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Thoughts on John Bunyan

John Bunyan

In our Common Worship Lectionary August 30this the day upon which  the great spiritual writer John Bunyan is remembered. He is perhaps most well known  for writing “ Pilgrim’s Progress”  centred on  a man  called Christian who met all sorts of people as he journeys towards heaven and ultimate peace with God.


When I was young I used to stay sometimes with my Nan and Granddad who lived next door to us in Bournemouth. I would sleep in a little box room with a row of old books on a shelf. One of the books which was there for more years than I can remember was Pilgrims Progress. Sometimes I would take it off the shelf and have a look- it had strange characters in it like Christian,   Mr Despondency, Mr Fearing, Old Atheist and Mr Valiant for truth’s  It looked a very dull book but let’s see what this 17th Century writer was all about – and if my early judgements were right.

Bunyan was born in 1628  in Elstow, a mile south of Bedford a few years before the English Civil War . His family was so poor that when his father died, John was left only one shilling and his Father’s  tinker’s anvil.

John  had little formal education. However, he learned to read and feasted on medieval romances in which valiant knights underwent great trials and conquered villains and monsters and goblins.

Ah ha – you might ask.  He didn’t by any chance write “ He who would valiant be gainst all disaster”  Yes he did. “ No foes shall stay his might. Though he with dragons fight. He will make good his right to be a pilgrim”  The song comes from Pilgrims Progress and are the words of the character “Mr Valiant –for-truth”

In youth he boasted a mouth so profane it shocked even wicked men. He loved to dance, bell-ring and lead Sunday sports, all considered totally improper by the Puritans of his day.  Although he attended church, it is said he had little religious feeling.

1642 Civil war broke out and Oliver Cromwell was in full flight. He asserted the values of English Puritans, was against the Church of England’s spirituality and practices and of course anti-royalist. He successfully removed many clergy who supported the royalty from their livings. He had Charles 1 executed 1649.

In 1644  the age of 16, John enlisted with the Parliamentary Army in  Newport Pagnall garrison but aged 19  he returned home and married his first wife.  He wrote at the time they were very poor, not owning so much as a spoon between them. When he was 22 their  much loved blind daughter Mary was born.

1653 at age of 25 joined a  local church in Bedford ,St Johns, a new baptist community and the  type of Christian congregations which Cromwell’s Puritanism supported.

It was at this time that  he had overheard four women speaking of their inner religious experience, and he realized he lacked something in his life. This church seemed to offer him what he was looking for.

In 1655 John and  family moved to Bedford, his first wife died and he was publicly recognized as a preacher. He began to write books and in 1659 married his second wife Elizabeth.

Reading Martins Luther’s commentary on Paul’s letter to the Galatians had a profound effect on him. He realized he could be justified by faith alone. Bunyan felt compelled to tell others of faith in Christ and he began his field preaching – open air preaching. So effective were his words, people would arrive at dawn to hear him preach at noon.

Troubles beset John Bunyan when Charles 11 was restored to the throne in 1660.

Open air preaching reaching was forbidden in an attempt to restrain the growth of Independent Congregations which had grown up in Cromwells time – and to prevent any groups stirring up revolution following the turbulent times of Cromwells rule.

For this reason, John was careful never to side with any political faction in his teachings. All the same John was seized and placed in Bedford prison. He was charged with “devilishly and perniciously abstaining from coming to Church to hear Divine Service, and for being a common upholder of several unlawful meetings and conventicles, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom, contrary to the laws of our sovereign lord and king.”

To go free, all John Bunyan had to do was make one promise. He must agree not to preach publicly anymore. Bunyan’s reply: “If I was out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.”

Without a hearing or witnesses, the judge sentenced John to three months in prison in very harsh conditions.

He was not home to care for his children, including his blind daughter, Mary, whom he dearly loved. To support them, Bunyan made thousands of long, tagged shoelaces which he sold. Church members helped the Bunyans, too.

At the end of three months, John was offered freedom on condition he no longer preached. Again he refused. The months turned to years. All in all he spent twelve years in prison. Fortunately, a sympathetic jailer let John secretly slip off to meetings.  Once he even let John go to London, but when his job was threatened, he forbade him to so much as peek out the jail door anymore.

During his time in prison John was cheerful, believing he suffered for Christ. He had true freedom, he said. In prison he could read the Bible, preach and sing hymns with no one to stop him. He was also allowed to write. In jail he completed many of his sixty books, including the best known:  The Pilgrim’s Progress.

When he was eventually released Bunyan returned to preaching. By now the authorities realized he was concerned only with the Kingdom of God. They jailed him again for six months in 1675, but otherwise he remained free until he died at sixty years of age.

In 1678 Pilgrims Progress was published for the first time and became an immediate hit – making a deep impact on thousands of people.

It is one of most widely read books, translated into 200 languages.

The book recounts the journey of a young man called Christian, from the time of his spiritual awakening and sense of sin, his conversion to Christ and journey to the Celestial City – and the challenges and temptations he meets on the way.  Despite its overt religious overtone, it is told in a simple language that appeals to a wide audience, Christian and otherwise.

For a century or more English speaking Christians only knew two books – the bible and pilgrims progress.

One of the unforgettable images from The Pilgrim’s Progress is the heavy load that the Christian Pilgrim always carried around on his back. This crushing load was his sin which rolled away when he came to the cross of Christ.

His critics might say that he was a product of his Puritan culture and had a unnatural obsession with sin and  guilt – even that  he preferred to be in prison so that he couldn’t be tempted.

Certainly ,As Pilgrims Progress shows us, he is writing from his own deep experience of faith and his longing to be freed by God from all that bound him in darkness and sin.

Bunyan was convinced with every fibre of his being that nothing would deflect him from being a Christian Pilgrim and reaching heaven. “ There’s no discouragement, shall make him once relent. His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim”.

One of the greatest gifts we may gain from him is the assurance that whatever may weigh us down or  trouble us, God is always there ready to forgive and forget. That God is on our journey with us who ever and whatever we may encounter – and will be there with us right up to and beyond the time when we finally travel on into his presence.

August 31, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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