In the mid-1980s Stuart historians began a major re-evaluation of the restoration era. Among the principal themes are the period's unsettledness, the continuing impact of the radical tenets that had been manifested so forcefully in the mid-century upheavals, the significance of religion and ideology, and renewed debate over the origin of political parties. As I have suggested elsewhere, the period is most accurately conceived as a time of recurring crises of varying magnitude and duration. The first extended from Oliver Cromwell's death in September 1658 to the passage of the Conventicle Act in 1664, the second from 1667 to the enactment of the Test Act in 1673, the third from the revelation of the spurious Popish Plot in 1678 to the repression of the Rye House schemers and the Monmouth/Russell/Essex cabal in 1683, the fourth the rebellions of the earl of Argyll and the duke of Monmouth in 1685, and the fifth the crisis that entailed the collapse of James II's regime and the constitutional settlement of 1689.
Bunyan lived through the first four periods of crisis and died amid the final one. It is appropriate to ask how this reinterpretation of the restoration period affects our interpretation of Bunyan. Elsewhere I have offered some suggestions, particularly with respect to the crisis of 1678–83 and our understanding of The Holy War, Of Antichrist and His Ruine, and Seasonable Counsel: or, Advice to Sufferers. This essay will focus on the crisis of 1667–73, the principal interpreter of which is Gary De Krey. For him this controversy at root entailed a crucial debate about liberty of conscience—a revival of the debate that in his judgment was central to the mid-century revolution. De Krey makes a compelling case for the significance of the debate in the period 1667–73 because it challenged many of the assumptions on which the restoration settlement was founded, including the limits of political authority, the relationship between church and Crown, and the rights and obligations of subjects. In their various assertions of the right of conscience, nonconformists rejected the restoration settlement by insisting on God's ultimate sovereignty in the spiritual realm and “the autonomy of the conscience as God's vicegerent in that sphere.” For them the issue was not parliamentary versus royal sovereignty—not least because the policy of persecution was parliamentary—but the sovereignty of the conscience against any persecutorial authority.