John bunyan was brought up in Puritan England. In Bedford, where he lived, the prevailing religion was of the Puritan kind. His father, indeed, was a tinker, and the boy was taught that trade; and the tinkers were wandering people, like gypsies, who went about from village to village mending pots and kettles and doing odd jobs, and were not much interested in religion. The elder Bunyan, however, seems to have stayed in Beford; being in that respect unlike most tinkers. And the younger Bunyan, from his earliest youth, was singularly sensitive to religious influences.
The Puritan religion laid great emphasis upon the fact of sin. The Puritans were Calvinists, and believed that all people are born bad, and are under the wrath of God, and are destined to be punished forever in the flames of hell, unless they escape. Some are enabled to escape, by the grace of God, through the mercy gained for sinners by the death of Christ, but they are few in number. Salvation was thought to be a matter of much uncertainty and difficulty. The devil was very real and near, and was constantly endeavoring to get possession of men's souls. Every sin strengthened his hold. People lived in fear; afraid of God, and of the devil, and of the pains of hell. Before John Bunyan was ten years old he dreamed night after night that the devil was running away with him.
To the strict Puritans of Bunyan's time even the innocent pleasures of youth were wrong. Living as men did in a world which was to decide their everlasting condition, out of which they were to go either into hell or into heaven, the main business of life was the proper preparation of the soul. There was not time for the satisfaction of the senses. The world was no place for play or laughter. Even boys and girls must go about with sober faces, and remember that it is appointed to every one to die, and after death the judgment.
Of course, human nature asserted itself, in spite of the Puritan teaching. It is indeed true that life is a serious matter, and that sin is a grievous thing, and that we must be on guard against temptation, and that nothing is so important as right thinking, and right speaking, and right acting. It is true that we must, above all things, do our duty, and heed the voice of conscience. But it is true also that the world is very pleasant, that the sun shines and the birds sing, and that God has given us not only souls but bodies. It is true that God has implanted in us the desire not only to pray but to play, and that we naturally laugh more than we cry because we are made that way.
So there was young John Bunyan, with a strong love for dancing with the girls on the village green, and for joining with the boys in ringing the bells of the village church. He liked to play tip-cat. There was even a novel which he liked to read, called the "History of Sir Bevis of Southampton," a story of knights and ladies and adventures. But as he did these pleasant things, there was in his soul an unhappy feeling that he was doing wrong. One bad habit he certainly had: he was given to swearing. But even this seems to have been a kind of natural protest against the sober piety about him. Whatever was the reason for it, he stopped it when he was rebuked and told how wrong it was.
Thus he lived up to the age of seventeen, a good lad, saying his prayers and reading his Bible, and listening every Sunday to very long sermons, terribly afraid of the devil, and imagining himself—poor little fellow—to be a great sinner. Then King Charles gathered his army together to fight for what he believed to be his rights, and the parliament gathered an army against him, and the civil war began, and Bunyan became a soldier.
He brought out of this experience a knowledge of battles which he never forgot. The drums and trumpets, the flying banners, the discipline of the camp, the shock of the charge, the noise of guns, the sight of blood and death, illustrated that war which the devil is forever waging against the soul of man. He brought also a new sense of the uncertainty of life. At the siege of a city, one of his companions, who had for the moment taken Bunyan's place, was killed.
He came back out of the wars, and married a wife whose only dowry was a bundle of religious books. These he read, and the reading quickened all his former uneasiness about his sins. One day in the midst of a game of tip-cat, he heard a voice in his soul demanding whether he would leave his sins and go to heaven, or continue in his sins and go to hell. There he stood with his stick uplifted in his hand, staring at the sky. He never played again. He gave up bell-ringing, though he looked on while the other young men pulled the ropes, till he was suddenly seized with an awful fear that the steeple would fall upon his head. He gave up dancing on the green.
For a time, his religious scruples gave him such distress that he seemed in danger of losing his mind. He thought that he had committed the unpardonable sin, though he did not know exactly what it was. He thought that if he had faith, even as a grain of mustard seed, he could dry up all the puddles between Elstow and Bedford. He was assailed day after day with a temptation to sell Christ. Wherever he went, and whatever he did, he heard the devil at his ear whispering, "Sell him. Sell him." At last he cried, "Let him go if he will"; and then he thought that he was lost indeed. Even after these agonies were over, and he began to come out of this valley of the shadow of death, and joined the Baptist church at Bedford, and partook, for the first time, of the Lord's Supper, he was tempted to shock the congregation by swearing aloud. And after he had begun to preach, he felt the devil urging him to say horribly wicked things in the midst of his sermons. Out of these spiritual torments he was brought at last into peace and joy by the suffering of real pain. He was arrested and put in jail at Bedford, and kept there for twelve years.
For Cromwell was now gone, and his son Richard, who for a while reigned in his stead, was not strong enough to govern England, and so Charles the Second was invited to come back and take the throne from which his father had been thrust out. And when the king came back the Church came with him. During Cromwell's time all the ministers in England were Puritans, and all the services were Puritan services. Even in the cathedrals, the prayers of the ministers took the place of the ancient prayers of the book. The Episcopal clergy, who had been turned out of their churches in Queen Mary's time by the Roman Catholics, were now turned out by Presbyterians and Congregationalists. But the king came back, and at once all was changed. It was now the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists who must go. All who were willing to use the prayer-book might remain, but a law was passed that after a certain Sunday, all who were not willing to do that must resign their places. Accordingly, a great many Puritan ministers resigned, nearly two thousand. And not only that, but other laws were passed to prevent them from preaching. For the moment, in the enthusiasm of the return of the king and of the Church, the plans of Laud were taken up again, and it was proposed to compel everybody in England to belong to the Episcopal Church.
For Cromwell's great idea of liberty of conscience was still in advance of the age. Almost all good men believed that it was necessary to decide things in religion one way or the other, and to make everybody submit to the decision. The good man of that time said to himself, "I am right, and my neighbors who do not agree with me are wrong; I must make them do my way." Thus the Presbyterians, if Cromwell had not prevented them, would have passed laws to make England Presbyterian, and to punish, not only Episcopalians, but Congregationalists and Baptists. Thus the Puritans, when they settled in Salem and Boston and began the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, expelled Baptists and whipped Quakers. The idea of uniformity in religion was in most men's minds. Only a very few great men, like William the Silent and Oliver Cromwell, believed what we all believe now, that men should be allowed to think their own thoughts, and say their own prayers, and arrange their churches in their own way, so long as they do no harm to their neighbors.
Thus when John Bunyan, in defiance of the laws, began to preach without having the permission of a bishop, he was put in jail. The authorities felt that if they allowed uneducated and unordained men to preach, the confusion of the time would be continued. The old order had returned to power, and was putting down the new liberty. They tried to get the tinker to promise that he would not preach; but he felt like the apostles that he was sent from God and must preach, no matter what the laws might be. To jail he went, then.
They laughed at him; they said that the only divine commission which he had was to mend old kettles. They threatened him. "If you break the law," they said, "you will be banished, and if you come back we will hang you by the neck." It was exactly what the Puritans in Boston said to Mary Dyer and other Quakers; and they did banish them and afterwards hang them. Nothing could make Bunyan promise not to preach. "If you let me out to-day," he said, "I will preach again to-morrow."
So there he lay in jail. Jails, even now, are not comfortable places. In Bunyan's time they were hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter, and filthy all the year round. Moreover, being in jail, he was not only separated from his family, but was unable to support them by working at his trade. He knew that his wife and his little children, whom he dearly loved, were hungry because he would not promise not to preach. He thought of his blind daughter, how she had no food and no fire. Even this did not change his resolution. He knew that God commanded him to preach, and preach he would. "I must," he said, "I must do it."
Unable to ply his trade of tinker, Bunyan learned in his prison to make "long-tagged thread laces," and sold them. And he preached to his companions in captivity, making the jail a church for those who were confined in it with him. And as he worked, he read. He had two books, the Bible and Foxe's "Book of Martyrs." These he read over and over, till he knew them almost by heart. And presently, he began to write. He was a poor speller, and his grammar was tinker's grammar, but he had certain advantages which more than made up for these defects.
One of his advantages was an earnest spirit. He wrote solely for the purpose of helping his neighbors, and with as little thought for his own fame or gain as any of the prophets or apostles. He believed that God wished him to preach, and being hindered from preaching with his voice, he preached with his pen. Another of his advantages was an acquaintance with his own soul, and with the souls of other poor people like himself. He had gone through a deep religious experience and had come out of darkness into light, and thus knew the way and was able to be a guide.
Still another advantage was his intimate familiarity with the greatest of all books; for the best education consists in part of experience of life, and in part of knowledge of the thoughts of great thinkers. Bunyan, reading the Bible day and night, learning by heart its history and poetry, associating continually with its sages and saints, and breathing in its divine spirit, was better educated in Bedford jail than any youth of the time who was studying Latin and Greek at Oxford. Thus he wrote the deep thoughts of his own soul in the language of the Bible. Even his imprisonment helped him, for he had time to think and write.
In jail at Bedford, then, this poor tinker began the book which made him famous. "As I walked through the wilderness of this world," he said, "I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep." The den was Bedford jail. "And as I slept," he says, "I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked and saw him open the book and read therein; and not being able longer to contain he broke out with a lamentable cry, saying, 'What shall I do?' " Thus begins the Pilgrim's Progress.
The man, whose name was Christian, answered his own question by making hi sway out of the City of Destruction where he dwelt, and taking his journey through all manner of hindrances and perils to the land of Beulah, and the Mount Zion, and the Celestial City, the heavenly Jerusalem. He tumbled into the Slough of Despond, but struggled out again. He got into trouble by following the advice of Mr. Worldly Wiseman, but was brought back by the aid of the Evangelist. He learned useful lessons in the House of the Interpreter. He came upon a cross beside the way, and the burden of his sins fell off. From the heights of the Hill Difficulty, he saw in the far distance, in the midst of Immanuel's Land, the fair slopes of the Delectable Mountains. He did hard but successful battle with the dragon Apollyon, and entered into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. "I thought over and over," he says, "I should have been killed there; but at last the day broke, and the sun rose." He passed the tower of Vanity Fair. In the grounds of Doubting Castle he lay down to sleep, and Giant Despair came out and got him. The Giant put him in a dungeon and beat him with a grievous crab-tree cudgel. At last, says Christian, "What a fool am I thus to lie in an evil-smelling dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty. I have a key in my bosom, called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any lock in Doubting Castle." So out he came, and reached the Delectable Mountains, and came in sight of the Celestial City. He forded a deep river which lay before Mount Zion, and in the shining city all the bells began to ring, and over the gate was written, "Blessed are they that do his commandments that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city."
And the gates opened and Christian entered; and "I looked in," says he who dreamed the dream, "and behold, the city shone like the sun; the streets also were paved with gold; and in them walked many men, with crowns on their heads, palms in their hands, and golden harps, to sing praises withal." "And after that, they shut up the gates; which, when I had seen, I wished myself among them."
The "Pilgrim's Progress" came into the hands of people who were hungry for good stories, as all right-minded people are, but who had persuaded themselves that stories are bad reading. They had denied themselves the pleasant company of Sir Bevis of Southampton and of all the other heroes of romance. As for Shakespeare, his wonderful stories were worse than the others because they were plays and the Puritans associated plays with all wickedness. Thus even children, in those days, were growing up without knowing
what the delight of stories meant. They had, it is true, the Bible in which were the most marvelous stories which were ever told; but the Bible stories were told so soberly and with so little thought that any child would ever read them that most of the children found them as difficult as the long Sunday sermons. But here, at last, was a book of pious stories, yet not so pious as to be uninteresting; a book about giants and dragons, and adventurous heroes, a fairy tale, which could be read even by Puritans, and even on Sunday!
At first, only poor people read it, Bunyan's neighbors in Bedford and Elstow, and other uneducated persons. It was printed on coarse paper, with queer, cheap pictures. But the fame of it passed from one to another. There was a second edition, a third, an eighth, a ninth, a tenth. Even before Bunyan died, many thousand copies had been sold, in England, in Scotland, even in France and Holland, even across the ocean in the Puritan colonies. Bunyan wrote a second part, in which Christian's wife and children journeyed over the same road. Other books came from his pen; the "Holy Way," an account of the siege of the soul; "Grace Abounding," an account of his own religious life. But "Pilgrim's Progress" stands by itself as not only the best of Bunyan's writings, but as the most popular religious book ever written in the English language.
Bunyan was released from jail, and became so eminent a person that he was called "the bishop of the Baptists." Charles the Second wished for various reasons to favor the Roman Catholics, and he repealed the laws which punished those who would not attend the service of the Church of England. By this repeal all the other dissenters benefited. All the jails were opened, and they who had been convicted, like Bunyan, of having "devilishly and perniciously abstained from coming to church," were set free. Now he might preach as much as he liked. And preach he did, even in London, and in a hundred country towns. One time he went in a pouring rain to persuade an angry father to forgive a disobedient son, and caught a heavy cold of which he died. His grave in Bunhill Fields became a Protestant shrine and place of pilgrimage. His supreme sermon was his great book, in which he lives and preaches still.