army and of our Pilgrim Fathers…”
Maybe Babe the Blue Ox could be worked into the promo as well!
Others saw it too
I am not alone in rejecting this claim about John Bunyan. Others have noticed the problem with ascribing a “GBO” stance to John Bunyan – though they have approached a resolution in slightly different ways.
Gordon Campbell, writing about “Popular Traditions of God in the Renaissance” relays his “impression” of Bunyan’s quotations, leaving plenty of wiggle room of probably and how it seems.
“My impression is that in his early works he relied on a sixteenth-century translation, probably the Geneva version…In his later works, on the other hand, Bunyan seems to have turned to the King James Version…”[ii]
This leaves much indefiniteness in the matter and is better moderated in a work edited by Anne Dunan-Page. The Cambridge Companion to Bunyan recognizes that John Bunyan “generally quotes” the King James translation, while also recognizing he was familiar with the Geneva Bible.
“Although Bunyan generally quotes the Authorised Version, it is clear that he knew the Geneva Bible well, and he also refers to the work of Tyndale.”[iii]
This is a simple truth we have no reason to question. However, it is worth noticing that we would not use Bunyan’s familiarity with the work of Tyndale to create a legend that Bunyan primarily used Tyndale’s Bible! We can acknowledge that he used the Geneva Bible without wrongly claiming it was his primary Bible. If not, why not?
Hannibal Hamlin and Norman W. Jones find this as well, writing in their 2010 Cambridge published work:
“The first major English writers who allude predominantly to the KJB are John Milton and John Bunyan, in works written after the Restoration of the monarchy…Bunyan knew the Geneva Bible too, as well as the metrical Psalms of Sternhold and Hopkins and others, and Milton knew the Bible in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and other languages. But in Pilgrim’s Progress and Paradise Lost, when Bunyan and Milton allude to the Bible, it is the language of the KJB we most frequently hear. One mark of the KJB’s dominance over other translations at this point is its use by writers like these, who had little sympathy with King James and his Church. Thus, even for non-conformists, radicals, and dissenters, the KJB had become the English Bible.”[iv]
Hamlin states there “are a few instances, though, where KJB and the Geneva diverge, and where Bunyan does seem to have the Geneva in mind.” Nevertheless, the Bible Bunyan knew best is clear: “the vast majority of identifiable biblical quotations and allusions in Grace Abounding and Pilgrim’s Progress are either decisively KJB or in language shared by KJB and Geneva.”[v]
In The Legacy of the King James Bible, Leland Ryken observes:
“It might be expected that as a Puritan Bunyan (1628-1688) would have used the Geneva Bible, but the evidence points to the King James Bible instead. This is easy to establish from the occasional direct Bible quotations in The Pilgrim’s Progress…”[vi]
These modern writers were not the first to notice that Bunyan commonly used the King James Bible. The editor of Bunyan’s Works, George Offor, writes:
“The present authorized version, first published in 1611, is that to which he usually refers: comparing it with the favourite Puritan version made by the refugees at Geneva, and first printed in 1560. He sometimes quotes the Genevan, and so familiar were the two translations, that in several instances he mixes them in referring from memory to passages of holy writ.”[vii]
Matthew Winzer, Australian Free Church pastor in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia wisely instructs us:
“Much of the interest in the Geneva version is nostalgic, due to the revival of interest in Puritanism. As noted above, it is a myth that the Puritans preferred the Geneva over the AV. As the AV is more accurate, it by default became the standard Bible of the Puritans, and indeed of the English-speaking world for nearly three centuries.”
Winzer hits on one reason people are interested in the Geneva Bible. From this point, it is often simply assumed that the Puritans used the Geneva rather than King James Bible. To a smaller degree, some discussions of the Geneva vs. King James ooze with anti-King James Version sentiment. For these few it is not enough to attack the King James as not being as good as some modern Bible that came after it, but also not as good as the Geneva Bible that came before it. However, a scholarly consensus – which can be arrived at by the rest of us due to the wealth of Bunyan sources online – is that the King James was the Bible regularly used by John Bunyan.
Examples of Bunyan using the KJV
Some examples below demonstrate John Bunyan using the King James Bible. Ideally, the best research approach includes (1) searching in printings of Bunyan’s writings from his lifetime, therefore, less likely to be tampered with editorial hands; and (2) compare KJV and Geneva Bible printings that would be in common use during his lifetime. For example, Bunyan would not have used a 1769 revision of the KJV in 1669!
Unfortunately, the ideal has not been met in all cases. However, I have found some scans or transcriptions of books printed during Bunyan’s lifetime (as opposed to later reprints).
Unfortunately, I am unsure of finding the most representative printings for the King James and Geneva Bibles for Bunyan’s lifetime. Therefore, I defaulted to a 1611 printing of the King James Bible, and 1560 and 1599 printings of the Geneva Bible.
Another difficulty is that Bunyan’s citation of Scripture often are not word-for-word citations. This method seems to be part & parcel of his way (or style) of writing. Often, he wove parts of Scripture texts into his own sentences.[viii] (Hamlin describes The Pilgrim’s Progress as “all Bible, all the time.”) Some of Bunyan’s Bible quotations do not exactly match either KJV or Geneva, which suggests their being written from memory. For these reasons, I focused on Scripture verses that were in quotation marks, were lengthy enough to get a good sense that he is intending to quote exactly, and in some cases those which were the specific text he was expositing.[ix]
My research obviously is initial, not exhaustive. However, I have seen enough material to displace the claim that John Bunyan was “GBO.” Here are a few:
The Work of Jesus Christ, as an Advocate, Clearly Explained, John Bunyan, London: Dorman Newman, 1688
- On both the title page and page 1 is part of 1 John 2:1. There is only one word difference between KJV and Geneva (righteous vs. just), but the different word matches the KJV, not Geneva.
Solomon’s Temple Spiritualized, John Bunyan, London: George Larkin, 1688
- Commenting on 2 Chronicles 3:6 (And he garnished the house with precious stones for beauty) Bunyan wrote, “The line saith, garnished; the margin saith, covered.” This marginal reading is from the King James Version.
Seasonable Counsel: Or, Advice to Sufferers, John Bunyan, London: Benjamin Alsop, 1684
- The book starts (p. 1) with the text of 1 Peter 4:19. Bunyan quotes it from the Authorized Version (KJV).
- On page 5 Bunyan quotes Psalm 17:13 and Psalm 40:13-14. These match the KJV rather than Geneva.
- On page 6 Bunyan quotes Zechariah 11: 5. This matches the KJV rather than Geneva.
A Treastise on The Fear of God, John Bunyan, London: The N. Ponder, 1679
- page 2 quotes a portion of Hebrews 12:28 (mislabeled 12:23). This matches the KJV rather than Geneva.
- page 3 quotes a portion of Genesis 31: This matches both KJV and Geneva.
- page 3 quotes Nahum 1:5-6. This matches the KJV rather than Geneva.
- pages 3-4 quote a portion of Isaiah 8:13. This matches both KJV and Geneva.
- page 4 quotes Genesis 28:16-17. This matches the KJV rather than Geneva.
- page 5 quotes a portion of Daniel 10:16-17. This matches the KJV rather than Geneva.
- page 6 quotes a portion of Job 13:21-22. This matches the KJV rather than Geneva.
- page 7 quotes a portion of Isaiah 6:5. This matches the KJV rather than Geneva.
- page 7 quotes Jeremiah 5:22. This matches the KJV rather than Geneva.
The Holy City; or The New Jerusalem, John Bunyan, London: 1665
- Bunyan exposits an extended portion of Revelation 21:10-27 and 22:1-4. These 22 verses match the KJV rather than the Geneva.
A Few Sighs from Hell: Or, the Groans of a Damned Soul, John Bunyan, London: Ralph Wood, 1658
- Luke 16:19-31, the verses under discussion quoted in the beginning, follows the King James Version text rather than the Geneva Bible.
- This is among Bunyan’s earlier writings (1658). It includes a very extended Scripture reference at the beginning of the book – 13 verses, from Luke 16:19-31.[x]
The notes by the editor of The Works of Bunyan, George Offor, can be helpful.[xi] On occasion he provides a footnote to indicate that a quote is “From the Genevan or Puritan version.” In a series of several quotes in The Holy City, the editor makes a note that, of them, Isaiah 60:14 is quoted from Geneva (The Works, Vol. III, p. 406). He also points out these verses as being from the Geneva Bible: Song of Solomon 3:6 (p. 410); Ezekiel 36:25 (p. 451); 2 Chronicles 4:8 (p. 485);[xii] and 2 Peter 1:19 (p. 710). On page 382 this editor comments that a reference to Genesis 19 “probably made from memory, is a mixture of the Genevan and the present version.” Cf. also page 677. The need for the editor to point out that some quotations are found in “the Genevan or Puritan version” (and how few they are) is itself a testimonial that they usually are not from it. Whatever John Bunyan’s relationship to the Geneva Bible, he primarily referenced the King James readings. This is the evidence found in his writings.
John Bunyan was not “GBO,” but neither was he anti-Geneva Bible. His writings evidence that he used it as a reference, and likely that he read from it as well. Likewise, I have no complaint against the Geneva Bible. It was blessed and used of God in the day for which it was raised up. Obviously, it was superseded by the King James or Authorized Bible, but the predecessor left its marks on its successor. Dan G. Danner claims that the Geneva Bible “contributed more to the composition of the King James version of 1611, perhaps with the exception of the work of William Tyndale, than any other English version of the Bible.”[xiii]
According to Charles Butterworth:
“In the lineage of the King James Bible this volume [the Geneva Bible, rlv] is by all means the most important single volume. Only in the New Testament and the Pentateuch is its contribution overshadowed by the work of William Tyndale. In the Historical Books it matches the contribution of the Matthew Bible; in the Poetical Books it matches the contribution of the Coverdale Bible; while in the Books of the Prophets it is supreme, challenging even the contribution of the King James Bible itself.”
“Lastly, it was for fifty years (1570-1620) the household Bible of the English people, until it was superseded in this post by the Authorized Version of 1611.”[xiv]
To this we should add that the KJV itself is not an anti-Geneva Bible. For some, this finds an outlet in suggesting that the “King James” translation effort was rooted in anti-Geneva anti-Puritanism.[xv] However, the Puritans, at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604, requested a new translation – which became the KJV/AV. The KJV was not initiated as an anti-Geneva Bible project. About one fourth of the translators were Puritans. John Reynolds (Rainolds) suggested the new translation and was a leading member of the First Oxford Company.[xvi]
In connection to a search for the Bible used by John Bunyan, we might also wonder about the Bible of John Milton. His name is often connected with Bunyan and Shakespeare as a user of the Geneva Bible. Comparing the timeline of Bunyan, Milton, and Shakespeare is enlightening. Shakespeare died in 1616, just a few years after the KJV was published in 1611, while Bunyan was not born until 1628. Bunyan professed his faith in Christ and joined a dissenting church about 1651, then began preaching about 1655. Likely the avid use of the Geneva Bible was on the wane by the time Bunyan became an active Christian. John Milton (1608-1674) was slightly older than Bunyan, but only three years old when the KJV was first printed.
The Bunyan-GBO legend seems to be rooted in a renewed interest in Puritanism, as well as an effort to promote the Geneva Bible for modern audiences. It some cases there may be a felt need to reject or diminish the importance of the King James Bible.
I do not claim that Bunyan never read or used the Geneva Bible. Nevertheless, the Geneva Bible was not his primary Bible. Claims to the contrary are lacking in support. Prior Bunyan researchers have noticed and documented his propensity to quote the King James Bible. In his own writings, his texts, quotes, and references to marginal readings match the King James translation. We should not pass on claims that are unproven, and, in this case, has a substantial amount of information that disproves it.
More in-depth research may challenge and refine some of my findings. It will not, however, overturn the conclusion. John Bunyan was not “GBO.”
Knowing the evidence is found in Bunyan’s own writings, I close with the words of George Offor.
“He who doubts the word of John Bunyan, knows nothing of the character and soul of a man who suffered nearly thirteen years’ imprisonment in Bedford jail, rather than utter a falsehood or use the slightest simulation. Such objectors deserve chastisement in Doubting Castle, and should be flogged with the royal garter—Honi soit qui mal y pense.”
(The Works of John Bunyan: (Volume 3) Allegorical, Figurative, and Symbolical, George Offor, Editor, Glasgow: Blackie and son, 1859, p. 29)
[i] At least a few sites claim John Bunyan used the Geneva Bible exclusively, and many more claim he used it primarily.
[ii] In Reconsidering the Renaissance: Papers from the Twenty-First Annual Conference. Mario Di Cesare, Editor. Binghamton, NY: Medieval Renaissance Texts Studies, 1992, pp. 515-516.
[iii] The Cambridge Companion to Bunyan, Anne Dunan-Page, editor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 41. The footnote for the statement on page 41 takes us to Bunyan’s A Discourse of the House of the Forest of Lebanon. In this discussion, he is explaining the word “target” in 2 Chronicles 9:15. The context makes it clear he is using the KJV, which has target in that place. He also refers to the marginal reading of the KJV translators as he explains the word. Then he refers to how “target” is “shield” “in some of your old Bibles” (i.e., Geneva). Bunyan explains this in a way the explanation that demonstrates the KJV rather than the Geneva was his primary Bible of reference.
[iv] “Introduction: the King James Bible and its reception history,” by Hamlin and Jones, in The King James Bible After Four Hundred Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences, edited by Hannibal Hamlin, Norman W. Jones, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 12.
[v] “Bunyan’s biblical progress,” by Hamlin, in The King James Bible After Four Hundred Years, edited by Hannibal Hamlin, Norman W. Jones, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 212-213.
[vi] The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation, Leland Ryken, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011, p. 188. Ryken is a recently retired professor of English at Wheaton College, where he taught English almost 50 years. Those who read The Pilgrim’s Progress will observe the same thing Ryken did.
[vii] The Works of John Bunyan: (Volume 3) Allegorical, Figurative, and Symbolical, George Offor, Editor, Glasgow: Blackie and Son, 1853, p. xliii. In my opinion, the excitement Offor exhibits about Bunyan’s use of the Geneva Bible is somewhat diminished by the actual small amount of times that he pointed out that Bunyan was either quoting the Geneva or mixing the KJV and Geneva in his quotes.
[viii] “Stranahan argues that ‘Bunyan never sets himself to recall the precise wording of a given passage, as might be required of a Sunday-school class.’ This is an overstatement, however, since many of Bunyan’s citations are perfectly accurate.” “Bunyan’s biblical progress,” by Hamlin, in The King James Bible After Four Hundred Years, edited by Hannibal Hamlin, Norman W. Jones, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, footnote 21, p. 217.
[ix] Such research is quite a chore. That is one reason I doubt that many of the people making online claims about Bunyan and the Geneva Bible have actually looked at this closely. They are mostly speaking “off the cuff” and giving their opinions when they write about what Bible Bunyan used.
[x] Note the down side, that the presentation of the old work (1658) is a transcription rather than a scan. There is a scan on Google Books which is a 1734 printing.
[xi] George Offor was a 19th century London book collector. He was considered an expert on 16th and 17th century English writings. He compiled the works of John Bunyan in 3 volumes.
[xii] This quotation interestingly includes “also” from the KJV (not in Geneva), but “hand” from Geneva rather than “side” as in the KJV.
[xiii] “The Later English Calvinists and the Geneva Bible,” in Later Calvinism: International Perspectives, W. Fred Graham, editor. Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Publishers, 1994, p. 491.
[xiv] The Literary Lineage of the King James Bible 1340-1611, Charles C. Butterworth, New York, NY: Octagon Books, 1971 (original 1941 by University of Pennsylvania Press), p. 163. It was a household Bible probably of the middle and upper classes; likely, many of the poorer classes in England could not afford a Bible, and not doubt some (many?) of them could not have read it.
[xv] The general idea that the Puritans disliked the King James translation is a hand overplayed. I reviewed some Puritan sermons from the 1640s available at the University of Michigan “Early English Books Online Partnership,” by two leading Puritans, Cornelius Burges and Stephen Marshall. I compared their sermon texts with the KJV and Geneva Bibles. In each case of the seven sermons I compared, the sermon text matched the KJV rather than Geneva – except in one case where KJV and Geneva were the same, but there the printed text in the sermon had an extra word not in either in them.
[xvi] “…quite a few (about a fourth) had Puritan leanings…” Wide as the Waters: the Story of the English Bible and the Revolution it Inspired, Benson Bobrick. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001, pp. 217-218.