BUNYAN AND PURITAN IDEALS
William J. Grant, M.A.
John Bunyan was born at Elstow, England, in 1628. The family was poor, obscure and largely illiterate, and yet Bunyan made a place for himself that will never be erased. The author of more than sixty publications, he will be known to all generations as the author of PilgrimÂ’s Progress.
Through this book and The Holy War Bunyan has exercised a tremendous influence. Sir Ernest Barker, in making a list of six books which have counted most in their influence on English life, placed Pilgrim’s Progress second only to the Bible, and gave it precedence over the works of Shakespeare. Its influence has gone but beyond England. Dean Stanley said of Bunyan’s masterpiece that it has contributed “to the common religious culture of the Anglo-Saxon race.”
Abraham Lincoln, when a youth, found a few books which he eagerly read, and they were the earliest foundations of the principles and style which were to be his outstanding characteristics. The first of these was Pilgrim’s Progress.
How are we to account for this influence? It was certainly not the result of social status, nor of a mind cultured by education, for
Bunyan was of “the not many mighty, not many noble.” It was due to his religious experience, and to the love of God which was shed abroad in his heart; for Bunyan became a sincere Christian, and sought in clear and certain ways to convey saving truth to his fellow men.
This unlettered man of genius is the ‘Poor Man’s Commentator,’ for he never wrote a line which does not clearly convey his meaning to the simplest understanding, while at the same time the great bulk of it is illumined with the light which it is only given to genius to bestow.
Bunyan was the product of Puritanism, which dominated in England during the first half of the seventeenth century. As the century proceeded, and the Great Ejectment of 1662 turned Puritanism into nonconformity, John Bunyan became a great contributor to the movement. He was a preacher and pastor, as well as a writer, and many are the churches founded by him and his bands of itinerant preachers.
This Puritan circumstance of Bunyan’s life has significance when we seek to assess the meaning of his influence. George Steven, in his Psychology of the Christian Soul, says that “life is governed by ideas.” What were the dominant ideas which governed the life of John Bunyan?
One was the truth and relevance of the Bible.
When Dr. John Brown delivered his Lyman Beecher Lectures on “Puritan Preaching in England,” he used the term “Puritan” as meaning “those preachers who have laid more stress on Scripture than on ecclesiastical institutions.” If that be justified, Bunyan was a true representative of Puritanism, for the Bible was his touchstone and guide.
It dominated his style. He became so conversant with its rich and vigorous diction, that all his writing bears the impress of his knowledge of the Bible. To read any well-annotated edition of Pilgrim’s Progress is to find the footnotes littered with Bible references. A reader who did not happen to possess a Bible could recover much of it from reading Bunyan.
But if Bunyan knew his Bible well, it was because he had perused it incessantly, not to master its style so much as to learn its truth and obey its counsel. This aspect of the relevance of the Bible, Bunyan presents from the beginning to the end of his writing. When we meet Pilgrim for the first time, burdened with his sin, he has a book in his hand, and Evangelist “gave him a parchment roll, and there was written within, ‘Fly from the wrath to come.’ ”
When he had been beguiled from the pathway which led to the shining light and the wicket gate, and Evangelist met him again,
fearful and uncertain, he was told to stand still while he was shown the words of God. “Then,” said Evangelist, “see that ye refuse not him that speaketh.”
In the house of Interpreter, where Christian admitted to being a man making his way from the City of Destruction to Zion, and seeking help for his journey, the interpreter said, “I will show thee that which will be profitable to thee.” In a private room, he “saw the picture of a very grave person hang up against the wall, and this was the fashion of it: it had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in its hand, the law of truth was written upon its lips, the world was behind its back.”
This man with the book of truth was the only authorized guide to sinners who sought the Celestial City.
The strength and comfort of Pilgrim’s life came from the scroll which he carried in his bosom, and which he frequently drew forth and read. Like so many other things, its true value was realized only when it was lost.
Timorous and Mistrust told him of two lions in the way, and the prospect began to alarm him. “Thinking again of what he had heard from the men, he felt in his bosom for his roll, that he might read therein and be comforted; but he felt and found it not. Then was Christian in great distress, and knew not what to do, for he wanted that which used to relieve him, and which should have been his pass into the Celestial City.”
All this, of course, was a picture of Bunyan’s own experience, and Faith in the Bible. The picture in the room at Interpreter’s house was his portrait of a true Christian minister, and he had the subject of the portrait. It was the word picture of his own pastor, Mr. Gifford, that man of God who led him through the truths of the Bible to an assurance of salvation.
Bunyan had a passionate desire to find confirmation of his faith in the pages of Holy Writ. He took no truth on trust. Like those of Berea, whatever thought came by way of reading, reflection or preaching, Bunyan sought the “Thus saith the Lord” in the Word of God, and when he found it, it had to be understood through prayer and supplication, until its pith and marrow had entered into his soul. It was this idea of the truth and relevance of the Bible, this authority of the Word of God, which made him walk with firm step, and speak to his fellow men with assurance.
The second dominating idea was the fact and awfulness of sin.
The shallowness and ritualism of the religion against which the Puritans fought had come back increasingly with the Restoration in England. It led to no real conception of the sinfulness of the human soul that could be met by nothing less than Calvary.
With what irony does Bunyan paint the picture of the men who got into the way by climbing over the wall and arrogantly walking beside Pilgrim in the way. They had never met Evangelist, nor sought, through the shining light, till they found the wicket gate, nor come by the cross until the sin rolled down into the grave. They had never had an experience which made them leap for joy and sing:
“Thus far did I come laden with my sin;
Nor could aught ease the grief that I was in,
Till I came thither.”
These men represented many who had no sense of sin. Bunyan was not of that number. He introduces his Pilgrim “clothed in rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the book, and read therein: and as he read he wept and trembled; and not being able longer to contain, he broke out with a lamentable cry, saying, ‘What shall I do?’ ”
That started the whole pilgrimage, and sustained it to the journey’s end. No chance trial of religion this! Sinful need sought a way of salvation and a ground of assurance. It found it, and was held by it, through Jordan and unto the heavenly rest.
Here again we have the exposition of Bunyan’s own experience and faith. For a time he had practised the outward conduct of a believer. One day, however, he chanced to be in Bedford, and overheard the conversation of several pious women. “I heard,” he says, “but I understood not; for they were far out of my reach. Their talk was about a new truth, the work of God in their hearts; also how they were convinced of their miserable state by nature … They also discoursed of their own wretchedness of heart, of their unbelief, and did condemn, slight, and abhor their own righteousness, as filthy and insufficient to do them any good.”
This conversation remained with him and “greatly affected” him, making him long for the “true token of a truly godly man.” This changed the whole conception of Christian faith and life for Bunyan, and it was a ruling idea in all his subsequent life and work.
The third dominant idea was the urgency of evangelism.
The thought of preaching the gospel did not grip him at first.
When the little Christian community lost its leader by the death of
John Gifford, Bunyan, much to his consternation, was chosen with
nine others to be preachers of the Word.
As he exercised himself at this task, and signs followed his labours, the call to evangelize began to dominate him to the exclusion of all else.
In Pilgrim’s Progress the sinner and the evangelist are on the first page. The story begins with a man greatly distressed in his mind, wandering in the fields, and asking, “What must I do to be saved?” The seeker of souls is at hand to point him toward the shining light and the narrow gateway into the path that leads to life everlasting. Pilgrim is not content to go alone, but would have his wife and children go with him.
When Bunyan resorts to a second part of the “Progress,” it is to go back to the house to find the others of Christian’s family to see if they are on their way to heaven.
In actual fact, Bunyan was a Christian minister, seeking to follow the example of John Gifford. He had a Bible in his hand and he interceded for men. One aspect of the Christian ministry is evangelism. The minister must be the evangelist, with the good news for sinful men burdened with a sense of guilt.
Bunyan “was truly an evangelist, who had time for nothing after being called to the work, than by tongue and pen, in season and out of season, to convey to others the gospel which had done so much for him.”
Nor would aught deter him from preaching the gospel. For non-attendance at the parish church and for preaching the gospel he was imprisoned, with more dire threats if at the end of the imprisonment he returned to preaching. To this sentence Bunyan made reply, “I am at a point with you: if I were out of prison today I would preach the gospel again tomorrow, by the help of God.”
It is little wonder that one who saw his fellows as dying men and was strengthened in his conviction by the authority of the Word of God, should strive to reconcile men to God. These ideas were as fire in his bones, consuming him with an intense passion for the souls of men.
In this he was like the One “who, being in the form of God… was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross,” that He might bring men to God.