Interpreter’s wall hung a portrait of a grave man. He “had eyes uplift
to Heaven, the best of Books in his hand, the law of Truth was written upon
his lips, the world was behind his back; it stood as if it pleaded with men,
and a crown of gold did hang over its head.” So wrote John Bunyan in his
allegorical masterpiece The Pilgrim’s Progress. The words were as
much a description of their author as the grave man himself.
Uplift to Heaven . . . The World Behind His Back
the fall of 1628, Thomas and Margaret Bunyan welcomed into their tiny, Bedfordshire
home their firstborn son John. Thomas was a tinker, one who made and mended
metal pots and utensils. Young John often participated in his father’s
trade and accompanied him on business trips to Bedford, the county seat of less
than a thousand people.
relatively poor, John learned to read and write. He received his meager education
at Sir William Harper’s Grammar School in Bedford, founded exclusively
“for nourishing and educating poor boys in that place.”
young as the tender age of nine, Bunyan worried about his soul’s salvation.
During his adolescence he suffered through bouts of depression and spiritual
hallucinations, haunted by Calvin’s doctrine of predestination and wondering
whether he was one of God’s elect.
his own admission, the teenaged Bunyan possessed both a violent temper and foul
mouth. At sixteen, within a three month period, he lost his mother and a sister,
then gained a step-mother. He, in turn, drifted farther from God. During his
rebellion he joined the army and was assigned to a garrison fifteen miles from
from the army in 1647, Bunyan married but continued through six years of inner
torment. His new bride exerted a positive influence upon him spiritually. History
has recorded little about her except that she came from a godly home, was pious,
and brought as her dowry a Bible and two religious books: Arthur Dent’s
The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and Lewis Bayly’s The
Practice of Piety. His reading of those books spurred Bunyan to attend the
local Anglican church. He soon quit however, because of one of the vicar’s
sermons against playing sports on the Sabbath.
Bunyan began to read the Bible. His behavior improved. Then one day in Bedford
he saw three or four poor women discussing spiritual matters on a front porch.
He listened intently and returned to their company often. They eventually introduced
him to their nonconformist minister John Gifford, pastor of a small Baptist
congregation in Bedford. Gifford began assuring Bunyan about spiritual matters
in general and his own election in particular. Around that time Bunyan came
upon a copy of Martin Luther’s Commentary on the Galatians. At last
he felt his tortured quest for salvation had ended.
Book in His Hand . . . Truth upon His Lips
Puritans of Bunyan’s day insisted upon the absolute infallibility of the
Scriptures, the primacy of preaching, the applicability of the Bible, and the
interior quality of the Christian life. Peter Lewis characterized the period
as “the golden age of evangelical preaching in England.”
the Puritan preacher began his message with a striking text. Following a few
exegetical comments, he drew from his text a theme. From there he worked his
way through an outline of multiple divisions and biblical cross-references arranged
under the general headings of “Doctrine,” “Proofs,” and
“Uses.” Formal transitions held the parts together so that the most
casual hearer could follow easily the preacher’s train of thought.
remembers Bunyan as a Puritan because of the time in which he lived, because
he shared much of their Protestant theology, and because he adopted many of
their homiletical methods. He was, however, essentially a Baptist. Bunyan received
his 1672 license to preach as a Congregational minister but referred to himself
as an Anabaptist. He agreed with the Calvinists on most theological matters
but was deeply influenced by Luther’s emphasis upon the personal nature
of salvation. His theology gave his preaching and writing a more personal appeal
than that of contemporary orthodox Calvinists.
Brown served as pastor of the Bunyan Meeting in Bedford from 1864 until 1903,
a position that afforded him an unique opportunity to study the legacy of his
predecessor. He concluded that Bunyan’s preaching bore a number of distinct
characteristics. Bunyan, according to Brown, was a master of grand and noble
Saxon speech. He spoke simply and directly. He employed exquisite illustrations
of an everyday sort, stressed universal and central truths (as opposed to divisive
Christian issues), and spoke with clear conviction.
Bunyan possessed an active imagination and a sense of artistry. As a twenty
year old he hammered a violin out of iron to satisfy his desire for a musical
instrument. While a prisoner he whittled a flute out of a stool’s leg.
He unleashed his imagination in his writing and, to a lesser degree, in his
preaching. When he recounted biblical narratives he added real-to-life details
that brought the stories alive. He took the simplest things from everyday life
and drew from them great spiritual insights. His vivid personality and sense
of humor stamped themselves on all he said.
practice of voicing what he anticipated as objections from his audience or their
request for clarification as part of his transitional statements reminds the
modern hearer of Billy Graham’s, “But you might say, Billy . . .”
Occasionally, Bunyan asked his hearers to imagine themselves placed in a particular,
concrete situation. This was another distinct trait of his. He also made much
of antithesis when preaching, contrasting, for example, the states of the godly
and the ungodly.
with Men . . . A Golden Crown
began preaching around 1656, shortly after joining Gifford’s congregation.
The people quickly embraced his vivid imagery, moving eloquence, and plain speech.
He worked as a bi-vocational tinker, preacher, and pamphleteer until his arrest
in 1660 as a nonconformist.
provide for his family, he made lace articles while in prison. He also passed
his time there by preaching to the nonconformist brothers who shared his bonds.
Occasionally, guards permitted Bunyan to leave the prison briefly. He took advantage
of such times to preach to those without. He was released in 1666 but arrested
again by the end of the year. During his long imprisonment he completed several
books and conceived the idea for Pilgrim’s Progress.
1672 Act of Indulgence finally secured Bunyan’s release. He returned to
the pastoral office of the Baptist church in Bedford, abandoning the tinker’s
trade. He returned to prison for six months in 1675 when the Act of Uniformity
was reinforced. During that time he completed the Progress.
his death in 1688 Bunyan maintained an active ministry of preaching, pastoring,
and writing. A forty mile trip on horseback through a heavy rain left him feverish
in London. Still he kept his preaching engagement the following Sunday in Boar’s
Head Yard, his final sermon. He died days later and was buried in Bunhill Fields.
renowned Puritan John Owen allegedly envied his friend Bunyan once claiming,
“Had I the tinker’s abilities, I would gladly relinquish my learning.”
That same appreciation for the dreamer from Bedford led one poet to write:
We want our
Bunyan to show the way
Through the Sloughs of Despond that are round us today,
Our guide for straggling souls to wait,
And lift the latch of the wicket-gate.
We fain would listen, O Preacher and Peer,
To a voice like that of this Tinker-Seer,
Who guided the Pilgrim up, beyond
The Valley of Death and Slough of Despond,
And Doubting Castle and Giant Despair,
To those Delectable Mountains fair,
And over the River, and in at the Gate
Where for weary Pilgrims the Angels wait.
in John Brown, Puritan Preaching in England, 162.)
K. Hollifield is Chaplain with Youth for Christ in Memphis, TN.