John Bunyan had no family influences encouraging him to become a Christian. His grandfather married four times, his father three times while he married twice. His grandfather was what we might understand to be a kind of ‘traveling salesman’ who left his grandson 6d in his will. His father, Thomas Bunyan, was a tinker or brazier. He possessed a smallholding with a few animals and chickens, but his income came from traveling around farms and villages in Bedfordshire repairing saucepans and kettles. He was a hard man, his speech laced with frequent swearing. The home was modestly comfortable characterized by unremitting hard toil. John Bunyan went to school. He was the first of the Bunyans to become literate. He gained a school scholarship by a bequest of the Mayor of London. No Bunyan in all the generations before him could read or write. His father signed his will with an X. Bunyan learned to read and he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress and three fat volumes of his books which are still in print.
In June 1644 when he was 16 his mother passed away and four weeks later his sister died. Eight weeks after his mother’s death his father remarried and in 8 months his wife gave birth to a boy whom his Royalist father named ‘Charles’. Four months earlier John had left home and had joined the Parliamentary Army fighting against King Charles. There was little affection between son and father. How then did John Bunyan become a Christian? There were ten factors which all played their part, great and small:
For three years he served under Oliver Cromwell’s growing leadership. Bunyan was originally based in Newport Pagnell and we know that in October seven preachers were active there. Twice on Sundays and every Thursday there were Puritan ministers exhorting the troops. There were prayers every day and the Bible was read. The teenage Bunyan was given a new concept of worship in which the climactic aspect was the preaching of the Word. Captain Hobson was one of those preachers. He had signed the 1644 First London Confession and at least one of his sermons was printed. He said such things as this to the gathered soldiers, ‘They alone are fit to declare Christ who understand him for enjoyment. This is like the difference between reading about a country, and visiting that place. That man only is fit to declare the truth whose spirit is crucified by the power of the truth.’
We know practically nothing about Bunyan’s first wife, not even her name. It was probably ‘Mary’ because that was the name of their first child. At Cromwell’s victory and the return of peace Bunyan was demobbed at 20 years of age, a self-assertive, fully adult Parliamentarian. The only trade he knew was repairing pots and pans like his father before him. His stake anvil is on display in the Bunyan museum today. It weighs 60 lb. and Bunyan carried it in a sling on his back from farm to cottage to village green. When he married his wife he said, ‘We had not a dish or spoon between us,’ but his wife had a godly father and John loved to hear about him. There could have been no greater contrast than with his own father.
His wife was also literate and her father gave them two books as a dowry. One was Arthur Dent’s Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven, and she and John read it to one another. Dent spelled out the marks of grace in a believer whereby that man might know that he was going to heaven. A love for the children of God; a delight in God’s Word; often and fervent prayer; a zeal for God’s glory; a denial of self; patiently bearing the cross; faithfulness in our calling; honest, just, conscientious dealing with our neighbours. Later, Bunyan obtained a copy of Luther’s commentary on Galatians which he also found helpful.
A Christian woman heard him speaking roughly in the language he had had heard from his father since a boy. The woman rebuked him for his cursing telling him that he was spoiling the young people of the town by his foul speech. Her words came as a shock to him and his conscience was enlightened and he ceased his compulsive swearing.
He fell into the Christian pattern of the first day of the week being found in a congregation of people who had gathered for worship. The vicar was a man called Christopher Hall and he preached the law of God strongly, especially the fourth commandment, to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. He warned against Sabbath-breaking.
One Sunday afternoon, his morning attendance at church over, he was playing a game of ‘cat’ with his friends, but his play was interrupted by a voice speaking to him saying, ‘Will you leave your sins and go to heaven, or have your sins and go to hell?’ He was thoroughly alarmed for a few hours, but shook off the impressions of the words from heaven, coming to the conclusion that he would keep hold of his sins, but his next weeks were miserable, clinging guiltily to his follies, in a more miserable state than if he had abandoned them.
He would work in Bedford and eat his bread with some Christian women who tailored their conversation for his ears. They talked of their own sin, the new birth, and the love of Christ. Bunyan listened intently and later wrote, ‘They spoke as if joy was making them speak. They were to me as if they had found a new world,’ and he often sought them out and sat with them.
In this dream these women of Bedford were sitting on the sunny side of a mountain while he sat on the other side in the cold, on frosty ground. Between him and the women was a high wall but Bunyan, in his dream, discovered a very narrow opening. He struggled and struggled in his dream, pushing, thrusting and kicking his way to them through the confines of that passage. Psychiatrists would refer to this as a ‘birth dream’ and we would smilingly refer to it as a ‘new birth dream.’
Many years later when he was 38 he described the early years of his pilgrimage in his 1666 book, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. It is the first autobiography written in England, and in it Bunyan looks back to that period over a decade earlier in which he traveled his long journey of maybe five years duration into assurance of salvation. He knew terrible temptations to leave the narrow path, to despair, to blaspheme the name of Jesus as the darts of evil thudded into him. There were times when he felt so low that he ‘envied a toad.’ He once heard the refrain, ‘Sell him . . . sell him . . . sell him,’ repeated constantly. Then deliverance came, promises of the word were applied to his mind, only to vanish, casting him into doubt again. His journey into full assurance of faith was long and powerful. It is doubtful whether any other Christian of the Puritan period experienced so prolonged a trial in coming to rest in the person and work of the Lord.
Through his sermons the 25 year old Bunyan saw the meaning of the blood of Jesus Christ. The gospel became clearer and Bunyan moved to be nearer the church which become his own fellowship. What grief he knew when John Gifford died three years later.
How did John Bunyan become a writer? In 1655 the 27 year old tinker was received into that Bedford congregation. He was very intelligent, quick witted and eloquent. The famous drawing of him reflects the painting of ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ with Bunyan’s moustache and flowing hair and twinkling eyes, more than a portrait of some dour Roundhead. What a dashing leader he was. Soon he was asked to give a message to the congregation and it was very acceptable. Then later on that year he preached some sermons again Quaker quietism. Some of the congregation urged him to put the messages into print, and so the following year, when he was 28, his first book was published, Some Gospel Truths Opened. The next year there was a follow up series of sermons which became his second book, A Vindication of Some Gospel Truths. Both these books are found in volume 2 of Bunyan’s Works (published by Banner of Truth).
So before he was 30 years of age two books were in print both of which were based on his preaching. His first book was 45,000 words and his second 40,000 words in length. Bunyan’s concern with the Quakers’ doctrines was that they lacked the profoundly somber analysis of the human heart that is found throughout the Bible. Where was their presentation of man’s total unworthiness before God? The next year appeared his third book, A Few Sighs from Hell (50,000 words in length) and these were a series of sermons on Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. John Gifford his pastor wrote a foreword commending this book and saying, “Be not offended at his plain and direct speech.’ It became a most popular work throughout Bunyan’s life going into nine editions. From that time onwards Bunyan regularly published books. He was the first major English writer not to be based in London, and the first not to have a university education. The army was his school and the prison his university. His style was conversational, that of the yeoman workman full of aphorisms; his aim being to speak as common people do and think as wise men do. He said, ‘Words easy to understand hit the mark when high and learned ones only pierce the air.’ No other great writer in the 17th and 18th centuries was so passionately and fiercely on the side of the common people as Bunyan. Like the later Spurgeon he had a feeling for the colloquial phrase, for example, ‘A river will take away the stink of a dead dog’! And again, ‘the lumber and the cumber of the world.’ He could take up the common parlance of his day, its love of stories and music and poems and incorporate all of that into serving the gospel of Christ. Not only did Bunyan speak plainly but his wife too. She had learned from him. Hear her speaking to magistrates recalling her miscarriage at the arrest and imprisonment of her husband; ‘I was dismayed at the news, and fell into labour and so continued for eight days, and then was delivered, but my child died.’ John Bunyan’s printer was the most radical in England, the same printer who published John Owen’s works, Nathaniel Ponder.
So at thirty years of age Bunyan’s reputation was spreading across England as a preacher and writer, but then came the counterpoise of personal sadness and the hatred of the world. When he was thirty his wife died leaving him to take care of four children under the age of 9. His first girl, Mary, was blind. That year, 1658, was the year Cromwell died to be briefly followed by a single year of Cromwell’s son’s government. During that time Bunyan was remarried to an 18 year-old girl called Elizabeth. In May 1660 the monarchy was restored and Charles II became king. Within months the persecution of non-Anglican Christians began. Episcopacy was restored and the Bedford congregation was turned out of its church. Bunyan was a man who had never experienced religious persecution. Since joining the army at 14, seventeen years earlier, he had experienced the freedom of expressing his convictions. Thus a new period in his life began of suffering and remarkable creativity.
By October 1660 the remaining regicides who had signed the death warrant of the father of Charles II were executed and in the next 18 months 1,760 ministers who would not conform to a submission to Episcopal government over them were ejected from their pulpits and vicarages. In November Bunyan was arrested. He was preaching in a private home and a warrant for his arrest had been made out. He was warned of the danger but felt he must go ahead and preach. Officers arrived and escorted him to the home of a justice of the peace. The man was not in and so Bunyan was sent back to Elizabeth for the night, but the next morning he was brought before Justice Wingate who was determined to have Bunyan imprisoned and made an example to the other Independents. Would Bunyan promise to cease preaching? ‘No!’ Then he must go to jail. The prison was in the next street, consisting of two cells and a dungeon. Bunyan knew it well; he had visited it with his congregation taking creature comforts and the gospel message to the prisoners. Seven weeks he waited there for his appearance before the Quarter Sessions. Some of the prisoners were clearly mentally deranged. One who had been accused of witchcraft died there. Conditions were appaling. Bunyan’s response was this; ‘I begged God that if I might do more good by being at liberty than being in prison that then I might be set at liberty, but if not – then his will be done.’
A bill of indictment was brought against Bunyan, that he had ‘devilishly and perniciously abstained from coming to church to hear divine service, and is a common upholder of several unlawful meetings.’ When Bunyan was asked what he had to say about this he replied that he frequently attended ‘the church of God.’ The following piece of dialogue then took place with Justice Kelyng;
Kel. Do you come to church (you know what I mean) to the parish church, to hear divine service?
Bun. No I do not.
Bun. Because I do not find it commanded in the word of God.
Kel. We are commanded to pray.
Bun. But not by the Common Prayer-book.
Kel. How then?
Bun. With the Spirit.
Bunyan was then sentenced to a lengthy imprisonment. In fact he spent the next twelve years of his life in jail, that is between a third and half his adult life was spent locked away because he would make no compromise with the Established Church or the State. Those who put him in prison felt they had been living in terrible days when tinkers were actually allowed to preach, and were given the freedom of the press to publish. They rejoiced that such days were over. Bunyan was a dangerous rabble rouser in their eyes. How severe was his sentence! Only the regicides, and three other men who were leaders of the Parliamentary army, were treated worse than Bunyan. No other Christian suffered so long an imprisonment for his faith, and never again in England after Bunyan. He went to prison for the act of preaching, as Mussolini said about Gramsci in 1928, ‘For twenty years we must stop that brain from working.’ So it was with Bunyan; he had to be silenced. But he was no more silenced than Solzhenitsyn was by his time in the Russian Gulag. Bunyan refused to stop preaching, and that was his challenge. He told them that preaching was his vocation and they found that subversive, declaring to him that tinkering was his vocation.
Bunyan admitted that he was afraid of the thought of climbing the execution ladder to be hung, but then his last words could result in one person being converted so that his life would not be thrown away. Then he spoke these grand and famous words: ‘It was for the word and the way of God that I was in this condition. I was engaged not to flinch a hair’s breadth from it. It was my duty to stand to his word whether he would ever look upon me or not, or save me at the last. Wherefore, thought I, I will leap off the ladder even blindfolded into eternity, sink or swim, come heaven, come hell. “Lord Jesus, if you will catch me, do! If not, I will venture for your name.”’
So Bunyan was in prison from 1661 to 1672 and during that time he wrote 12 books, some of which had their origin in his prison sermons. His most famous book of all these as his Grace Abounding, then released from prison he wrote a further 7 books. Then he was rearrested and spent a further ten months behind bars during which time he wrote part one of Pilgrim’s Progress (Bunyan had written 25 books before he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress). It was published in 1678. He wrote another 16 books which were published before he died, and a further 15 which were not published until after his death. In all John Bunyan wrote 58 books. How few natural advantages he had, using a quill pen, self-made ink and reams of paper, locked up, unable to be refreshed by preaching in different venues. He sat and wrote, day after day. In the early years he was allowed some times out of prison, even on some occasions to visit London, but then the regimen became tougher and such freedoms were terminated. Bedford jail was unsanitary, overcrowded and replete with diseases. Bunyan had with him Bibles (half his Scriptural quotations were from the Authorized Version and half were from the Geneva Bible), also he had the two books he inherited from his first wife and Luther’s Galatians commentary. The single greatest personal influence over him was his friend and admirer, John Owen. If Bunyan had read as much as other men he might have written as little as other men.
So Bunyan paid a great price for his commitment to the freedom to preach. His tactics in prison were: non resistance, adherence to the whole counsel of God, avoidance of any hint of scandal, and readiness to cooperate with any state authorities who would grant freedom and toleration to dissenters.
Bunyan’s books have had an abiding influence. Once again the three volumes of his Works are back in print. Pilgrim’s Progress is now available in 200 languages. There are the curiosities connected with it, for example, there are 17 different versions in a poetic form and there are 16 children’s versions of Pilgrim’s Progress. There are 50 biographies of John Bunyan. The world’s best selling book after the Bible is Pilgrim’s Progress. It is loved today in the developing world.
Socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw was a fierce admirer and defender of Bunyan. He had once read Pilgrim as a child to his father. Shaw compared him favourably to Shakespeare, declaring that Bunyan’s characters were more heroic men and women than Shakespeare’s, believing in joy, enjoying life, and thinking life was worth living, while Shakespeare’s characters had no faith, no hope, no courage, no conviction and no heroic quality. Bunyan’s men were on a path, at the end of which a man might find the Celestial City and then say these words at which, said Shaw, ‘the heart vibrates like a bell when it hears these words.’
‘Though with great difficulty I am got hither yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword – I shall give to him who shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it.’ Or again when Valiant for Truth says, ‘I fought till my sword did cleave to my hand and when they were joined together, as if a sword grew out of my arm, and when the blood ran through my fingers, then I fought with most courage.’ Bernard Shaw said, ‘Nowhere in all Shakespeare is there a touch like that of the blood running down through the man’s fingers and his courage rising to passion in it.’ So Shaw saw Pilgrim’s Progress as a literary masterpiece. Dr. Johnson said he hated long books. He hardly ever finished one, but there were three books he wished were longer, Pilgrim’s Progress, Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe.
Why do these books of Bunyan have their influence?
1. Bunyan’s theology. He was helped by John Owen who in turn respected him greatly and went as often as he could to hear Bunyan preach. The theology of Pilgrim’s Progress is the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith. The doctrine is in the latter, but in the former are the personalities enfleshing those Standards. Bunyan has a book on the fear of God recently warmly reviewed in a Journal of Pastoral Practice of the Jay Adams school. His book, Come and Welcome to Jesus is a splendid example of evangelistic preaching. His books on prayer are heart-warming and encouraging.
2. Bunyan’s pastoral heart. Pilgrim’s Progress is in two parts. The first part is the history of an individual pilgrim, while Part Two is the story of a congregation on pilgrimage. The first is the story of the individual facing his fate alone in uncertain days. Part Two chronicles a more settled society. Bunyan has been set free and so there is the family on its journey through this world to it eternal home. In Part One evil characters predominate while in Part Two true servants of God are in the majority. In Part One there are few women. In Part Two women are the principal characters and Bunyan has a new understanding of the vulnerability of the Christian on his pilgrimage. There are characters like Mr. Despondency and his daughter Much Afraid. There is Mr. Fearing and Mr. Ready to Halt. The children get tired and sick; they lose things and make embarrassing remarks.
3. Bunyan’s humanity. Both Bunyan (and Owen too) played the flute. Bunyan is said to have made a flute out of a chair leg in prison. He also had a metal violin, and a cabinet with a number of musical instruments painted on its side. Bunyan delighted in the sound of church bells throughout his life. He wrote books and poems for boys and girls. He was a devoted family man. When the Russian ambassador arrived in London for the first time in 1645 London had been under Puritan rule for four years. What impressed the ambassador was the chiming of the church bells from a hundred buildings, the sound of the loud singing of psalms from all those churches, and the stained glass windows in the churches – not shattered by some iconoclastic movement. Bunyan was no killjoy. Particularly in Part Two of Pilgrim’s Progress there are celebrations at deliverances and family gatherings with trumpets, bells, wine and dancing – as there was when the daughter of the Protector Oliver Cromwell was married. John Milton was writing Paradise Lost about the same time as Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. Milton had little but contempt for the sinful irrationality of the masses. Bunyan viewed them with pity and desired to help them, so that today Milton is admired and studied, but Bunyan is loved and read all over the world.
How was Bunyan at the end of his life?
1. Defiantly radical. In his early life his loyalty was to the army, not to the government, the throne, or the gentry. The government, the throne and the gentry had put Bunyan in prison for long years. He was not happy with the limited freedoms given to non-Anglicans at the Restoration in 1688. Nonconformists were still without any voting rights. He had lived through the Civil War and the Putney debates. He was cynical of the political process and he was patronized by the Established Church of England – Anglican Henry Desire once said to his congregation when introducing him, ‘Don’t be surprised that a tinker can mend souls as well as kettles and pans.’ A tinker! He was a mighty preacher of the new covenant, unlike a single bishop in the Establishment. Or again when William Dell, the Master of Gonville and Gaius College in Cambridge as well as being a vicar in the town invited him to preach in his pulpit on Christmas Day he told the congregation, ‘I’d rather have a plain countryman speak in the church than the best orthodox minister in the country;’ words that mean well but are also so effortlessly and unthinkingly superior.
In his writings Bunyan refers to Origen, Machiavelli, Luther, Tyndale, Cranmer, Ainsworth, Samuel Clark, John Owen, Baxter, Jessey, the Koran and probably Hobbes the philosopher. In Pilgrim’s Progress it is Ignorance who suffers the most deplorable fate. So Bunyan ended his days as a reformer, disaffiliated from the civil and religious establishment along with his closest ministerial friend, John Own, whose pulpit he often occupied. Like Owen, Bunyan was not involved in plots to overthrow the government. The weapons of his warfare were spiritual and mighty through God to pull down the vastest strongholds.
2. A greatly esteemed preacher. In the 1670s and 1680s he traveled throughout the south of England visiting free churches and often going to London. People thronged to hear him everywhere he went. He was the most well-known Christian in England, and maybe in the world. If the grapevine spread the news that Bunyan was preaching in some London congregation then all the theological students in Charles Martin’s Dissenting Academy were freed from lectures to go and hear him. Even Charles II heard about him and asked Owen who he was.
3. A disappointed man. In some ways Bunyan was a disappointed man. He had hoped to see the triumph of the godly. He had given his life to awaken them and prepare for the rule of the saints, but many of the saints showed they were unfit to rule. After 1689 the persecution of Free Church preachers and gatherings came to an end, but the disunity of those Christians meant that the gentry filled the vacuum and returned to power across England.
4. A pastor to the end. Bunyan died through being soaked to the skin, caught in a heavy thunderstorm, on his way to help reconcile estranged Christians. He died in the home of a grocer who was a Baptist deacon. He was buried near Owen and Goodwin in Bunhill Fields. He left 42 pounds and 19 shillings in his will. He never led a party, any organization or administration. He was a good preacher but a writer of genius.
Bunyan is encouraging us to think that if we preach we can write, and that we must preach plainly and directly with pastoral concern and biblical integrity. He is telling us that life is a pilgrimage and we are not to ever seek for an alternative to that journey. Bunyan urges us to concentrate on basics and to be prepared to suffer for our Lord as he gave his life for us.
Geoff Thomas is minister of Alfred Place Baptist Church in Aberystwyth, Wales.