GRACE ABUNDANT TO THE CHIEF OF SINNERS
Seventeenth Century, English Baptist Preacher, John Bunyan, made his mark on history chiefly because of his book commonly called, “Pilgrim’s Progress”. Despite receiving no formal education John Bunyan was a most prodigious author with his personal testimony, “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners” and “The Holy War” being among his other most famous writings.
Bunyan belonged to that most illustrious group of Protestants, nicknamed’ “The Puritans”. His literature forms a part of the richest vein of evangelical writings that we possess in the English language. Spiritually this period of history gave us “The Westminster Standards” whereas politically the foundation of British Parliamentary democracy was laid down in these years. The life of John Bunyan is a most apt summary of these turbulent but profitable years. He was born in 1628, under the reign of Charles 1st the year when the King was presented with the Petition of Rights, indicating a growing concern with his demand for absolute power. He died in 1688, the year when King William 3rd took the throne of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, as Britain and Ireland said farewell to the tyranny of the Stuarts and looked forward to the emergence of a new nation – this United Kingdom.
He was born in the village of Elstow, a mile and a half from Bedford, to Thomas and Margaret Bunyan. They were a poor family, Thomas being a brazier or a tinker, mending household items such as pots and pans. The most far reaching decision that Thomas Bunyan made for his son, was to send him to school, perhaps recognising some unusual ability which ought to be fostered. In later years John acknowledged this providence:
“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 poormen’s children”
From Bunyan’s own account he was a rough stubborn boy, who was difficult to handle:
“I had few equals, especially considering my years, which were tender, being few, both for cursing, swearing, lying and blaspheming the holy name of God.”
There is no indication from his writing that his parents were anything other than formal Protestants, attending the local Church of England. Despite this he was inculcated with a fear of God even in these tender yet rebellious years, which indicates a sensitivity of spirit:
“Also I should at these years be greatly afflicted and troubled with thoughts of the day of judgment, and that both night and day, and should tremble at the thoughts of the fearful torments of hell fire…”
At nine years of age he was taken away from school to work with his father and learn the family trade. As he developed into a young man his ungodly traits were strengthened calling himself a “sinbreeder” who “infected all the youth of the town.” In these teenage years he would be confronted with trouble and tragedy. He almost drowned in the River Ouse when his small boat capsized. In 1644 a plague epidemic swept through the village taking the lives of both his mother and his only sibling, Margaret. Reviewing these dark days, he would later write:
“O Lord, thou knowest my life, and my ways were not hid from thee.”
Since 1642 a civil war was raging in England with the forces of King Charles 1st being pitted against the Parliamentary and Scottish Armies led by Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Fairfax and Alexander Leslie. By 1644 the war had decisively turned in the favour of Parliament but Fairfax was scouring the countryside searching for recruits. Although not quite sixteen, John Bunyan, lied about his age and marched to the Parliamentary Garrison at Newport Pagnell. While in the army he was not engaged in any of the decisive battles of the war but he was exposed to the Word of God. His first book was “The Soldier’s Pocket Bible” which was issued to the Parliamentary Army. In 1647 he returned home to Elstow to take up once again the trade of his father. Spiritually and morally, however, his life did not improve as he related of his years pre-conversion:
“Christ found me one of the black sinners of the world, he found me making sport of oaths and also of lies, and many a soul poisoning meal did I make out of divers lusts as drinking, dancing, playing, pleasure with the wicked ones of the world.”
Like many other men, a change for the good occurred in John Bunyan’s life when he married a girl whom most historians consider to be called Mary, when he was 21 years of age. He recorded that she came from a godly family, bringing new influences into his life. As she was expecting their first baby he extended his business endeavouring to honestly provide for their needs. Mary would frequently reprove John for his profane language and together they read spiritual literature. John’s first response to this influence was to reform his life and become a religious church going person, yet without the new birth. When their little daughter was born, she was called Mary, but how devastating must it not have been when the young couple discovered that she was blind! John would have the closest of relationships with this daughter throughout her life. He pursued his efforts at reforming his life and so great was the transformation that his friends and neighbours were amazed considering him a godly man. Yet he was not content, suffering from frequent bouts of conviction.
New light come, however, from a most unlikely source. He was passing through the streets of Bedford looking for business when he overhead some women talking earnestly about spiritual things. He stopped to interact with them and he learned of the new birth, that he admitted, “did never enter my mind” previously. He would return to these “poor people”, and as he did so he began more and more to question his own heart. There is no doubting, that Bunyan’s heart was changed as a result of this encounter. He now read the Scriptures with greater insight especially finding the Epistles of Paul to be “sweet and pleasant”. These women belonged to a newly constituted Independent Church in Bedford, whose pastor was John Gifford. Gifford also fought in the Civil War but on the side of the King! Like Bunyan his life too had been turned around dramatically by grace, and he would bring a profound influence to bear upon the life of the young twenty-two year old. It was Gifford whom Bunyan had in mind when he would later depict “The Evangelist” in “Pilgrim’s Progress”.
The young convert was now engaged in a struggle to determine whether he was truly in the faith. As a result of the tolerance that Cromwell’s Government had for Independent Protestant groups, Gifford’s fellowship worshipped in Saint John’s parish Church in Bedford. It was in the rectory, therefore, that Bunyan and Gifford would sit opposite one another as the pastor counselled the young convert endeavouring to draw him into the assurance of sin’s forgiven on the grounds of Christ and his perfect righteousness. As he attended the congregation at Elstow, one particular sermon of Gifford’s stood out in his memory, upon Song of Solomon 4:1, “Behold thou art fair, my love, thou art fair”:
“I could not tell how to contain until I got home; I thought I could have spoken of his love and of his mercy to me, even to the very crows that sat upon the ploughed lands before me, had they been capable of to have understood me; wherefore I said in my soul with much gladness., Well, I would I had a pen and ink here, I would write this down before I go any further, for surely I will not forget this forty years hence.”
In April 1654 John and Mary were blessed with a second daughter, Elizabeth, who was without the disability that so afflicted the first child. Although John was attending the Independent Church in Bedford, she was baptized at the Parish Church in Elstow, perhaps indicating that his wife did not accompany him to the Bedford meeting.
In 1555, when John Bunyan was 27 years of age, two important events took place that would largely shape his future. He moved his young family out of Elstow into Bedford. He did this for spiritual, business and practical reasons. He would now be living near the congregation of believers who had been such a blessing to his soul. Bedford was more centrally located for expanding his growing business. Practically the new house in Saint Cuthbert’s Street being larger, was more suitable for a man with a young and a growing family. The second great event in Bunyan’s life on this year, was the sudden death of John Gifford, who had only just turned fifty. Incredibly Gifford, himself had only been converted for 5 years, yet in a brief spiritual pilgrimage, that was cut short he moulded and shaped one of the greatest spiritual giants that England ever produced. A timely reminder that the Christian’s work is a labour for eternity!
Being devastated by the death of his pastor and mentor, God providentially brought another spiritual giant into his life from two hundred years earlier; Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer. How Bunyan, a poor man, managed to acquire a copy of Luther’s Commentary on the Book of Galatians is a mystery but there is no doubting the impact that it had upon Bunyan’s spiritual life, at such a critical time:
“I do prefer this Book of Martin Luther upon the Galatians, excepting the Holy Bible, before all the books that ever I have seen, as most fit for a wounded conscience… As I was walking up and down in the house, as a man in a most woeful state, that word of God took hold of my heart, ‘Ye are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 3:24).”
Subsequent to the death of John Gifford several members of the Bedford Church began to urge John Bunyan to bring a word of exhortation from time to time. As he proved his gifts, it became apparent to the membership that his preaching abilities should be authenticated, and so in 1656 he was set apart as a regular preacher of the Word. The calling of a tinker to the pulpit proved to be quite a novelty, drawing hundreds during the first two years of his ministry. Yet there was more than his reputation which drew the people. From the beginning he had a unique endowment of heavenly power as he himself testified:
“I have gone full of guilt and terror even to the pulpit door, and there it hath been taken off, and I have been set at liberty in my mind until I have done my work….it was as if an angel of God had stood by my back to encourage me. O it hath been with such power and heavenly evidence upon my own soul…that I could not be contented with saying, ‘I believe and am sure’; methought I was more than sure.”
In September 1658, Mary Bunyan gave birth to her fourth child and second son, Thomas. Mary was now eight, Elizabeth was four and little John was just two. The occasion was bitter sweet, because like many other young mothers of the time, Mary’s life slipped away at child birth leaving John as a young widower, just thirty years of age with four young children to care for. At the same time a crisis of another nature was threatening not just Bunyan and his little congregation but the entire nation. Oliver Cromwell was dead and with his passing England was plummeted into a constitutional crisis. A train of events was set in motion, which would eventually lead to the restoration of the monarchy under Charles 2nd. Bunyan knew only too well, that this would lead to a new period of persecution with Dissenters like himself being in the sights of the regime. Encouraged by the church, he proposed to one of the young ladies of the congregation, in late 1659 about one year after his bereavement. For him it was vital that his children should have a mother, especially as it was becoming probable that he would be arrested for his preaching. Elizabeth Bunyan, must have been a remarkable woman to embrace such a life of hardship and she became a help-meet indeed.
In 1660 the religious landscape changed quickly as the Non-Conformists like Bunyan feared that it would. The Church of England became Episcopalian once again with the re-introduction of the Book of Common Prayer. It was forbidden that men like John Bunyan should occupy pulpits. The Independent Church at Bedford was then ejected from Saint John’s Parish Church and were forced to seek alternative accommodation. In the same year, while on a preaching engagement, which he told the court was purposed, “to instruct and counsel people to forsake their sins and close in with Christ”, Bunyan was arrested and sent to the County Gaol, until the case could be brought to trial.
During this initial period of confinement, the news from home was not good. The shock of his arrest had induced Elizabeth into premature labour, and while the Lord spared her life the child that she was carrying died. His heaviest burden now was for his family, particularly blind Mary:
“On the thoughts of the hardship I thought my blind one might go under, and would break my heart to pieces. Poor child, thought I, what sorrow art thou like to have for thy portion in this world? Thou must be beaten, must beg, suffer hunger, cold, nakedness, and a thousand calamities, though I cannot now endure the wind should upon thee. But yet recalling myself, thought I, I must venture you all with God, though it goeth to the quick to leave you. O, I saw in this condition I was as a man who was pulling down his house upon the head of his wife and children; yet thought I, I must do it, I must do it.”
Throughout the following two years any efforts seeking a trial, a pardon or a release failed. By 1662 the situation had deteriorated in the nation with The Act of Uniformity driving out hundreds of Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians from their pulpits. While hope of release gradually became more distant Bunyan spent his time profitably in prison. The testimony of a fellow prisoner informs us that he had two books, the Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. As he read and wrote published works flew from his pen, and so the Word of the Lord was not bound. He would also pass the time in music and song. He fashioned a flute out of a leg of his stool and when the gaoler came to investigate the music the flautist slipped the leg back into the stool! He would also sing the metrical Psalms and paraphrases of scripture, and in so doing became an encouragement to other suffering Christians who were beginning to populate the prison system. The prison became a congregation before whom Bunyan would minister the Word of God as one testified:
“I have heard Mr Bunyan both preach and pray with that mighty Spirit of faith and fullness of divine assistance that has made me stand and wonder.”
In 1665 a new outbreak of plague swept England, spreading widespread panic throughout the nation. A prisoner like Bunyan was at severe risk of contracting the disease because of the filthy conditions is which he was forced to live. Amazingly at this time, he wrote one of his most famous works; “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners”. It was believed that no first edition of the this work survived, owing to the vast quantity of written material that was consumed in the Great Fire of London, 1666. In 1883, one surfaced, however, and it is now owned by the British Museum and housed in the British Library, testimony to the enduring legacy of this prisoner for Christ’s sake. After the Great Fire and with the plague still spreading in the nation the prisoners were released for a few months. These were a happy a few months, but how few, because the preacher was once again returned to his enforced retreat.
Returning to prison, he would have been informed that Elizabeth was expecting his fifth, and her first child, which must have brought some rays of happiness, especially for her on account of losing her first baby. John Bunyan’s remaining prison years were now spent in writing the work for which he is most famed, “Pilgrim’s Progress.” In many respects this book is a summary of his own life’s experiences and without his battles and struggles we would never have been blessed by his little volume. The Church throughout the centuries that has since elapsed, has found solace in Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. The characters, Christian, Faithful, Hopeful, Mr Great Heart; the places, The Slough of Despond, the Palace Beautiful, By Path Meadow, Doubting Castle; and a host of other features have become part of Christian vocabulary.
On 15th March 1572 the political changed once again as King Charles 2nd announced a “Declaration of Religious Indulgence” on 15th March 1572. The Stuarts were intent on moving the country towards the re-establishment of Roman Catholicism. In order that this might be achieved, there needed to be a recognition of freedom for all groups that were outside the pale of the Church of England. Therefore, the prison doors swung open and many godly people were released from their confinement. After twelve years of incarceration John Bunyan became a free man once again. Anticipating a change in the political climate the Bedford Independent Church, had in December 1671, appointed John Bunyan as their Pastor, therefore on his release the Lord’s servant had a ministry with new responsibilities awaiting him.
As with many long-term prisoners, John Bunyan returned home to discover a family that was dramatically different from the one he had left behind in 1660. John was now sixteen and following his father’s trade as a metal worker. The family business, however, was in ruins and would be well-nigh impossible t establish once again. Thomas, now fourteen, appeared resentful of his Father’s imprisonment and would pursue a life of crime much to the grief of both John and Elizabeth. The greatest change in home life was the absence of his blind daughter Mary, who had passed away during his imprisonment. Nevertheless he continued to establish the Church, in these new circumstances and quickly acquired a license for the congregation to meet at a barn , while he himself was granted a license to publicly preach. In November 1672 Elizabeth gave birth to Joseph who was to be their youngest child. Curiously, although the Bedford Meeting was organised along Baptist principles, there is a record of Joseph being baptised at the parish church of Saint Cuthbert’s.
The political circumstances continued to remain unstable. No-one was under any illusions that if Charles achieved his goal and re-established Roman Catholicism persecution would come upon all Protestants, both Church of England and Dissenter. Meanwhile a powerful body among the Bishops virulently opposed any toleration of Dissenting Meetings and Preachers. By 4th March 1675 an arrest warrant was issued for John Bunyan once again. To the grief of his wife he thought it best on this occasion to exile himself from Bedfordshire rather than be confined once again. Over the next two years he visited London, among other places, where he consulted printers with the work he called, “My Scribble”, that was destined to become the one of the most famous works ever written. When he finally did return home at the close of 1676, he was visited by the authorities who once more confined him in “The Town Clink”. John Owen, the great Puritan academic, intervened on this occasion and within a few months his release was secured.
By February 1678 the first edition of “Pilgrim’s Progress” were coming off the presses and selling amazingly well. The British Museum, today, possesses the only surviving copy of this first edition. Bunyan almost immediately set to work revising the manuscript in preparation for the much demanded second edition.
The following years were characterised by plots, counter plots, accusations and innuendo. With spectre of James Duke of York, succeeding Charles 2nd, the fears of resurgent Romanism intensified. As a result a new wave of persecution swept over the Puritans who were generally outside the pale of the Church of England. Efforts were made to implicate John Owen in some of the anti-government plots but he died in 1683, before his enemies could reach him. It was John Owen who offered one of the most famous assessments of John Bunyan when addressing Charles 2nd:
“Had I the tinker’s abilities I would most gladly relinquish my learning.”
It was against this background of oppression that Bunyan published another of his allegories, one that runs a close second to Pilgrim’s Progress for eloquence and vividness, “The Holy War”. This story depicts the efforts that Diabolous made to destroy Shaddai’s beautiful town of Mansoul. Undeterred, however, Mansoul was rescued by the Prince of Shaddai, Emmanuel, who came on a rescue mission. It is a book of love and redemption powerfully setting forth the principles of the Gospel and Regeneration. After an anonymous writer attempted to cash in on Bunyan’s popularity, writing a second part of Pilgrim’s Progress, the author decided to pen his own authentic sequel. Therefore, Part Two flowed from his pen as he depicted the travels of Christiania as she followed her husband to the Celestial City.
With the death of Charles 2nd and the coronation of the Roman Catholic, James 2nd, to the throne in 1685, the days grew bleaker for the English puritans. Under the infamous Judge Jeffries persecution intensified. The prominent preacher – Richard Baxter, author of “The Reformed Pastor”, although elderly and frail was confined to prison. Although the situation was not a grim as it was for the Covenanters of Scotland, it seemed, however, that reprieve was very far away.
John Bunyan’s final years were spent preaching, writing and travelling. In August 1688 he reached the town of Reading to reconcile a Father and Son which he succeeded in so doing. Turning his horse towards London he became caught in a terrible thunderstorm. He reached the home of his host drenched and in a terrible state of poor health. Despite only recovering from an earlier fever he insisted on fulfilling the engagement for which had come in Petticoat Lane, Whitechapel. He preached there his final sermon from John 1:13; “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God”:
“Consider that the holy God is your Father, and let this oblige you to live like the children of God, that you may look your Father in the face with comfort another day.”
As he returned to his lodgings he worsened. Far from his wife and family his dying words are recorded:
“I go to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will, no doubt through the mediation of his blessed son receive me, though a sinner; where I hope we ere long shall meet and sing the new song and remain everlastingly happy, world without end.”
On 31st August, like his pilgrim, he crossed the river of death, entering the Celestial City. He was buried in cemetery called Bunhill Fields, in a place called ‘Baptist Corner’, not far from his great friend John Owen.
Source and Further Reading – Faith Cooke, “A Fearless Pilgrim”