In a humble cottage at Elstow, near Bedford, three hundred years ago, grew up a boy who was learning to mend the farmers' tools, the house-pots of the villagers, and to become a tinker, while his father travelled round the district on the same work.
John was a queer lad, moody and superstitious, who believed in fiends and hobgoblins, and heard more of grown-up people's talk about religion than was good for him. He called himself a terrible sinner, and thought he was being haunted by demons as a punishment for his sins. At sixteen he was clever with his punch and soldering-iron, popular in the village, good at dancing and playing tip-cat on the green, and at ringing the church bells. Then came the great Civil War, when Cromwell was fighting for the liberty of the people against King Charles, and though only sixteen, John went off to fight on the side of liberty.
During the Civil War he had several narrow escapes from death. Once he was nearly drowned by falling into a creek. On another occasion the soldiers of his company drew lots to settle who should undertake a dangerous attack on a certain city. The lot fell on John among others, but just as he was about to start a fellow-soldier begged to be allowed to take his place, and he consented. In the fighting that followed, his deputy was shot in the head by a musket ball and killed immediately. This deeply affected John, for he felt that he had himself escaped death by a miracle.
When the army was disbanded, John returned to Elstow to help his father at his trade. When he was little more than twenty he married a woman as poor as himself. "We came together as poor as might be," he said afterwards, "not having so much household stuff as a dish or a spoon betwixt us both." His wife, however, brought with her two books that had belonged to her father, who had been a very good man.
Books were rare in those times, and John and his wife were proud of them and read them together. One was called "The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven," and the other "The Practice of Piety," and they had a powerful effect over John's queer mind. He began to have terrifying visions, and to be very worried about his sins. In those days religion was very narrow, and John soon found himself in a struggle to give up many pleasures that we regard as harmless, but which pious people then thought were evil or worldly. One by one John gave up his old companions and tried to give up other things. One Sunday, while playing tip-cat on the village green by the old market cross, he says that "a voice did suddenly dart from heaven into my soul, which said 'Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or have thy sins and go to hell?'" After that he gave up tip-cat.
Later he felt that bell-ringing was wrong. It required a great struggle to give up ringing the bells of Elstow Church, but at last he refused to touch the bell-ropes, hoping that that would bring him peace and a sense of forgiveness. Then another incident occurred that made a deep impression on him.
"One day, as I was standing at a neighbour's shop window, and there cursing and swearing and playing the madman after my usual manner," he says, "she was made to tremble to hear me, and told me that I was the ungodliest fellow for swearing that she had ever heard in all her life, and that I by thus doing was able to spoil all the youth in the whole town, if they but came in my company."
Finding the Peace of God.
The woman's burning words made John stop swearing, and he tried to become good by attending church. He had always been fond of dancing on the village green or in the old moot hall, but now he felt that this was wrong. It cost him a great struggle to give up dancing with the village lasses, but after a time he gave that up, but still did not find peace. He went to church regularly and took to reading his Bible, much to the surprise of his neighbours. He found the historical parts of the old Book easy to read, but he says that "Paul's Epistles, and such-like Scriptures I could not away with." For a time he felt quite pleased with himself at his progress in spiritual matters.
Then came the greatest change of all. One day he saw a few poor old women basking in the sunshine and found that they were talking together about the things of God. As he listened, John discovered that these simple souls had found a new world that so far he had missed, with all his church-going. As the tinker listened to these old souls telling each other how they had found peace and joy in serving the Lord Jesus Christ, he saw in a flash just what was wrong in his life, and he went down on his knees and prayed as never before: "O Lord, I'm a fool, and not able to know truth from error; leave me not to my own blindness." Then he turned to his Bible with new eyes, and soon found joy and peace by repentance, and simply doing the right thing.
There was no doubt about the real change in John Bunyan. As he talked with the women whose words had so impressed him, he found that their new life had its centre in the "meeting-house," called the "little chapel" in a later day. Eagerly he agreed to go to meeting too. Soon Bunyan, through studying his Bible with the help of John Gifford, the minister of the "chapel," became a keen servant of Jesus Christ, fired with a desire to help other people into the great and glorious new life he had found. A ragged and worn copy of Luther's translation of "The Epistles to the Galatians" now fell into his hands, and as he mastered its contents he was led to join the little "Separatists' Church" (dissenting chapel), mostly composed of Baptists. Later he became a deacon, and began to preach the good news of how he had found peace and joy in Christ.
At this time great changes were taking place in England. The government of the country passed out of the hands of Parliament, and a king was again on the throne. The priestly party came into power, and the meeting-houses of the Dissenters were shut up and free worship became a crime. Worship could only be observed in the parish churches, so the "Nonconformists" met for worship in secret—in the depths of the woods, in fields, behind hedges at night. Spies were everywhere, and one after another the Nonconformist preachers were discovered at their work and thrown into prison. This danger never for an instant stopped Bunyan from proclaiming the Gospel, but the authorities thought the poor tinker was not worth shutting up, so for a long time Bunyan preached, often disguised as a carter, wearing a big white smock and wide-awake hat, and carrying a huge whip. He visited barns and other out-of-the-way places, helping the suffering Nonconformists to stand true to their faith in freedom and hope of better times coming.
Arrested, but Defiant.
At last, while conducting worship in a farm-house, after being warned that spies were on his track, Bunyan was seized and cast into prison. At his trial, Bunyan was ordered to "mind his own business of a tinker," but threats and commands to stop preaching alike had no effect on him. He had a long argument with his judges at the Quarter Sessions, and was told that his gift was tinkering and he must keep to it and leave preaching alone.
"If then you do not submit to go to church and to hear Divine Service, and leave your preaching, you must be banished the realm; and if after such a day you shall be found in this realm, you must stretch by the neck for it."
But the dauntless tinker would not be silenced: "If you let me out to-day I will preach again to-morrow, by the help of God," he declared.
So Bunyan faced the horrors and dangers of a filthy prison for the right to worship and serve God with freedom. He was first sent to the old prison on Bedford Bridge, and later to the county gaol. He had to support his wife and four children, though in prison, and made "tagged laces," which were sold by his wife. One of his greatest trials was the separation from his family:
The parting from my wife and children hath often been to me in this place like pulling off the flesh from my bones, especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides."
For twelve years he suffered, although a promise not to preach, and to attend church, would have brought him instant freedom. Yet although he could not preach he could write books that would help forward the fight for freedom for the true Church.
During one long imprisonment he wrote "The Pilgrim's Progress," which has become one of the greatest religious books ever written. It has been a delight and help to Christian people all over the world, and has been translated into many tongues—so that the despised tinker of Bedford gaol, through being imprisoned and persecuted, has become one of the greatest Christian writers in history.
After years of imprisonment, Bunyan was allowed his freedom, and went back to his little Baptist chapel at Bedford and spent the few remaining years of his life in preaching and in helping others, a loyal soldier of Jesus Christ. Our open churches and freedom to worship in our own way is in part due to the heroic tinker and dreamer who would not be silenced.
John Bunyan was born in 1628 (when Parliament presented its Petition of Right that was the first step in the fight for constitutional freedom), and died in 1688 (on the eve of the landing of the Prince of Orange and the dawn of religious toleration in England). He was closely identified with the happenings of his time. He fought on the side of Parliament when 16, and during the Protectorate went through some remarkable religious experiences. After the return of the monarchy and the passing of the Act of Uniformity (1662), he was arrested when leading worship in a farm-house, and spent 12 years in prison. During this period he wrote "Grace Abounding", a remarkable religious autobiography from which we can trace how much personal experience there was behind his "Holy War" and "The Pilgrim's Progress."
From 1672 to his death in 1688 he laboured as a preacher and a writer. In 1675, during a temporary revival of the spirit of persecution, he was thrown into Bedford Gaol on the bridge across the Ouse, and it was during that incarceration that he began writing "The Pilgrim's Progress", that has made his name a household word in English literature. From his early days he was moody and introspective, a seer of visions and a hearer of voices. He went through the whole gamut of religious experience fully and often luridly described in his books. He seemed to think and talk in pictures. He was steeped in his Bible; its figures of speech and rich imagery were accepted in their full literal value, and its language became his very own. He died after exposure to bad weather on a preaching visit to London in 1688.