Behold, we count them happy which endure. John Bunyan (1628-1688) the Puritan preacher from Bedford, England, was one of these happy men. He grew up in poverty, his father being a tinker (mender of utensils). He says, “Notwithstanding the meanness and inconsiderableness of my parents, it pleased God to put it into their hearts to put me to school, to learn both to read and write; the which I also attained, according to the rate of other poor men’s children; though, to my shame I confess, I did soon lose that I had learned, even almost utterly, and that long before the Lord did work His gracious work of conversion upon my soul.”
He served as a soldier from 1644-1646 in the civil war. Those were perilous times; John was almost killed twice. “Through mercy I was delivered when once in marching I fell into an arm of the sea; and once on my return from a march into the West I found one that had taken my place had been slain by the enemy.” Another soldier asked that he go as a replacement for Bunyan; that man was shot in the head while on sentry duty.
On leaving the army, he returned to Elstow to follow his father’s trade as a tinker. By his own confession, he was a godless, profane, young man. He was not a drunkard, but his speech was so foul that people wondered if he ate his food with the same mouth.
John’s first wife was from Leicester. J. J. Ellis tells us that her father was a preacher in the north country, and suffered under Archbishop Laud. Laud was vexed because he would not put up altar rails in his church, or wear vestments that he considered “Popish.” Toward the end, he published a little book called The Mask Torn off; or Popery Unveiled, which he anonymously published as “a humble servant of Jesus Christ.” Accused and convicted, they cut off his ears and slit his nose, and then cast him bleeding into jail. This was all done with such an air of self-righteousness that when they gave this sentence, the Archbishop lifted his eyes to heaven and thanked God for the suffering and shame that were to come! The poor man died in prison. His daughter was left homeless and might have starved to death, but a godly family of Quakers took her in. One day, Bunyan happened to pass that way. “I met her as she sat weary and faint on a bank by the roadside. I gave her of my food, and when I heard her tale, we went to the justices, and were wed.
“She had nought but yon two books; indeed we had nought between us both, not so much as a dish or a spoon.” Those two books were The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and The Practice of Piety. John’s bride was as poor as he, but a praying Christian who led him to serious spiritual thought. His morbid temperament tortured him at his workbench and crept into his dreams at night. He kept up a jovial exterior, but secretly was miserable. He dispensed with some of his more pernicious habits, went to church regularly and was outwardly reverent enough to convince most of Bedford that he had become a Christian. He still liked dancing and his sports, playing “Cat” on the village green on Sunday afternoons.
One Sunday, after striking the cat and getting ready to hit it the second time, mid-swing he seemed to hear a voice, “Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or have thy sins and go to hell?” This incident cast him into a period of despair. He felt he was too far gone to ever be saved, but too tormented not to seek salvation.
Realizing that his repentance was shallow, he overheard some women talking about the new birth while sitting on their front doorstep. Bunyan confessed he needed “the true tokens of a truly godly man.” These women referred him to John Gifford (who was in real life the character “Evangelist” in Pilgrim’s Progress). Gifford helped Bunyan see how utterly corrupt he was. Then “a great storm came down upon me, which handled me twenty times worse than all I had met with before.” He only began to emerge after a year of despondency through Gifford’s counsel and by reading Luther’s Comment on the Galatians, when another temptation, “to sell and part with the most blessed Christ” came on him. Feeling he had not been resolute enough in resisting the devil, he feared that he had committed the unpardonable sin. He was so torn by this, that only after another conflict of eight or nine months, his mind cleared and he enjoyed assurance.
In 1655, John was baptized and became a member of the nonconformist church in Bedford. His first wife died that same year, leaving four small children (two sons and two daughters). He remarried four years later.
Soon after baptism, he began to preach. Horror-struck by the gravity of his mission, he kept on when, before his skeptical eyes, he discovered that his messages comforted the believers: “I preached what I felt…even under that which my poor soul did groan and tremble to astonishment.” Under threat of persecution and imprisonment, impoverished by fines and driven from one meeting place to another, he and the others continued their ministry unabated. About that time, he began his writing career with a book warning against the Quakers: Some Gospel Truths Opened.
Though baptistic in doctrine, Bunyan refused to make baptism the foundation of fellowship: “I will not let Water Baptism be the rule, the door, the bolt, the bar, the wall of division between the righteous and the unrighteous.” He also claimed 1 Corinthians 1:12-13, “Since you would know by what name I would be distinguished from others, I tell you I would be, and hope I am, a Christian, and choose if God should count me worthy, to be called a Christian, a believer, or other such name which is approved by the Holy Ghost.”
At the Restoration (1660), those who ministered the Word outside the authority of the State church were threatened with severe penalties. At first, Bunyan disguised himself when he went to preach. But feeling that that was cowardly, he went openly to his preaching appointments. On November 12, 1660, he was arrested while preaching in the town of Samsell on the text: “Dost thou believe on the Son of God?”
Refusing to flee or agree not to preach, he went to Bedford county jail. The next day, without any witnesses for the defense, he was found guilty. Judge Keeling said, “Hear your sentence. You must be had back again to prison, and there lie for three months following; and at three months’ end, if you do not submit and go to church to hear divine service and leave your preaching, you must be banished from the realm; and if, after such a day as shall be appointed you to be gone, you shall be found in this realm, you must stretch by the neck for it.”
Bunyan replied, “If I were out of prison today, I would preach again tomorrow, so help me God!”
He remained in Bedford jail for 12 years except for a few weeks of liberty in 1666. During his imprisonment, Bunyan had some access to the outside world, even visiting the church and preaching a few times, and once traveling as far as London.. Perhaps the heaviest toll was paid by his young wife Elizabeth and children during his imprisonments. John welcomed the visits of wife, children and friends, especially that of his little blind daughter, Mary.
In 1672, the Declaration of Indulgence of Charles II freed him. He immediately resumed preaching to the Bedford congregation where he served the rest of his days. In prison again, however, for six months in 1675, he began writing The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Though men may keep my outward man
Within their locks and bars,
Yet by the faith of Christ I can
Mount higher than the stars.
Despite another imprisonment in 1685, Bunyan’s last years were surprisingly energetic. His preaching and writing ran the length of England. Bunyan’s few sermons which we have, show that he spoke as he wrote. He melted his hearers. His talk was tender, telling, triumphant, and spiced with a quiet, keen satire. The largest buildings in London strained to contain his audiences. One eyewitness says, “I have seen about twelve hundred at a morning lecture, by seven o’clock, on a working day, in the dark winter time. I have computed about three thousand that came to hear him one Lord’s Day at the town’s-end meeting house. Himself was fain, at a back door, to be pulled almost over the people to get upstairs to his pulpit.”
John Owen was probably the most scholarly preacher of his day. The biographer, James Moffatt, recorded how much he admired Bunyan’s preaching, “Perhaps with the noble envy felt by an academic nature in the ministry for the power of an evangelist or a popular preacher to speak effectively to the common people. Charles II once asked him, in wonder, ‘how a courtly man such as he was could sit and listen to an illiterate tinker.’ ‘May it please your Majesty,’ said Owen, ‘could I possess that tinker’s abilities for preaching, I would most gladly relinquish all my learning.'”
Bunyan set sail for the Celestial City when on an errand of mercy. A young man had run away from home and had deeply offended his parents. Having repented, he asked Bunyan to visit the offended father in Reading. Bunyan succeeded in getting the father to promise to take back his son. Mission accomplished, the pilgrim continued to London, but was caught in a rainstorm. Soaked and chilled, he arrived at a friend’s home where he died a few days later. He was 60 years old.
The truths Bunyan embraced are wholesome and needed. The old doctrine of perseverance has been replaced. The old school said, “Yes, the true believer will ultimately be in heaven. But he is to persevere as he goes there. Not only will he persevere, but he is explicitly told that he must persevere.” The replacement doctrine states that “once you believe you are guaranteed heaven. You should persevere, but if you do not, you are not to worry.” Bunyan felt that we should never think we are home-free until we are home. His hymn, To be a Pilgrim expresses the burden of his ministry. It seems sad but appropriate that Bunyan’s hymn is not in most hymn books since his message is also absent.
He who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.
Whoso beset him round with dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound–his strength the more is.
No foes shall stay his might: though he with giants fight,
He will make good his right to be a pilgrim.
Hobgoblin nor foul fiend can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end shall life inherit.
Then, fancies, flee away! I’ll fear not what men say.
I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.