Updated: Apr 15
John Amos Comenius (1592-1670) is an educator, philosopher, and social reformer. However,
relatively few know him as the author of an epic allegory, which inspired the second best-selling book in history. What I am about to divulge is not well-known, even in scholar’s circles. Those who do know what I am about to share are not likely to press on the matter. The second best-selling book in history is so highly revered that to lay shadow over its originality is like touching the third rail in politics.
The Story Behind The Story
A familiar aphorism is a history told by the victors. This phrase, often attributed to Winston Churchill, is proven true often enough to include the story you are about to hear. On the one hand, you have a book that is the gold standard of Christian allegory: Pilgrim’s Progress. On the other hand, this other book is remarkably close to Pilgrim’s Progress, which remains unknown 400 years after it was penned: Labyrinth of the World.
Aside from all his other notoriety, Comenius was a devout man and a bishop of the Bohemian Brethren. This sect preexisted the Protestant Reformation but differed little from it on the most basic level. Unfortunately, Comenius lived in Czech lands. By 1620, war overtook this region as a part of the 30-Years War. The contention was about religious dominance over the area. The papacy sent mercenaries in to support Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor. The short story was that Ferdinand won against Protestant-backed political factions. This win meant that the non-Catholics had three choices: convert, leave, or be hunted (and killed).
After this event, Comenius went into hiding for three years under the protection of one Charles of Žerotín, the elder. On Žerotín’s land, along the Orlice River in a rustic wooden hut, Comenius put pen to parchment and wove a simple dystopian, semi-biographical allegory. It featured a pilgrim, touring through the world to discover what could be done to live a good life, aided by a pair of guides—with character trait names. Pilgrim met a bunch of other characters with character traits as names. Pilgrim experiences vanity, violence, despair, desperation, and hopelessness during his journey. This tale contains the pilgrim’s salvation experience and is even written in two parts. Sound familiar?
These characteristics are remarkably similar to Pilgrim’s Progress.
The Big Question:
How did Pilgrim’s Progress come about and then overshadow the former allegory?
Scholars do not have a “smoking gun” in this story-behind-the-story. However, we know that Labyrinth was known in influential circles because of one of Comenius’s close friendships: Samuel Hartlib. Hartlib knew of Labyrinth and other works of Comenius. He bandied them about Europe to create an entrance for himself in England’s Parliament and elsewhere. As a result, Comenius went to England around 1641, where Puritans established their political dominance with Oliver Cromwell. Later Comenius went on to Leiden and Amsterdam, where he also worked with Puritans.
Part of Puritan efforts had to do with education, which is why Comenius was brought in. Hartlib courted relationships between Comenius and several famous Puritans: Theodore Haak, John Milton, and John Owen, to name a few. These men were also known 1,2,3 to John Bunyan (1628–1688), a Puritan.
Bunyan was a tinker early in life but became a lay preacher. He preached out of spiritual zeal and used stories from his common background as an appeal to listeners. This perspective likely figured into his writing style, which gave him a folksy charm. In 1660 Bunyan went to jail for preaching. He ignored the Conventicle Act of 1593 wherein it was allowed that only licensed Anglican preachers were to be allowed this activity. He spent 12 years in prison, writing the famed Pilgrim’s Progress amongst other pieces. During this time, Bunyan was visited by other preachers and his daughter (and likely others). It is unlikely that Bunyan’s best friend, John Owen—who worked to secure his release—failed to maintain a connection with him while imprisoned.
Because of his connection to Puritans, and through them, Comenius, Bunyan was familiar with The Labyrinth of the World and his other written works. His visitations provided him with context and made him aware of what was going on in the outside world.
There is no “smoking gun” where Bunyan had a Latin copy of Labyrinth and then plagiarized it. Bunyan was uneducated but had a great imagination and an affinity for storytelling. It was no secret that Comenius’ Latin version of Labyrinth was known to several highly educated Puritans, and the story must have filtered down to Bunyan.
Can you imagine Bunyan rotting away in prison thinking about what little of the story he heard about and then turning it over in his mind?
Of course, there is a bit of conjecture here. However, what I have postulated has a high level of believability, if not a probability. How else might you explain so many levels of comparability between two stories from men of different backgrounds? They did not know each other, yet they came up with an exquisitely similar allegory told in ways so close. Today, someone would be drummed out of a university or their careers ruined for being connected to such similarities between published stories.
What about the rest of the story?
Once out of jail, Bunyan approached John Owen’s publisher with Pilgrim’s Progress. It was immediately published and went through 13 reprints during Bunyan’s life. His tale sold second only to the King James Bible for decades. It has never been out of print in 300 years, and it has been translated into 200 languages.
Comenius’s work of Labyrinth went from Czech into Latin, then into Russian, Italian, French, and Spanish. It was banned in Czech lands as being “subversive.” History closed over it like a blizzard over a flake of snow. Scholars were aware of it, but Pilgrim’s Progress far overshadowed it.
The common thought about the original pilgrim allegory is that Pilgrim’s Progress is it. This
is because the victor, in this case, was the guy who was part of a better machine in spreading information and the perception that he was the first with an idea. Puritanism went to the New World. They were behind the founding of America—in the eyes of some. With this perception comes a glamour and pride of story containing those parts of its establishment. Comenius’s story in Czech and Latin were less accessible languages. The rest has been history. However, historical dates and facts finally vindicate the reality of which is the original pilgrim allegory and Labyrinth of the World -and- The Paradise of the Heart is it.