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John Bunyan

by Alfred W. Light

John BunyanPassing from the City Road, through the main gates [of Bunhill Fields Cemetery, London, England] into the middle path and through the first gate on the left into the southern section of the ground, immediately ahead the visitor will see the massive railed tomb of John Bunyan. On the top of it is his recumbent figure, and in the north panel a representation of the pilgrim with his burden on his back, leaning wearily on his staff. In the west panel it is recorded that the tomb was "Restored by public subscription under the presidency of the Right Honorable the Earl of Shaftesbury, May, 1862." In the south panel the pilgrim is again seen, now at the cross with the burden rolling from his back, whilst in the east panel the inscription is as follows:

John Bunyan, Author of the "Pilgrims Progress."
Obt. 31st August, 1688, Æt. 60.

The "immortal tinker" and "glorious dreamer" was born in the village of Elstow, near Bedford, in the year 1628. He was thus contemporary with some of the greatest men whom England has ever known. At the time of his birth Richard Baxter, John Milton, Thomas Goodwin, Lord Chief Justice Hale, John Owen, Archbishop Ussher, and Bishop Hall were all alive, and this cluster of names strikingly indicates the great richness of the age both in godliness and in ability. Bunyan was different from all these in that he was denied the advantages of an early education, but none of them was so strikingly original, or had such a marvellous command of language.

Almost the only books he ever read were the Bible, "Foxe's Book of Martyrs," "Luther on the Galatians," and the two volumes: "The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven" and "The Practice of Piety," which formed his wife's wedding portion. According to Bunyan's own description he was of "a low, inconsiderable generation; my father's house," says he, "being of that rank which is most despised of all the families in the land." It is definitely understood that he was trained to be a brazier [somebody who makes and repairs brass articles] and worked as a journeyman in Bedford, for according to his own account he was of a generation of tinkers, his ancestors having been bred and born to that calling.

In his early days, when cursing and swearing more than his companions, he had qualms of conscience, often being afflicted even whilst asleep with dire apprehensions. When nine or ten years of age he was so distressed in his soul that he often wished "either there be no hell, or that I had been a devil, supposing they were only tormentors."

As he grew into manhood Bunyan became a leader in profligacy, but he could not take any real pleasure in the wild and sinful habits of his companions, and it always shocked him to see persons walk and act in a manner unworthy of their religious profession.

There were many remarkable providential circumstances connected with Bunyan's early days. On one occasion he fell into a creek of the sea, and on another, out of a boat into the river Ouse; each time being saved from drowning. Again, when passing from Elstow to Bedford an adder crossed his path; he stunned it with his stick, forced open its month, and with his fingers plucked out its tongue, which he supposed to be the sting. Of this he says, "By which act, had not God been merciful unto me, I might by my desperateness have brought myself to my end!"

As the Civil War was now raging, he, being a soldier in the Parliamentary Army, was drawn to go to the siege of Leicester. Just when he was ready to start one offered to go in his stead: "To which," says Bunyan, "when I had consented, he took my place; and coming to the siege, as he stood sentinel, he was shot in the head with a musket ball and died." Bunyan at this time was 17 years of age, and referring to the circumstance afterwards, he said, "Here were judgments and mercy, but neither of them did awaken my soul to righteousness, wherefore I sinned still and grew more and more rebellious against God and careless of my own salvation."

Two or three years after this Bunyan was married, his age at the time probably being 19 or 20. His wife was a godly young woman, and they "came together as poor as might be, not having so much household stuff as a dish or a spoon betwixt them both. Her dowry, as has already been noticed, consisted of the two books: "The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven" and "The Practice of Piety." The two would read these together, and the young wife would make mention of her father's godly conversation and walk in the hope that her profane husband would be made ashamed of his words and conduct.

It must not be supposed that Bunyan ever lived an openly immoral life for in after years he defended himself in remarkably plain language on this point. He said, "If all fornicators and adulterers in England were hanged up by the neck until they be dead, John Bunyan, the object of their end, would be still alive and well."

He had a great reverence for the Established church, which indeed amounted to superstition, and amongst other things he thought it a wonderful act of righteousness to ring the bells, although as soon as the service was over, and he with the others had performed their duties, he would go off to play the then popular game of "cat." One day, however, the minister preached what appears to have been a faithful and outspoken sermon on the sanctity of the Sabbath and the great evil of desecrating it. This made his conscience very uneasy, but after he had been home to his dinner he managed to drive away his depressing thoughts, and again entered into his games with great delight and zest.

Whilst playing, and as he was about to strike the "cat" from a hole, it seemed as if a voice from heaven spoke to him and said, "Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or have thy sins and go to hell?" "At this," he said, "I was put to an exceeding maze, wherefore leaving my 'cat' upon the ground I looked up to heaven, and was as if I had, with the eyes of my understanding, seen the Lord Jesus looking down upon me, as being very hotly displeased with me, and as if He did severely threaten me with some grievous punishment for these and other ungodly practices." The effect was marvellous, and he came to the awful conclusion that it was too late for him to turn from his wickedness, for Christ would not forgive him. "My state," he moaned, "is surely miserable; miserable if I leave my sins, and but miserable if I follow them. I can but be damned, and, if I must be so, I had as good be damned for many sins as be damned for a few." There he stood among his thoughtless, ungodly companions, who were all quite unaware of the great exercises of his mind and the depression of his spirits. He said nothing to them, but went to his sport again, desiring to take his fill of sin, and hoping that he might taste some sweetness from it before he should die.

Afterwards in relating the circumstance he said, "In these things I protest before God I lie not; neither do I frame this sort of speech; these were really, strongly, and with all my heart, my desires. The good Lord, whose mercy is unsearchable, forgive me my transgressions!" His language was now so terrifying and profane that even wicked people were shocked and astonished at him. In fact one who was herself an evil woman advised his companions to quit his company or he would make them as bad as himself. She said "that he was the ungodliest fellow for swearing that ever she heard in all her life, and that by thus doing, he was able to spoil all the youth of the whole town, if they came in his company." He hung his head in silence, "wishing," as he says, "in my heart that I might be a little child again that my father might learn me to speak without this wicked way of swearing."

It was not long after this when he met a poor man who had some conversation with him concerning the Scriptures, which was the means of leading him to the Bible. For the first time he took pleasure in reading it, being especially interested in the historical parts, but the Epistles he says, "I could not away with, being as yet ignorant both of the corruption of our nature; and of the want and worth of Christ to save us." A considerable outward change took place in him which caused his neighbours much amazement, and they now began to speak well of him both to his face and behind his back. "Now I was, as they said, becoming godly; now I was becoming a right honest man; but oh, when I understood these were their words and opinion of me it pleased me well, for although as yet I was nothing but a poor painted hypocrite, yet I loved to be talked of as one that was truly godly. I was proud of my godliness, and indeed I did all that I did either to be seen of or to be well spoken of by men; and thus I continued for about twelve months, or more. ... I knew not Christ, nor grace, nor faith, nor hope, for as I have well seen since, had I then died my state had been most fearful."

One of his great delights had been bell ringing, but this he now abandoned as a "vain practice." He however frequently crept to the tower in order to look at the ringers, but there came upon him a great fear that one of the bells might fall. This caused him to move to the steeple door, but now he dreaded the steeple itself might come down; and these things brought him into a very nervous state physically. One of his greatest amusements had hitherto been dancing, and it was quite a full year before he could leave this. When he at last managed to do so he thought, "No man in England could please God better than I, poor wretch as I was. I was all this while ignorant of Jesus Christ, going about to establish my own righteousness, and had perished therein had not God in mercy shewed me more of my state by nature."

Bunyan continued in his self-righteous condition until one memorable day when, as he was attending to his tinkering business in Bedford, he overheard three or four poor women as they conversed about their own spiritual state. He presently joined in their conversation, as he was "a brisk talker in the matter of religion," but he soon found that these persons had a knowledge which he lacked. It was indeed a case of "Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another," for their talk was about regeneration or the new birth, conviction of sin, the revelation of Christ to their souls, the promises which had been applied, the conflicts they had endured, the temptations with which they had been beset, and the persecutions they had suffered—their own awful unbelief, wretchedness of heart, and the great lack of any creature righteousness that could please God. They quoted much Scripture, and it was clear to Bunyan that he was quite out of their secret. He made as frequent journeys as possible to Bedford to hold conversation with the women, and found that they were members of a little Baptist congregation, the pastor of which was John Gifford. The more he talked with them, the more did he read his Bible, and he was now assailed by two great doubts—as to whether he was elected, and whether his day of grace had been passed. As he stated his feelings to the women, they told Mr. Gifford of him, and the worthy minister invited the distressed tinker to his house and had some speech with him.

It was while Mr. Gifford was one day preaching that comfort first came to Bunyan. The text was, "Behold, thou art fair, My love; behold, thou art fair," and the preacher based his remarks chiefly upon the words, "My love." The words of Gifford were, "If it be so, that a saved soul is Christ's love when under temptation and destruction, then, poor tempted soul, when thou art assaulted and afflicted with temptations, and the hidings of God's face, yet think on these words, 'My love,' still."

At times the darkness of Bunyan was gross and deep; still he continued to sit under the ministry of "holy Mr. Gifford," and through the preaching of this faithful man he received real and eternal good. His experience now was most trying, for whilst he was sometimes blessed with faith and hope, at most seasons he was in the depths of despondency. After about two and a half years of this almost constant wretchedness there came to him one day, when he was in a field, the words, "Thy righteousness is in heaven," and he also declares, "I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God's right hand—there, I say, is my righteousness, and to-day, and for ever."

Bunyan was now an intense student of the Bible, and here we arrive at the secret of the purity of his English, both in speech and writing. It has been a source of wonderment how an illiterate man could have acquired a style which for elegance, purity, simplicity, and strength, has never been excelled by the greatest masters of English literature. He also read very closely Luther's "Commentary on the Galatians," whilst "John Foxe's Book of Martyrs" afforded increasing delight to his mind.

After the death of John Gifford, in 1656, the Baptist church chose for its minister John Barton, and Bunyan was employed as an itinerating preacher in the villages. His doings were soon noised abroad, and as he now began to write, his name became familiar to many people.

In the year 1657 he was brought into serious trouble, as an indictment was conferred against him for preaching at Eton. This was the more surprising as it was in the days of the Commonwealth, but the effort to silence Bunyan entirely failed. His greatest afflictions came after the Restoration and, as might have been expected, Bunyan was one of the first to suffer for his Dissenting principles. A warrant was issued against him, and he was arrested at a small place called Samsell, in Bedfordshire, where he was preaching in a private house. He could doubtless have escaped, but he resolved "to see the utmost to what they could say or do to him." He was indicted because "as a man he devilishly and perniciously abstained from going to church to hear divine service, and he was a common upholder of unlawful meetings and conventicles, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of the kingdom." His defence was most able, and when pressed with respect to the Book of Common Prayer he said, "Show me the place in the Epistles from where the Common Prayer is written, or one text of Scripture that commands me to read it, and I will use it." The judgment of the magistrate was that he should be put back to prison for three months, and then if he did not submit to go to church and leave his preaching, he should be banished from the realm. He was also told that "If after such a day shall be appointed you be gone, you shall be found in this realm or be found to come over again without special licence of the king, you may stretch by the neck for it; I tell you plainly." The answer of Bunyan was what might have been anticipated, that if he was out of prison to-day, he would preach the gospel again to-morrow, by the help of God. He was taken back to "durance vile," and there kept for twelve years. His wife pleaded with fervent eloquence with Sir Matthew Hale and other judges, but all to no purpose.

One passage in Bunyan's experience at this time shows what he had to break from and leave, and what the difficulties and dangers were in going to prison. "I found myself a man encompassed with infirmities. The parting with my wife and children hath often been to me in this place as the pulling the flesh from my bones; and that not only because I am somewhat too fond of these mercies, but also because I should have brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries, and wants that my poor family was likewise to meet with, especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer to my heart than all I had beside. Oh, the thought of the hardships I thought my blind one might go under would break my heart to pieces! Poor child, thought I, what sorrow art thou like to have for thy portion in this world! Thou must be beaten, must beg, suffer hunger, cold, nakedness, and a thousand calamities, though I cannot now endure that the wind shall blow upon thee! But yet recalling myself, thought I, I must venture you all with God, though it goeth to the quick to leave you. Oh, I saw in this condition I was as a man who was pulling down his house upon the head of his wife and children, yet, thought I, I must do it, I must do it. And now I thought on those two milch kine, that were to carry the Ark of God into another country, to leave their calves behind them."

Bunyan was the first person in the reign of Charles II who was persecuted for nonconformity, but though his experience was so painful and bitter, yet it was in the prison-house of Bedford that be wrote "The Pilgrim's Progress," which has been the delight of children, the joy of men and women, and the comfort of dying saints ever since it was first published. [It must be noted that Dr. Brown, the celebrated Bunyan Biographer, has concluded that the "Pilgrim's Progress" was not written in prison, but after its author had obtained his release. But even if this view should be correct, it may be safely affirmed that the work was composed in the mind whilst Bunyan was in his lone cell, though it were afterwards placed upon paper.]

There were shut up with him sixty other Dissenters, some being ministers and some laymen; the former were confined for preaching, and the latter for hearing, the gospel outside buildings belonging to the Established Church. The old prison-house of Bedford stood on the bridge, and its condition was generally very damp and dreadful. There was no place either for exercise or for out-door work, there being only stone walls, iron bars, a bridge, and a river; his cell having but a grated window, he could not look very far through it, but he could see a little of the sunlight, the generally placid river, the green meadow and cornfields, and the clouds in the heavens. Some of his gaolers were very cruel and oppressive, but others were kind to him.

Under any circumstances twelve years' imprisonment would be hard to bear, and it seems quite certain that during the first six or seven years of these he was never allowed to set his foot outside the rocky fortress. He did what work he could in making tagged thread laces, so that he might support his wife and the four children who were dependent upon him, and who were sometimes allowed to visit him. His poor blind Mary lay very near his heart, and to his joy she was at times allowed to stay by his side and be a companion to him. In the prison cell there were three books, namely, the Bible, a Concordance, and his much loved copy of the "Book of Martyrs."

The latter part of his incarceration was by no means so oppressive as the former, for he was often allowed to leave his dungeon and preach to congregations in and around Bedford. He was also permitted by a kind gaoler to sleep occasionally at his own home. One night when he was there he was so restless that slumber would not come to his eyelids, so he told his wife that he must return immediately to the prison. He received much blame from the gaoler for coming in at so unseasonable an hour. It appears, however, that some of the clerical authorities had received news that Bunyan's confinement was not so close and rigorous as they thought it should be, and they had dispatched a special officer to Bedford to find out how matters really stood. He was to arrive in the middle of the night, and when he reached the prison his first question was, "Are all the prisoners safe?" "Yes," was the reply. "Is John Bunyan safe?" "Yes." "Let me see him," was the demand, and Bunyan was called. After the officer had left, the gaoler said to his famous prisoner, "Well, you may go out again when you think proper, for you know when to return better than I can tell you."

It should be remembered that Bunyan could have obtained his liberty at any time had he expressed his willingness to conform to the Church of England and cease from his preaching. His release from prison took place in the year 1672, or early part of 1673, he having been befriended by Dr. Barlow, who was afterwards Bishop of Lincoln. His actual liberation, however, is now said to have been obtained by Whitehead the Quaker, but it is probable that they both used their influence, and thus effected the release of the man who had for no just reason been imprisoned twelve long weary years.

He now had built for him a regular meeting house in Bedford, and large congregations were gathered together. Indeed, it was before he came out of prison that be was chosen pastor by the church, his ordination taking place in the year 1671. For the rest of his life he continued writing, preaching, and visiting in Bedford and the adjacent villages; he also frequently visited London. When the people in the metropolis had notice of his coming there were often as many as 3,000 gathered together to hear what the released prisoner had to say. His fame reached Charles II, and the King, ridiculing John Owen on one occasion for hearing an illiterate tinker prate, received from the learned and eloquent Puritan the reply, "May it please your Majesty, could I possess that tinker's ability for preaching, I would most gladly relinquish all my learning."

Bunyan now became engaged in many controversies, the one upon Strict Communion between himself, Kiffen, Jessey, and other Baptists being the most notable. Whatever may be thought of his opinion, it is certain that Bunyan showed a Christian spirit, and carefully refrained from using words that would wound and cause scandal.

There is not much known of his later days, but it is clear that he plainly foresaw the crafty designs of King James to favour Popery, and he "advised the brethren to avail themselves of the sunshine by deliberately endeavouring to spread the gospel, and to prepare for the approaching storm by fasting and prayer."

Amongst other places that he now visited was Reading, and he travelled there for a dual object, namely, to preach the gospel and to make peace between a father and son who had become alienated. The meeting-house here was on the bank of a branch of the river Kennett, and a bridge was thrown over the water so that the worshippers could easily escape in case of an alarm. It was in this place that Bunyan contracted the disease which brought about his death. After he had made peace between father and son, he returned to London on horseback through a very heavy tempest and much rain. He was seized with a mortal fever, and the end came ten days after, while he was the guest of his friend, Mr. Strudwick, who was at Snow Hill.

The earliest biographer of Bunyan records that "He comforted those that wept about him, exhorting them to trust in God, and pray to Him for mercy and forgiveness of their sins, telling them what a glorious exchange it would be to leave their troubles and cares of a wretched mortality to live with Christ for ever, with peace and joy inexpressible, expounding to them the comfortable Scriptures, by which they were to hope and assuredly come into a blessed resurrection in the last day. He desired some to pray with him, and he joined with them in prayer; and his last words, after he had struggled with a languishing disease, were these, 'Weep not for me, but for yourselves; I go to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will, through the mediation of His Blessed Son, receive me, though a sinner, where I hope we ere long shall meet to sing the new song and remain everlastingly happy, world without end.'"

Such a death was what he would himself have wished, and which indeed he had so often dwelt upon. His own description of Christian may be aptly applied to himself; "I saw in my dream that this man went in at the gate; and lo! as he entered he was transfigured, and he had raiment put on him that shone like gold. There was also that met him with harps and crowns, and gave unto him the harps to praise withal, and the crowns in token of honour. Then I heard in my dream that all the bells in the city rang again for joy; and that it was said unto him,


I also heard the man himself sing with a loud voice, saying, 'Blessing and honour, and glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever."'

The number of books that Bunyan wrote is said to be sixty, and he died when he was sixty years of age. His body was taken to Bunhill, and placed in a tomb where several others have been buried, and where, in 1697, the body of John Strudwick was also placed. Bunyan died a poor man, for his widow, who was his second wife, issued an advertisement in which she stated "that she was unable to print the writing which he had left unpublished." Three children also survived, but it was a great mercy that blind Mary died before him.

The poet Cowper's apostrophe to Bunyan is as follows:

"O thou whom, borne on fancy's eager wing,
Back to the season of life's happy spring,
I pleased remember, and while memory yet
Holds fast her office here, can ne'er forget—
Ingenious dreamer! in whose well told tale
Sweet fiction and sweet truth alike prevail;
Whose humorous vain, strong sense, and simple style,
May teach the gayest, make the gravest smile;
Witty and well employed, and like thy Lord,
Speaking in parable His alighted word;
I name thee not, lest so despised a name
Should move a sneer at thy deservéd fame.
Yet e'en in transitory life's late day,
That mingles all my brown with sober gray,
Revere the man, whose Pilgrim marks the road,
And guides the Progress of the soul to God;
'Twere well with most, if books that could engage
Their childhood, pleased them at a riper age;
The man approving what had charmed the boy,
Would die at last in comfort, peace, and joy;
And not with curses on his heart who stole
The gem of truth from his unguarded soul."

By this we gather that a century ago "The Pilgrim's Progress," "The Holy War," "Grace Abounding," with the other works of the now world-famous tinker, were little known or read. In recent years he has, however, been acknowledged in a national sense, and amongst other things a stained-glass window has been placed in Westminster Abbey to his memory. It is to be feared that, in spite of these things, the doctrines which Bunyan loved so dearly are despised and hated, even by those who give lip homage to him.

In writing his own rhymes Bunyan scorned to make any attempt at elegance; they are full of a rugged and simple beauty all their own. His ballad on "The Child and the Bird" is undoubtedly one of the sweetest and most natural things in the language.

The Child and the Bird

"My little bird, how canst thou sit
  And sing amidst so many thorns?
Let me but hold upon thee get,
  My love with honour thee adorns.
Thou art at present little worth,
  Five farthings none will give for thee;
But prithee, little bird, come forth,
  Thou of more value art to me.

'Tis true, it is sunshine to-day,
  To-morrow birds will have a storm:
My pretty one, come thou away,
  My bosom then shall keep thee warm.
Thou subject art to cold o' nights,
  When darkness is thy covering.
At day thy danger's great by kites,
  How canst thou then sit there and sing?

Thy food is scarce and scanty too,
  'Tis worms and trash which thou dost eat;
Thy present state I pity do,
  Come, I'll provide thee better meat.
I'll feed thee with white bread and milk,
  And sugar-plums, if thou them crave;
I'll cover thee with finest silk,
  That from the cold I may thee save.

My father's palace shall be thine,
  Yea, in it thou shalt sit and sing;
My little bird, if thou'lt be mine,
  The whole year round shall be thy spring.
I'll teach thee all the notes at court,
  Unthought-of music thou shalt play;
And all that thither do resort
  Shall praise thee for it every day.

I'll keep thee safe from eat and cur,
  No manner o' harm shall come to thee;
Yea, I will be thy succourer,
  My bosom shall thy cabin be."
But lo, behold, the bird is gone!
  These charmings would not make her yield;
The child's left at the bush alone,
  The bird flies yonder o'er the field.


The child of Christ an emblem is;
  The bird to sinners I compare;
The thorns are like those sins of theirs
  Which do surround them everywhere.
Her songs, her food, her sunshine day,
  Are emblems of those foolish toys,
Which to destruction lead the way—
  The fruit of worldly, empty toys.

The arguments this child doth choose
  To draw to him a bird thus wild,
Shows Christ familiar speech doth use
  To make the sinner reconciled.
The bird in that she takes her wing
  To speed her from him after all,
Shows us vain man loves anything
  Much better than the heavenly call.

At the request of the Author, Mr. J. E. Hazelton, the well-known Secretary of the Aged Pilgrims' Friend Society and minister, chose the following extract from the writings of John Bunyan, prefacing it with a few remarks:
"Bunyan's theological merits rank very high; we cannot fail to perceive how minutely he had studied, and how deeply he had pondered the Word of God, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of justification, free, instant, and entire, by the imputed righteousness of Christ, none, even of the Puritans, could state with more Luther-like boldness than he. Here, in illustration, is an extract from 'Grace Abounding,' that we might call A Song of Deliverance:—

"'But one day, as I was passing in the field, and that too with some dashes on my conscience, fearing lest yet all was not right, suddenly, this sentence fell upon my soul, 'Thy righteousness is in heaven,' and methought withal I saw, with the eyes of my soul, Jesus Christ at God's right hand: there, I say, as my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, He wants my righteousness, for that was just before Him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness was Jesus Christ Himself, the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever.

"'Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed: I was loosed from my affliction and irons, my temptations also fled away; so that from that time those dreadful Scriptures of God left off to trouble me; now went I also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God. So when I came home, I looked to see if I could find that sentence, "Thy righteousness is in heaven, but could not find such a saying; wherefore My heart began to sink again, only that was brought to my remembrance, He "of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption; " by this word I saw the other sentence true.

"'For by this Scripture I saw that the Man Christ Jesus, as He is distinct from us as touching His bodily presence, so He is our righteousness and sanctification before God. Here therefore I lived for some time, very sweetly at peace with God through Christ. O, methought, Christ! Christ! there was nothing but Christ that was before my eyes; I was not now only for looking upon this and the other benefits of Christ apart, as of His blood, burial, or resurrection, but considered Him as a whole Christ! Oh, I saw my gold was in my trunk at home! in Christ my Lord and Saviour!'"

From Bunhill Fields: written in honour and to the memory of the many saints of God whose bodies rest in this old London cemetery by Alfred W. Light. 2nd ed. London: C. J. Farncombe and Sons, 1915.

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