By Dr. Herbert Samworth
Included among the many books written about the life of John Bunyan are: A Tinker and a Poor Man; John Bunyan, Immortal Dreamer; and John Bunyan, Mechanick Preacher. These titles seek to encapsulate the essential character of the man who wrote the book that has been printed more times in the English language than any other with the exception of the Bible. That book is The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory that traces the journey of Christian from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. This article, on a far more modest scale, is an attempt to accomplish the same purpose as the books listed above.
A cogent argument can be made that the essential details and formative influences on Bunyan’s life can be traced by using the titles of his books. However, we must be aware that Bunyan was a prolific author and the number of his books and treatises exceeded sixty. These books cover a broad range of topics. In a three-volume edition of his Works, published in the nineteenth century, his books were placed in one of three classifications: doctrinal, experiential, or practical. His doctrinal works, such as Justification by Faith and Reprobation Asserted, explained the major teachings of the Christian faith. His experiential works included A Treatise on the Fear of God. Among his practical writings were Christian Behaviour and One Thing is Needful. The placing of his books under any particular classification is somewhat arbitrary because all were marked by a judicious blend of doctrine, conviction, and application.
We will attempt a description of Bunyan’s life and character by utilizing the titles of three of his books. These are his best-known ones and have been reprinted into the twenty-first century. They are Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, The Holy War, and The Pilgrim’s Progress. While it is true that several of his lesser-known books are available as well as a complete edition of his Works, these three are the ones that most people would associate with his name. We will also seek to demonstrate that these books aid us in understanding his life in an even more basic orientation as a “ploughboy.” For us to do this, it will be necessary for us to review the salient facts of his life to provide the proper context.
Bunyan was born on November 30, 1628 in Elstow, England. He was the son of Thomas and Margaret Bunyan. Margaret was the second wife of Thomas; his first wife, Anne Pinney, had died several years before. John was the first child of Thomas and Margaret, two other children, Margaret and William, would follow. Thomas Bunyan was known a “tinker” or “braseyer,” one who sold and mended pots, pans, and other household tools and utensils. While this was a humble occupation, it should not be imagined that it carried a low social rating and abject poverty. Although the details of his parents’ religious convictions are unknown, there is good reason to believe that they attended the local parish church. It is also apparent that the Bunyans valued education because Thomas and his wife sent their son to school. Although the instruction he received was meager enough, it was comparable to what other boys of his time and social standing could obtain and enabled him to read and write.
The days in which John grew to manhood in rural England were portentous of earth-shattering changes in the fabric of English society. King Charles I and Parliament were locked in a struggle to determine who was the ultimate political authority. At the same time Charles’demand for religious uniformity was being rigorously enforced by William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. As a result numerous people departed England for the New World where they could worship according to their interpretation of Scripture and the dictates of their consciences. A civil war erupted between the Crown and Parliament in the early 1640’s.
Bunyan’s life was dramatically changed in 1644 when his mother died and he entered the army as a private soldier. The Civil War between Charles I and Parliament had reached a crisis state when it appeared that Charles was gaining the upper hand. Under Oliver Cromwell, the Army was reorganized on a “New Model” plan and soon the tide of fortune began to flow in the direction of Parliament. Bunyan’s two and one half years as a soldier exposed him to a different world and association with a new class of persons. In early 1647 the scene of the war shifted to Ireland, and although Bunyan had volunteered to go, his company was suddenly disbanded and he was discharged on July 21.
The Elstow to which Bunyan returned in the summer of 1647 following his enlistment was very different than the one he had left some two and one half years before. His father had remarried during his absence and Fairfax’s army was quartered near the village. The time had arrived for Bunyan to venture into the world and assume responsibility for his own living. However, the venture did not take him far from home because he followed the same occupation as his father. He also married, and despite all attempts to learn the name of his wife, she still remains unknown to us today.
The most interesting aspect of this period of his life was the intense spiritual struggle that he endured for several years. This conflict is chronicled on the pages of Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. In our age, when spiritual realities are often discounted as illusionary, the intensity and reality of this spiritual battle may be difficult to grasp. Bunyan related one such incident while he was participating in a game of tipcat on the village green one Sunday afternoon when he believed he heard a voice from heaven speaking directly to him saying, “Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or have thy sins and go to hell?” This threw him into a paroxysm of terror but the impression soon wore off. There was another occasion while ringing the church bell that he was convinced that the bell was about to fall and crush him to death.
These spiritual conflicts are rehearsed in vivid detail on the pages of Grace Abounding. One literary critic has placed Bunyan’s autobiography among the three greatest autobiographies ever written. The other two were The Confessions of Augustine and The Autobiography of Thomas Halyburton, a Church of Scotland minister who died in the early eighteenth century. Whether or not one would agree with this assessment, there is no doubt that Bunyan was serious in his search for spiritual peace. One must read the book to learn how Bunyan received what he termed his “outgate” to the knowledge of forgiveness and spiritual peace.
While Bunyan was experiencing his spiritual struggles, things were going badly for the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. After his death, and the failure of his son Richard to govern England effectively, Charles II was recalled from exile in 1660. Although Charles had promised liberty to “tender consciences,” it soon became apparent that he intended to enforce a religious uniformity even more rigorous than that of his father. The climax of this policy to achieve religious uniformity came on August 24, 1662 when nearly two thousand clergymen were ejected from the Church of England. Not only were they prohibited from preaching in establishment churches, they were barred from exercising any ministerial functions whatsoever.
This deprivation also affected those who had remained outside of the established church, especially the Baptists and the Quakers. The full force of the law against non-conformity was wielded against them. By this time much had occurred in Bunyan’s life. His first wife died leaving him with four small children, the oldest of whom was eight years of age and the youngest a mere infant. He married again and all we know of his second wife was that her name was Elizabeth. She proved to be a true helpmeet to him in the trials that were soon to overtake them.
As noted before, Bunyan followed his father’s trade of a “tinker.” However, others recognized a gift for speaking and Bunyan began to edify the Baptist congregation of Bedford with his preaching. The repressive arm of the law was soon brought against him and he was arrested for preaching without a license. Following a mock trial and Bunyan’s refusal to confirm, he was confined for the next twelve years in the Bedford County Gaol.
It is almost inconceivable to us today how a man could remain in prison twelve years when he could have gone free merely by conforming to the ceremonies of the English Church. It is even more incredible when we recall that Bunyan was married and his family was dependent upon him for their support. Even modern authors, who give us great insight into Bunyan’s character and demonstrate a true sympathy with his writings, are frequently baffled by his refusal to conform solely for conscience’s sake.
Yet, a failure to understand the role his conscience played in his actions will result in a great misperception of Bunyan. Although The Holy War would not be written for twenty-two years after John Bunyan entered the door of the Bedford Prison, this book gives us the greatest insight into his actions. The theme of The Holy War was the capture and liberation of the soul of a man. The soul was portrayed allegorically as a city that had been deceived and captured by Diabolus and later liberated by Emmanuel. Using figurative language John Bunyan demonstrated the worth of the human soul and the great spiritual battle required to liberate it. Bunyan also possessed the ability to see beyond just the individual persons to “the larger picture” of mankind enslaved by Diabolus. For John Bunyan the “larger picture” always included the reality of spiritual bondage and liberty.
The key to Bunyan’s conduct is to understand that he firmly believed that his conscience had been captive to Diabolus and subsequently had been liberated by Emmanuel. His conscience was now under the authority of Emmanuel, the Captain of his salvation. The battle that raged about him did not involve just him but also included the cosmic warfare being waged in heaven and on the earth. He was a soldier and Emmanuel had ordered that his place of duty was the Bedford Gaol. To maintain a clear conscience, he was required to remain at his post of duty. Therefore, other considerations, no matter how they struck at his tenderest feelings as a husband and father, had to give way in obedience to the One Who had liberated his soul.
Perhaps we can now understand how Bunyan could refer to himself as “the Lord’s free prisoner.” As strange it may seem to twenty-first century thinking with its emphasis on freedom and individual expression, there is every reason to believe that Bunyan was convinced he was more at liberty in his prison cell than those who had put him there.
In 1672, in an effort to reduce political and ecclesiastical tensions, Charles II issued an indulgence that permitted Non-Conformists to obtain licenses to worship freely. Under the provisions of this Act, Bunyan was released from prison after twelve years. Because of his books and the respect earned by his long period of imprisonment, Bunyan was nominated as pastor of the congregation that came to be called the Bunyan Meeting. For twelve years, during Bunyan’s imprisonment, the congregation did not have a settled meeting place. With the release of Bunyan from prison, the congregation secured a license to worship at the barn of Josias Ruffhead that he had purchased for this purpose.
With his election as pastor of the congregation, Bunyan entered into the third and final phase of his life and ministry. Although six months of imprisonment in 1676 still awaited him, these sixteen years would be the most fruitful of his life. Not only had he been chosen as the pastor of the congregation of Bunyan Meeting, he was accorded an unofficial position as “Bishop Bunyan.” This was not an official position recognized by his fellow Baptists because the Baptist form of church government did not include the ecclesiastical title of Bishop. Rather, it was an honor graciously accorded to him because of his writings and faithfulness under persecution. But by no means was it a position of ease because the faithful completion of its duties contributed to his death in 1688. Nevertheless, whatever labor it involved, Bunyan gladly undertook it because of his high sense of calling.
A six-month imprisonment in 1676 was the most important event of this period. During that time in the Bedford Prison, he completed work on the book that established his fame, The Pilgrim’s Progress. It is impossible to speak of that book apart from the name of John Bunyan. Like The Holy War, The Pilgrim’s Progress was an allegory. Using a genre, common to that time and to Scripture itself, of a spiritual pilgrimage, Bunyan traced the path of the Christian from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. If Bunyan had written nothing else, his name would have been immortalized through being its author. It is a book that must be read to be appreciated.
However, how does this book illustrate this period of Bunyan’s life? As pastor, it was Bunyan’s responsibility to guide his people on their spiritual journey. Certainly, his messages would have been based on the text of Scripture, but The Pilgrim’s Progress mirrors the Scriptures in such a manner that people can see their reflection and make application to their lives. In summary, his message was two-fold one of admonition and encouragement. People needed to be warned of the danger of sin so they would flee from the City of Destruction. Most were asleep and unaware of their danger. Bunyan used Christian as an example of one who had awakened to his perilous condition and had fled from the City of Destruction to the place of salvation. In addition to being warned, people needed to be encouraged to persevere in the pilgrimage to the Celestial City. The way was often long and dangerous and there were many battles to be fought. By means of the various incidents and character descriptions, Bunyan skillfully limned the nature of the Christian life and pilgrimage. Obstacles and enemies were drawn with the skill of a master teacher who was preparing his pupils to contend successfully with their spiritual enemies.
Assuming that the three main periods of Bunyan’s life: conversion, prison, pastorate can be illustrated by means of the books mentioned above, how can one justify characterizing Bunyan as a “ploughboy?” To understand this, we must note a statement made by William Tyndale, the translator of the English Bible. Echoing a previous statement of Erasmus, Tyndale reportedly said:
If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.
God spared Tyndale’s life long enough for him to give a great portion of the Bible to the English people in their vernacular language. Although Bunyan was a tinker and not a ploughboy [although they were nearly the same as far as their status in society was concerned] he had been given the Scriptures and he learned them well. C. H. Spurgeon, the great English preacher, stated of Bunyan:
Prick [Read] him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God and the Scriptures will flow out.
As Ola Winslow has so aptly stated, “In a very true sense John Bunyan was one of Tyndale’s plowboys.” However radical an idea, and a seeming impossibility when Tyndale uttered the words, it became true of John Bunyan. Who would have ever imagined that the ploughboy and tinker would know as much, if not more, of the Scriptures than the learned theologian?
However, we must take this a step further as it applied to John Bunyan. If Tyndale’s idea, that the ploughboy could know more of the Scriptures than the theologian, was radical, how much more radical would be the thought that a ploughboy could have the ability to teach others? This is what Bunyan was able to do in a masterful manner. If one doubts the truth of this statement, consider the following. John Owen is considered by many to be the greatest theologian England ever produced. His Collected Works occupy twenty-four volumes in their modern edition. Whenever John Bunyan came to London, Owen was always among his auditors. John Owen was not ashamed to confess that he learned more from the “tinker” than any other preacher or theologian!
Bunyan surely would have discounted Owen’s praise. He would have attributed everything to the Word of God and nothing to his preaching or writing. In this denial, he would have been correct. However, by his preaching and writings that illustrated the great truths of conversion, spiritual conflict, and hope, Bunyan educated a generation of tinkers and ploughboys in the knowledge of the Scriptures. And John Bunyan, Ploughboy, continues to educate our generation.