As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in the place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream…
The dream has become immortal. Besides the Bible no book has been so widely translated, nor so repeatedly printed as the record of that dream. The Pilgrim of Bedford gaol has travelled into the souls of the saints, and into the marrow of evangelical religion wherever it is found.
The man who would know his Bunyan must know his Bunyan’s England – the England of the seventeenth century. In matters of religion the tolerance of the eighteenth century was born of the travail of the seventeenth; and the travail of the seventeenth century was conceived in the tardy and confused English Reformation of the sixteenth century. Ought the newly-reformed national church to keep as much, or as little as possible, of the doctrine and liturgy and practice of the repudiated papal church? Some affirmed the one, and some the other, but the power of the crown in church and state precluded any proper settlement. So for a century and a half English history was turned into a muddle of religious politics and politically-expedient religion, always against the dominant background of a court life which, if it was not, might well have been the original of Bunyan’s ‘Vanity Fair’.
Hence there arose in the reign of Elisabeth I the Puritan Revolt;
– a cry from the people of God for purity both in religion and in life. Against the Puritans and their cry the queen flung her iniquitous thirty-fifth statute. Under this and other laws that followed, the Puritans were required to worship in the parish churches with their corrupt clergy and semi-romish liturgy. They were forbidden on pain of imprisonment, exile, or death, to worship elsewhere or otherwise. But God, and conscience, and truth, held firmer rein on Puritan hearts than the laws of monarchs. When the two were found in conflict, thousands, both ministers and lay folk, some episcopalian, some presbyterian, some independent, were ready to defy the monarch rather than deny the Gospel.
So there followed the martyrdoms, the hounding of Puritans into squalid overcrowded prisons, and the sailing away to Holland and to New England of many who prized God’s Word written and the liberty of God’s Spirit whereby to perceive its truth, and preach it, and practise it, more than they prized anything else. There were, it is true, seasons of relief, and conditions were not
that Bunyan was born, Oliver Cromwell was sent, in his thirtieth year, as Huntingdon’s representative at Westminster.
While Bunyan as a boy played on Elstow green, or walked his mile-and-a-half to Bedford to school, Rutherford was banished to Aberdeen, the infamous William Laud became Archbishop of Canterbury, the Civil War began, the Westminster Assembly of Divines began work on its great Confession and Catechisms; – and Bunyan’s own life was clouded by the death in the same year, first of his sister Margaret, and then of his mother.
If we look at the calendar from the opposite end, we see that when Bunyan was laid in his friend Strudwick’s new vault in Bunhill Fields in 1688, still another twenty-six years had to pass by before George Whitefield and Howell Harris – the great eighteenth century inheritors of the Puritan heritage – were given to the world. Nor may we forget that while Bunyan’s varied years were passing in England, the Scottish Covenanters were enduring the ‘killing times’, the French Huguenots were still being persecuted, while across the Atlantic the New Englanders were passing into their second and third generations.
Like all great men, Bunyan has suffered much from his biographers. Some of them, who loved the Pilgrim as literature more than they loved its author’s doctrines of free and sovereign grace, have mangled both his life and his character. Others, who loved both the Dream, and the Dreamer, have themselves ‘dreamed’ rather more than the evidence warrants about Bunyan the man. The truth is that Bunyan’s life is easy to romance over but difficult to fully unravel. This is because he never told his whole story himself. He kept no journal. He wrote about some of his spiritual experience, his call to preach, his arrest and his first imprisonment, in his Grace Abounding. But he names no dates, says nothing about his family, nor about his own free movements and ministry. Puritan modesty is a laudable Christian virtue, but a tantalising source of trouble for the historian.
There are many things about this man we would dearly love to know, which are ‘hid from our eyes’. We know nothing whatever, for instance, of the identity of Bunyan’s first wife. As to the Pilgrim’s Progress and its origin, we know only one thing for certain – that the First Part was written in prison. Which prison (Bedford had two)? – and what date? – are still the subject of tradition and conjecture. We know little about Bunyan’s soldiering, and because there were long periods when it was not safe for the Bedford Church to record its activities in the Church-Book, we know only a fraction of the full story of his public ministry. These things I say by way of caution to those who prefer truth to romance in these matters. Scores of volumes and pamphlets have been penned about the fascinating author of the Pilgrim; when you read them, be careful to distinguish between fact and conjecture, especially in anonymous biographical sketches prefixed to the many editions of Pilgrim’s Progress.
I shall now focus attention on one or two specific periods of Bunyan’s life; and first the youthful or unconverted Bunyan. In view of what he became, we are rightly interested in what he was. He was born into a humble, though not a poverty-stricken home. His father had a business in the making and mending of pots and pans, then known as braziering or tinkering. John learned this trade at home, and when he was old enough he went with, or for, his father to work in the kitchens of the large country houses of the district. This was his livelihood up to the time of his first imprisonment, and even later he modestly describes himself in certain documents as ‘John Bunyan of Bedford, BrazierÂ’.
He tells us plainly that he was taught to read and write. Beyond that, his education lay wholly in the broad field of observation, experience, and self-instruction. Bunyan is grossly misrepresented by those who have portrayed him in his early years as a species of village idiot. When you read what he later wrote; when you mark the breadth of his thinking, and his reading; his general knowledge, and his mastery of simple but never crude English grammar, you can only conclude that the youthful Bunyan had a mind that was sound, vigorous, and alert. This, was the case in spite of certain temperamental predispositions, particularly the fact that the Immortal Dreamer of the future, had in his youth the most vivid dreams and visions of heaven and hell, of judgement and torment. That, I submit, was neither less nor more than the outworking of his innate natural faculty of imagination.
The conduct of his youth is something about which he speaks in Grace Abounding, and one cannot help feeling that from the later standpoint of his mature Christian position, he somewhat over-blackens his earlier days. Be that as it may, he tells the essential truth. There was an early life of sin; i.e. of sabbath-breaking, of cursing, of lying and of blaspheming the holy name of God. Some of Bunyan’s admirers dislike this, and present us with a ‘white-washed’ Bunyan. I think they are quite mistaken. They belie his own words on the subject: they rob us of something that partly accounts for the tremendous spiritual struggle that followed; and they seem to proceed on the assumption that ‘a brand plucked from the burning’ could never rise to the spiritual heights that their hero afterward reached. We have no more need of a ‘white-washed’ Bunyan than we have of a ‘white-washed’ Augustine or a ‘white-washed’ Saul of Tarsus!
Bunyan the soldier spent most of his military career in the neighbouring garrison town of Newport Pagnell. There he drilled, and practised musketry, and listened to the preaching captains and colonels of Sir Samuel Luke’s command. However disappointed we may feel on the point, we have no evidence that Bunyan saw my fighting. The traditional idea that he was present at the siege of Leicester in 1645 rests on sources now discredited. He volunteered for service in Ireland, and marched with his regiment to Chester (or Parkgate) to embark; but the course of the war
changed and the regiment never sailed. Much effort has been expended on discovering the experiences of ‘Soldier Bunyan’ in the Holy War. It is a fascinating but wholly conjectural pastime. Some of the officers of Emmanuel’s army may have had as their originals the Bible-carrying officers of Cromwell’s New Model Army. But short of real evidence that the author actually saw and took part in fighting, all other theories must be found ‘not proven’.
You will find Bunyan’s own full and careful account of his conversion in his Grace Abounding To The Chief Of Sinners, and I bid you read it for yourselves. His was a remarkable conversion, and his account of it is a classic fit to stand beside Augustine’s Confessions, and a Kempis’s Imitation, and Rutherford’s Letters. The whole process of a law work and a grace work, in Bunyan’s case, extended to full four years. But it is not its length that is its most remarkable feature. Its leading characteristic is the fierceness and the intensity and the violence of the struggle between the Spirit of God and the Spirit of hell for the citadel of John Bunyan’s soul. I shall dare no such thing as a description of that battle. It is too intimate; too sacred; too terrifying a thing. All I shall venture is a modest list of the means that God employed to bring that conflict to its final and so glorious issue.
You cannot study Bunyan’s conversion without being impressed by the amazing use made of the written word of Holy Scripture. Sometimes it was to stab him, sometimes to sooth him; sometimes it hurt, and sometimes it healed; often it baffled him, and as often it enlightened. If ever a conversion was scriptural it was Bunyan’s!
Then, equally prominent in this matter, was the preaching of the Word of God, as it always is in truly spiritual work. Many a sermon did soldier Bunyan hear from his God-fearing military superiors in the parish church of Newport Pagnell. This, before ever his pangs of conviction were felt, may well have been their spring. There was a particular sermon from Christopher Hall, vicar of Elstow, who dared to preach against one of Bunyan’s pet sins – the desecration of the sabbath. At a later stage, he went and sat under the ministry of John Gifford in Bedford; ‘holy Mr. Gifford’ he calls him, with awe.
Another means provided as armour in Bunyan’s soul-struggle was solid Christian literature. Poor though she was, the wife of his youth was able to contribute two books to the furnishing of their cottage-home in Elstow; The Practice of Piety by Lewis Bayly, and The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven by puritan Arthur Dent. ‘In these two books’, he says, ‘I would sometimes read with her’. Then, when he was more fitted to digest it, he stumbled on a copy of Luther’s Epistle to the Galatians. This is what he said when he had read it: ‘I do prefer this book of Martin Luther upon the Galatians (excepting the Holy Bible) before all the books that ever I had seen, as most fit for a wounded conscience’. So each volume played its part in the battle for the ‘Mansoul’ that was John Bunyan.
Then there was the effect of the personal testimony of Christian
people. Bunyan’s bride evidently came of a godly family, and she lived her godly life before her ungodly husband. Whether she ought, or ought not to have ‘unequally yoked’ herself to him, you may debate as you will; so far as Bunyan was concerned, his marriage was providential to his conversion. There were also certain Christian women whose godly conversation ‘happened’ to be overheard by the young man who so much needed to hear the very things they were saying. It was nothing so ostentatious as an open-air meeting; it was simply the substitution of the things of God for the common gossip of the day in their ordinary conversation on their own familiar doorstep. What the seeker had heard from the maidenly lips of his young wife, he now heard from the matronly dames of Bedford town. ‘I heard, but I understood not’, he says, ‘For their talk was about a new birth.. .how God had visited their souls with His love in the Lord Jesus…’
Further, one notices that God appointed pastoral counsel and instruction in this business. The Christian women of Bedford introduced the troubled tinker to their pastor, and sought his help. Now of all the attemps to identify the originals of the characters in Pilgrim’s Progress, what is most certain and settled, is that ‘Christian’ is Bunyan himself, and ‘Evangelist’ is one John Gifford by name, formerly a Royalist officer from Kent, then a debauched apothecary in Bedford, and now, by the great mercy of God, His minister in the Bedford ‘Independent’ Church. Into Gifford’s home went the convicted tinker, to talk, to reason, to listen, and to pray with holy Mr. Gifford’. And in fact this man was the beginning of the end of the battle for Bunyan’s soul, for ‘Evangelist’ – alias John Gifford – was the earthly captain through whom the Lord of hosts prevailed.
These then, are the means that God used. To name them, is to see at once that all the influence of preaching, of persuasion, of literature, of pastoral counsel, of Scripture itself – all was sovereignly suited to this man’s need by the Holy Spirit of God. The psychologists will have it otherwise, I know. They have superciliously explained that the terrors and miseries through which John Bunyan passed are symptoms of this or that psycho-pathic condition. What psychology never sees; what spiritually blind eyes never can see; but what Bunyan saw with the eyes of his soul wide open, is the abominable heinousness of sin, and the awful holiness of God. God deals with men as individuals;
and He dealt with Bunyan in Bunyan’s actual condition of mind and soul at that time. And to lead such a man from such a condition to an abiding experience and understanding of Christ’s all-sufficiency, is something more than removing a neurosis; it is a work of grace, a triumph of grace. The triumph came; the battle was won.
When Charles Wesley says of his own conversion,
‘My chains fell off, my heart was free’
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee’
had he, I wonder, been reading Bunyan’s conversion account? For in it, Bunyan says:
‘Now did my chains fall off from my legs indeed:
I was loosed from my afflictions and irons…
there was nothing but Christ that was before my eyes!
Now Christ was my all;
all my wisdom,
all my righteousness,
all my sanctification,
and all my redemption’.
I pass rapidly over the next few years of Bunyan’s life. The conversion experience was complete by 1653. In the same year he was baptised by John Gifford by immersion in the river Ouse, and joined the Bedford Independent Church. Two years later he moved his home and family into Bedford, and was called to preach. After another three years his wife died, and he was left with ‘four small children that cannot help themselves’, of whom blind Mary was the oldest. A year later he remarried, and when he took his new wife, Elisabeth, to his cottage in St. Cuthbert’s Street, she took his four motherless bairns to her heart in a way more providential than any of them knew at the time. And so to 1660, the fateful year when, with the restoration of the monarchy, there came the revival of persecution, and Bunyan’s share in its sufferings.
Now we glance at Bunyan the prisoner of the Lord Jesus Christ. Three separate attempts to arrest him were made during the course of his life. The first was in the year already saddened by the loss of his first wife in 1658 and it failed. The second, in 1660, succeeded, and led to a twelve-year detention. The third, in 1675, 6, 7 (the date is uncertain), also succeeded and resulted in a confinement of six months. It is about the long imprisonment of 1660-1672 that I shall speak.
How did it come about? In May 1660 the English monarchy was restored. In September many puritan ministers were turned out of the churches they had occupied during the Commonwealth, and the (for the most part scandalous and corrupt) episcopal clergy were restored. In October all the old anti-puritan laws were reimposed. In November, knowing all this and having preached in fields and cottages and barns all the year, Bunyan went to preach in a farmhouse in the hamlet of Samsell, some thirteen miles to the south of Bedford. When he arrived, he learned that the local magistrate had issued a warrant for his arrest should he preach. He pondered his position; he sought his God; he was implored by his friends not to risk his life; but he declared for holding the service. It began with prayer; bibles were opened, and Bunyan began to preach. Then the door opened, and the magistrate’s men entered, arrested him, took him for examination before their master, and the meeting broke up. Francis Wingate eyed his captive with glee
but promised him, even then, his liberty if only he would ‘mind his own business’ – namely, the mending of pots and pans. Bunyan’s quiet response was to say that while he had liberty and strength to preach the Word of God, he would refuse to leave off doing so. So he was committed for trial, and sent to Bedford to remain in custody against the sessions due a few weeks later.
In due time Bunyan faced his trial. He was charged under the newly-revived Conventicle Act of Queen Elisabeth, by which any person absenting himself from his parish church for a month might be imprisoned; if he remained obstinate for three months he might be sent into permanent exile; if he refused to go into exile, or was later found in the country, he was to be adjudged a felon and suffer death, ‘without benefit of clergy’. So Bunyan was indicted for ‘devilishly and perniciously abstaining from coming to hear divine service, and for being a common upholder of several unlawful meetings and conventicles to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom, contrary to the laws of our sovereign lord the King’. He must have smiled to hear his little gathering at Samsell described in such ponderous terms. When called to plead, he declined to say either ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’, but quietly answered that he did go to the church of God, and by grace was a member with the people over whom Christ was Head.
No doubt this refusal to plead complicated Bunyan’s case in law. There are long legal treatises that discuss what might or should have happened in his case according to law. I pass them by to follow the actual course of events. Sentence was passed. Sir John Kelynge pronounced it: ‘You must be had back to prison and there lie for three months following, and if by then you do not submit to go to church and leave off preaching, you must be banished the realm’. If, after that, he was found in the country, he would ‘stretch by the neck’ for it. With these words in his ears, and his gaoler at his back, Bunyan gave his reply in the plainest terms he could find: ‘I am at point with you; for if I were out of prison today, I would preach the Gospel again tomorrow, by the help of God.’
So back to gaol he went – not for three months, but for twelve years. The threat of exile was never carried out, and his case was never heard again, for he was never allowed to appear. Now there follows one of those noble episodes with which Puritan womanhood abounds. Elisabeth Bunyan, bereft of husband and income, devotedly maintaining and caring for her small step-children, and having both borne and buried the first child of her own womb but four months before, this peasant woman with the soul of a saint and character of the highest refinement, went, first to London. There she petitioned the House of Lords for her husband’s release. When this failed, she returned to Bedford in time for the summer assizes. On three separate occasions she petitioned the judges of assize, pleading for her husband’s proper trial in open court. The story is set down in full in Bunyan’s
own words in Grace Abounding: see that you read it for the good of your soul. The picture of this brave woman standing before the judges in the Swan Chamber in Bedford, gives insight into her utter oneness with her husband in both personal loyalty and Christian conviction. She needed John desparately, for his own sake, and for his family’s sake; but that was not all. She also needed as much as he did, an open Bible, and liberty of worship, and the right to preach and practise the truths of that blessed Book. So her intercessions on her husband’s behalf, were not merely personally, nor selfishly, nor even maternally motivated. When Judge Twisden told her that if her husband would leave off preaching she might send for him there and then, Elisabeth responded with an instinctive appreciation of her husband’s heart:
‘My Lord’, she said, ‘he dares not leave off preaching as long as he can speak’. So she went back to her husbandless home and her bairns: and John went on in his cheerless den; and so it continued for twelve long years.
There is – or there was – in Bedford, a deep-rooted local tradition that these years were spent in the old town gaol which stood on the bridge that spanned the river. From our standpoint if not from Bunyan’s, this may be picturesque, but, alas, quite untrue. His later imprisonment may have been spent there, but even that is not proven. Bunyan, on this occasion, was arrested in the county of Bedford, tried by county magistrates, and committed to the county gaol, as the gaol-lists shew beyond all doubt. The County gaol was in the centre of the town. It was demolished in 1801. An inscription in the pavement at the corner of Silver Street and High Street marks the site of the long imprisonment.
What do we know of these prison years? Certain things are clear. The imprisonment was lenient, not much more than a compulsory detention. There was even a measure of unofficial liberty, varying according to the times. In the first year Bunyan was out of gaol more than once, and of one of these occasions, he says, ‘I did go to see the Christians at London’. Then, in 1666, when the great plague reached Bedford and caused considerable disorder, Bunyan and some other prisoners were irregularly released, only to be brought back a few weeks later. During the last three or four years of his imprisonment our prisoner attended certain meetings of the Bedford Church of which he was a member, as the Church-book records. This is not to suggest that Bunyan suffered no hardship. His appears to have been one of several known cases at this time where a trusted and well-behaved prisoner who gave his gaoler no trouble inside the prison, was allowed (by the gaoler, not by the law) certain privileges in return.
What did Bunyan do in gaol? First he remembered Elisabeth in her lonely and arduous task. One of his fellow-prisoners put this on record: ‘I have been witness that his own hands have ministered to his.. .family’s necessities, making many hundred gross of
long-tagged laces.. .’ By their sale, he was able to relieve the distress of his loved ones.
Nor did this prisoner succumb to supineness, and to self pity. When his detention had reached its tenth year, a collection was made in the parish of St. Cuthbert’s (where his home was), ‘for the poor enslaved English Christians captured in Algiers’. In the list of subscribers there is this briefly eloquent entry: ‘John Bunyan, sixpence’. How many ‘long-tagged laces’ did that represent?
But the outstanding occupation of these years, surprisingly enough, was preaching! He preached to his fellow-prisoners! He was not the only prisoner of Christ Jesus in that prison; several of his fellow church-members were there for the same reason. Several like-minded preachers of the Gospel from the country districts around were there too, and also engaged in ministry. So Bunyan found an eager congregation in Bedford gaol, to say nothing of the evangelistic opportunity among prisoners detained for quite other crimes! Imprisoned for preaching, in prison he preached. One has the impression that there were more heart-stirrings, and visitations of God’s grace in Bedford gaol, than in all the parish churches of the county put together in those strange days! Bunyan had already written:
For though men keep my outward man
Within their bolts and bars;
Yet by the faith of Christ, I can
Mount higher than the stars.
His recording fellow-prisoner says of those days: ‘I have heard Mr. Bunyan both preach and pray with that mighty spirit of faith, and plerophory** of divine assistance that has made me stand and wonder’. For twelve years there was informally, a Church of Christ in Bedford Gaol, and the ministering elder was John Bunyan, brazier, prisoner of the Lord.
Another activity of these years was his literary work – which is really a story to itself. Eleven books, some long, some short, were written, sent to press, and published while their author was in gaol. Some of them had their beginnings in his prison sermons. Grace Abounding, his spiritual autobiography, was published in 1666, but revised and expanded later.
At length the imprisonment came to an end. Charles II issued his Declaration of Indulgence in 1672, and granted preaching licences to many of the Nonconformist ministers. Before he was out of gaol Bunyan was chosen pastor of the Bedford Church, and when he left the gaol he carried with him a document as incongruous as the one that put him in.
‘CHARLES.. .To all Mayors, Bailiffs, Constables, and others.. .Greeting. In pursuance of our declaration of 15th. March 1672, We do hereby permit and licence John Bunyan to be a teacher of the Congregation allowed by us in the house of Josias Roughead, Bedford, for the use of such as do not conform to the
Church of England.. .With further licence to him, the said John Bunyan to teach in any other place licensed by us according to our said declaration. Given at our court at Whitehall…’
And in all the Immortal Dreamer ever said or wrote, he had no
ambition beyond that of calling sinners to repentance, and penitents to their only Saviour!
When this new era opened before him in 1672, sixteen more years awaited him. You must explore that story for yourself- of Bunyan the faithful pastor; of Bunyan the prolific writer whose books number the same as the sixty years of his life. You must read of Bunyan the preacher whose power it was to move equally simple country congregations and learned London assemblies John Owen, formerly vice-chancellor of Oxford, whose friendship brought about Bunyan’s release from his second imprisonment took every opportunity to hear the brazier of Bedford and of
opening his own jealously-guarded London pulpit to him. Beyond that, John Owen astonished his imperial majesty King Charles II by affirming that he would willingly exchange all his learning for the tinker s power of touching men’s hearts.
So our Valiant-for-Truth went on to a last mission of mercy that took him to Reading and London in August 1688. There he was fatally stricken. We may most fitly think of that scene in the words he put into the mouth of Mr. Standfast:
I see myself now at the end of my journey, my toilsome days are ended. I am going now to see that head that was crowned with thorns, and that face that was spit upon for me.
I have lived by faith; but now I go where I shall live by sight.. .1 have loved to hear my Lord spoken of-and wherever I have seen the print of his shoe in the earth, there I have coveted to set my foot too…
Now while he was thus in discourse, his countenance changed, his strong man bowed under him; and after he had said. Take me, for I come to Thee, he ceased to be seen of them.
So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded on the other side!
K. W. H. Howard
*1978 marks the tercentenary of the first edition of Pilgrims Progress, which was licensed on 18 February 1678. It also marks the 350th anniversary of Bunyan’s birth on 30 November 1628.
**Fulness of assurance.