Bunyan—"The Pilgrim's Progress"
HE second great Puritan writer of England was John Bunyan. He
was born in 1628, more than twenty years after Milton. His
father was a tinker. A tinker! The word makes us think of
But John Bunyan's father was not this kind of tinker. He did not wander about the countryside, but lived at the little village of Elstow, about a mile from the town of Bedford, as his father had before him. He was a poor and honest workman who mended his neighbors' kettles and pans, and did his best to keep his family in decent comfort.
One thing which shows this is that little John was sent to
school. In those days learning, even learning to read and write,
was not the just due of every one. It was only for the
Bunyan was born when the struggle between King and people was beginning to be felt, and was a great boy of fourteen when at last the armies of King and Parliament met on the battlefield of Edgehill. To many this struggle was a struggle for freedom in religion. From end to end of our island the question of religion was the burning question of the day. Religion had wrought itself into the lives of people. In those days of few books the Bible was the one book which might be found in almost every house. The people carried it in their hands, and its words were ever on their lips. But the religion which came to be the religion of more than half the people of England was a stern one. They forgot the Testament of Love, they remembered only the Testament of Wrath. They made the narrow way narrower, and they believed that any who strayed from it would be punished terribly and eternally. It was into this stern world that little John Bunyan was born, and just as a stern religious struggle was going on in England so a stern religious struggle went on within his little heart. He heard people round him talk of sins and death, of a dreadful day of judgment, of wrath to come. These things laid hold of his childish mind and he began to believe that in the sight of God he must be a desperate sinner. Dreadful dreams came to him at night. He dreamed that the Evil One was trying to carry him off to a darksome place there to be "bound down with the chains and bonds of darkness, unto the judgment of the great day." Such dreams made night terrible to him.
Bunyan tells us that he swore and told lies and that he was the ringleader in all the wickedness of the village. But perhaps he was not so bad as he would have us believe, for he was always very severe in his judgments of himself. Perhaps he was not worse than many other boys who did not feel that they had sinned beyond all forgiveness. And in spite of his awful thoughts and terrifying dreams Bunyan still went on being a naughty boy; he still told lies and swore.
At length he left school and became a tinker like his father. But all England was being drawn into war, and so Bunyan, when about seventeen, became a soldier.
Strange to say we do not know upon which side he fought. Some people think that because his father belonged to the Church of England that he must have fought on the King's side. But that is nothing to go by, for many people belonged to that Church for old custom's sake who had no opinions one way or another, and who took no side until forced by the war to do so. It seems much more likely that Bunyan, so Puritan in all his ways of thought, should fight for the Puritan side. But we do not know. He was not long a soldier, we do not know quite how long, it was perhaps only a few months. But during these few months his life was saved by, what seemed to him afterwards to have been a miracle.
"When I was a soldier," he says, "I, with others, were drawn out to go to such a place to besiege it. But when I was just ready to go one of the company desired to go in my room. To which, when I had consented, he took my place. And coming to the siege, as he stood sentinel, he was shot in the head with a musket bullet, and died.
"Here, as I said, were judgments and mercy, but neither of them did awaken my soul to righteousness. Wherefore I sinned still, and grew more and more rebellious against God."
So whether Bunyan served in the Royal army, where he might have heard oaths, or in the Parliamentarian, where he might have heard godly songs and prayers, he still went on his way as before.
Some time after Bunyan left the army, and while he was still very young, he married. Both he and his wife were, he says, "as poor as poor might be, not having so much household stuff as a dish or a spoon betwixt us both. Yet this she had for her part, The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven and The Practice of Piety, which her father had left her when he died."
These two books Bunyan read with his wife, picking up again the
art of reading, which he had been taught at school, and which he
had since almost forgotten. He began now to go a great deal to
church, and one of his chief pleasures was helping to ring the
bells. To him the services were a joy. He loved the singing,
the altar with its candles, the rich robes, the white surplices,
and everything that made the service beautiful. Yet the terrible
struggle between good and evil in his soul went on. He seemed to
hear voices in the air, good voices and bad voices, voices that
accused him, voices that tempted. He was a most miserable man,
and seemed to himself to be one of the most wicked, and yet
perhaps the worst thing he could accuse himself of doing was
playing games on Sunday, and pleasing himself by
Bunyan himself tells us the story of this long fight in a book
called Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. As we read we
cannot help but see that Bunyan was never a very wicked man, but
merely a man with a very tender conscience. Things which seemed
to other men trifles were to him deadly sins; and although he was
so stern to himself, to others he shows a fatherly tenderness
which makes us feel that this rough tinker was no narrow Puritan,
In the same year as Bunyan lost his friend his wife too died, and he was left alone with four children, two of them little girls, one of whom was blind. She was, because of that, all the more dear to him. "She lay nearer to my heart than all beside," he says.
And now Bunyan's friends found out his great gift of speech.
They begged him to preach, but he was so humble and modest that
at first he refused. At length, however, he was over-persuaded.
He began his career as a minister and soon became famous. People
came from long distances to hear him, and he preached not only in
Elstow and Bedford but in all the country round. He preached,
not only in churches, but in barns and in fields, by the roadside
or in the
It was while Cromwell ruled that Bunyan began this ministry. But in spite of all the battles that had been fought for religious freedom, there was as yet no real religious freedom in England. Each party, as it became powerful, tried to tyrannize over every other party, and no one was allowed to preach without a license. The Presbyterians were now in power; Bunyan was a Baptist, and some of the Presbyterians would gladly have silenced him. Yet during Cromwell's lifetime he went his way in peace. Then the Restoration came. A few months later Bunyan was arrested for preaching without a license. Those who now ruled "were angry with the tinker because he strove to mend souls as well as kettles and pans." Before he was taken prisoner Bunyan was warned of his danger, and if he had "been minded to have played the coward" he might have escaped. But he would not try to save himself. "If I should now run to make an escape," he said, "it will be a very ill savour in the country. For what will my weak and newly-converted brethren think of it but that I was not so strong in deed as I was in word."
So Bunyan was taken prisoner. Even then he might have been at once set free would he have promised not to preach. But to all persuasions he replied, "I durst not leave off that work which God has called me to."
Thus Bunyan's long imprisonment of twelve years began. He had married again by this time, and the parting with his wife and children was hard for him, and harder still for the young wife left behind "all smayed at the news." But although she was dismayed she was brave of heart, and she at once set about eagerly doing all she could to free her husband. She went to London, she ventured into the House of Lords, and there pleaded for him. Touched by her earnestness and her helplessness the Lords treated her kindly. But they told her they could do nothing for her and that she must plead her case before the ordinary judges.
So back to Bedford she went, and with beating heart and trembling limbs sought out the judges. Again she was kindly received, but again her petition was of no avail. The law was the law. Bunyan had broken the law and must suffer. He would not promise to cease from preaching, she would as little promise for him. "My lord," she said, "he dares not leave off preaching as long as he can speak."
So it was all useless labor, neither side could or would give way
one inch. Bursting into tears the poor young wife turned away.
But she wept "not so much because they were so
Seeing there was no help for it, Bunyan set himself bravely to endure his imprisonment. And, in truth, this was not very severe. Strangely enough he was allowed to preach to his fellow-prisoners, he was even at one time allowed to go to church. But the great thing for us is that he wrote books. Already, before his imprisonment, he had written several books, and now he wrote that for which he is most famous, the Pilgrim's Progress.
It is a book so well known and so well loved that I think I need say little about it. In the form of a dream Bunyan tells, as you know, the story of Christian who set out on his long and difficult pilgrimage from the City of Destruction to the City of the Blest. He tells of all Christian's trials and adventures on the way, of how he encounters giants and lions, of how he fights with a great demon, and of how at length he arrives at his journey's end in safety. A great writer has said, "There is no book in our literature on which we would so readily stake the fame of the old unpolluted English language, no book which shows so well how rich that language is in its own proper wealth, and how little it has been improved by all that it has borrowed."
For the power of imagination this writer places Bunyan by the side of Milton. Although there were many clever men in England towards the end of the seventeenth century, there were only two minds which had great powers of imagination. "One of those minds produced the Paradise Lost, the other the Pilgrim's Progress." That is very great praise, and yet although Milton and Bunyan are thus placed side by side no two writers are more widely apart. Milton's writing is full of the proofs of his leaning, his English is fine and stately, but it is full of words made from Latin words. As an early writer on him said "Milton's language is English, but it is Milton's English."
On the other hand, Bunyan's writing is most simple. He uses
strong, plain, purely English words. There is hardly one word in
all his writing which a man who knows his Bible cannot easily
understand. And it was from the Bible that Bunyan gathered
nearly all his learning. He knew it from end to end, and the
poetry and grandeur of its language filled his soul. But he read
other books, too, among them, we feel sure, the Faery Queen.
Some day you may like to compare the adventures of the Red Cross
Knight with the adventures of Christian. And perhaps in all the
Faery Queen you will find nothing so real and exciting as
Christian's fight with Apollyon. Apollyon comes from a Greek
word meaning the destroyer. This is how Bunyan tells of the
"But now in this Valley of Humiliation poor Christian was hard put to it. For he had gone but a little way before he espied a Foul Fiend coming over the field to meet him. His name is Apollyon. Then did Christian begin to be afraid and to cast in his mind whether to go back or to stand his ground. But he considered again, that he had no armour for his back, and therefore thought that to turn the back to him might give him greater advantage, with ease, to pierce him with his darts. Therefore he resolved to venture and stand his ground. For, he thought, had I no more in mine eye than the saving of my life, 'twould be the best way to stand.
"So he went on, and Apollyon met him. Now the Monster was hideous to behold. He was clothed with scales like a fish, and they are his pride. He had wings like a dragon, feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke. And his mouth was as the mouth of a lion. When he came up to Christian he beheld him with a disdainful countenance, and thus began to question him.
After this Apollyon argued with Christian, trying to persuade him to give up his pilgrimage and return to his evil ways. But Christian would listen to nothing that Apollyon could say.
"Then Apollyon straddled quite over the whole breadth of the Way and said, 'I am void of fear in this matter. Prepare thyself to die, for I swear by my Infernal Den that thou shalt go no further. Here will I spill thy soul!'
"And with that he threw a flaming dart at his heart. But Christian had a shield in his hand, with which he caught it, and so prevented the danger of that.
"Then did Christian draw, for he saw it was time to bestir him, and Apollyon as fast made at him, throwing darts as thick as hail, by the which, notwithstanding all that Christian could do to avoid it, Apollyon wounded him in his head, his hand, and foot. This made Christian give a little back. Apollyon therefore followed his work amain, and Christian again took courage and resisted as manfully as he could. This sore combat lasted for above half a day, even till Christian was almost quite spent. For you must know that Christian, by reason of his wounds, must needs grow weaker and weaker.
"Then Apollyon espying his opportunity began to gather up close to Christian, and wrestling with him gave him a dreadful fall. And with that Christian's sword flew out of his hand. Then said Apollyon, 'I am sure of thee now.' And with that he had almost pressed him to death so that Christian began to despair of life. But, as God would have it, while Apollyon was fetching his last blow, thereby to make a full end of this good man, Christian nimbly reached out his hand for his sword and caught it, saying, 'Rejoice not against me, O mine Enemy! when I fall I shall arise!' and with that gave him a deadly thrust which made him give back, as one that had received his mortal wound.
"Christian perceiving that made at him again, saying 'Nay in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us.' And with that Apollyon spread forth his dragon's wings and sped him away, and Christian saw him no more."
Bunyan wrote a second part or sequel to the Pilgrim's Progress, in which he tells of the adventures of Christian's wife and children on their way to Zion. But the story does not interest us as the story of Christian does. Because we love Christian we are glad to know that his wife and children escaped destruction, but except that they belong to him we do not really care about them.
Bunyan wrote several other books. The best known are The Holy War and Grace Abounding. The Holy War might be called a Paradise Lost and Regained in homely prose. It tells much the same story, the story of the struggle between Good and Evil for the possession of man's soul.
In Grace Abounding Bunyan tells of his own struggle with evil, and it is from that book that we learn much of what we know of his life.
He also wrote the Life and Death of Mr. Badman. Instead of telling how a good man struggles with evil and at last wins rest, it tells of how a bad man yields always to evil and comes at last to a sad end. It is not a pretty story, and is one, I think, which you will not care to read.
Bunyan, too, wrote a good deal of rime, but for the most part it
can hardly be called poetry. It is for his prose that we
remember him. Yet who would willingly part with the song of the
When Bunyan had been in prison for six years he was set free, but as he at once began to preach he was immediately seized and reimprisoned. He remained shut up for six years longer. Then King Charles II passed an Act called the Declaration of Indulgence. By this Act all the severe laws against those who did not conform to the Church of England were done away with, and, in consequence, Bunyan was set free. Charles passed this Act, not because he was sorry for the Nonconformists—as all who would not conform to the Church of England were called—but because he wished to free the Roman Catholics, and he could not do that without freeing the Nonconformists too. Two years later Bunyan was again imprisoned because "in contempt of his Majesty's good laws he preached or teached in other manner than according to the Liturgy or practice of the Church of England." But this time his imprisonment lasted only six months. And I must tell you that many people now think that it was during this later short imprisonment that Bunyan wrote the Pilgrim's Progress, and not during the earlier and longer.
The rest of Bunyan's life passed peacefully and happily. But we know few details of it, for "he seems to have been too busy to keep any records of his busy life." We know at least that it was busy. He was now a licensed preacher, and if the people had flocked to hear him before his imprisonment they flocked in far greater numbers now. Even learned men came to hear him. "I marvel," said King Charles to one, "that a learned man such as you can sit and listen to an unlearned tinker."
"May it please your Majesty," replied he, "I would gladly give up all my learning if I could preach like that tinker."
Bunyan became the head of the Baptist Church. Near and far he traveled, preaching and teaching, honored and beloved wherever he went. And his word had such power, his commands had such weight, that people playfully called him Bishop Bunyan. Yet he was "not puffed up in prosperity, nor shaken in adversity, always holding the golden mean."
Death found Bunyan still busy, still kindly. A young man who lived at Reading had offended his father so greatly that the father cast him off. In his trouble the young man came to Bunyan. He at once mounted his horse and rode off to Reading. There he saw the angry father, and persuaded him to make peace with his repentant son.
Glad at his success, Bunyan rode on to London, where he meant to preach. But the weather was bad, the roads were heavy with mud, he was overtaken by a storm of rain, and ere he could find shelter he was soaked to the skin. He arrived at length at a friend's house wet and weary and shaking with fever. He went to bed never to rise again. The time had come when, like Christian, he must cross the river which all must cross "where there is no bridge to go over and the river very deep." But Bunyan, like Christian, was held up by Hope. He well knew the words, "When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee, and through the rivers they shall not overflow thee." And so he crossed over.
And may we not believe that Bunyan, when he reached the other side, heard again, as he had once before heard in his immortal dream, "all the bells in the city ring again with joy," and that it was said unto him, "Enter ye into the joy of our Lord"?