In the 1660s, Charles II, King of England, asked John Owen (1616–83) why he went to hear the preaching of an uneducated tinker. The King was amazed that Owen, a prominent preacher, would stoop to associate with a tinker. After all, there was quite a contrast between the two.

At that time, most ministers in England graduated from Cambridge or Oxford. Owen had entered Queen’s College, Oxford at age 12, took his B.A. in 1632 and M.A. in 1635. On the other hand, the tinker possessed no formal education beyond the second grade. Owen had written voluminously; the tinker did most of his writing while in jail.

The tinker lived in a small cottage in the obscure village of Bedford, but Owen served as chaplain to Cromwell, walked in kings’ palaces, was respected by many of the nobility, and had preached to Parliament and in England’s great cathedrals. The tinker preached to a church that met in an old barn and at its peak may have numbered 300.

Looking the King in the eye, Owen answered, “May it please your Majesty, could I possess the tinker’s ability for preaching, I would willingly relinquish all my learning.”1

The tinker was John Bunyan (1628–88), the Puritan pastor and author of Pilgrim’s Progress.

Bunyan was an old man when Owen first heard him. “The soul-experiences through which he [Bunyan] had passed,” notes one biographer, “had done more to equip him for what God had so definitely called him than any academic training could do.”2

“I preached what I startlingly did feel,”3 Bunyan later noted.

The source of Bunyan’s influence over Owen and others was his passion in the pulpit that flowed from his personal experience of the Bible’s power and his frequent persecution. He was Bible-saturated. As Charles Spurgeon later noted, “Prick him anywhere; his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him.”4

Owen would not have been surprised to learn that Bunyan’s most influential work, Pilgrim’s Progress, would be translated into more languages over the next 400 years than any book except the Bible.

How did the writing of an uneducated tinker become the most widely read piece of 17th-century English literature? Who was John Bunyan, and what can we learn from his life?

Early Life

Little is known about John Bunyan’s youth. He was born in 1628 in Elstow, a little village 50 miles northeast of London. The exact date of his birth is unknown. At age 16 he enlisted in Oliver Cromwell’s army and fought with the Puritans against King Charles I. He was discharged in his early twenties and married. His first wife (her name unknown) bore him four children. The oldest child, a daughter, was born blind.

He was converted in his mid-twenties after a lengthy agony-of-soul similar to Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress. At age 25 he began to preach, and by 30 he was a part-time village preacher. He worked the forge and anvil by day and preached the gospel at night.

Persecution

We often take religious toleration for granted. But tolerance of multiple denominations in one state was a novel idea in the 1650s. Intolerance had been the norm for 1,000 years. Most English Christians were Anglican paedobaptists. But under Cromwell’s new policy of tolerance, the Baptists were beginning to flourish and many Englishmen were nervous.5

Bunyan belonged to a small Baptist church of about 60 people. They were called independents because the Anglican Church — the only church sanctioned by the English government — did not control them.

Cromwell died, and in 1660, King Charles II came to power. He was determined to eradicate Cromwell’s radical religious tolerance and stamp out all denominations except the State-sanctioned church. Parliament cooperated, passing a series of laws designed to persecute the independents out of existence. Bunyan suffered dearly.

In this setting Bunyan received Christ’s call to preach. He knew it would be costly. To complicate matters, his wife died, leaving him with four children. Bunyan knew he would be jailed soon, so he asked a woman in his church named Elizabeth to marry him so his children would be cared for while he was in prison. Zealous for God and His people, she agreed to marry John and serve the church in this way. In later years Elizabeth and John fell deeply in love.

When Bunyan refused to obey Parliament’s new mandates forbidding him to preach as an independent, the English government imprisoned him. He languished in jail without a proper trial for 12 of the best years of his life: age 32 to 44.

During these years the government persecutors ravaged what was left of Bunyan’s flock, fining immense sums on people who were already poor by 17th-century standards. Often government officials would arrive at their homes with a cart and take everything they owned — furniture, clothing, and cooking utensils — leaving these poor saints utterly destitute.6

The experience of a poor widow named Mary Tilney characterized the treatment of Bunyan’s flock: “They carried away all the Goods in her House they thought worth their labour, as Tables, Cupboards, Chairs, Irons, Feather-beds, Blankets, the very Hangings of the Room, and Sheets off her bed, insomuch that the Widow was forced that night to borrow Sheets of her Neighbors to lie on. … Yet the poor Mrs. Tilney was more troubled at the crying and sighing of her poor Neighbours about her …, than for the loss of her Goods, which she took very cheerfully.”7

Such was the spirit and attitude of these poor, oppressed saints.

Jail Life

Meanwhile Bunyan languished in jail. Seventeenth-century English jails were not pleasant. Unlike today, he had no color TV and no weight room. Food was meager. He slept on a flea-infested straw mattress in a small room crowded with other prisoners. He had no heat in winter. He lived with lice, fleas, poor sanitation, and little privacy. Many fellow prisoners died of disease.

Despite these hardships, the fate of his wife, Elizabeth, and his four children was his greatest concern. There was no welfare to provide for them, so he cast his family upon the mercy of his small congregation, already impoverished by persecution. His children grew up poor and fatherless.

“The parting with my Wife and poor children hath often been to me in this place as the pulling of the Flesh from my Bones,” he later wrote. “And that … because I should have often brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries and wants that my poor Family was like to meet with should I be taken from them, especially my poor blind Child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides; O the thoughts of the hardship I thought my Blind one might go under, would break my poor heart to pieces. … Yet recalling myself, thought I, I must venture you all with God, though it goeth to the quick to leave you. O, I saw in this condition I was as a man who was pulling down his house upon the head of his Wife and Children. Yet, thought I, I must do it, I must do it.”8

He was finally released from prison, and for the next 3 years he returned to preaching. Deepened by suffering, Bunyan’s preaching had a new measure of power and authority.

He was jailed a final time for 6 months. During this incarceration, he received the dream that inspired Pilgrim’s Progress. He finished the manuscript in prison.

From his middle forties to his death at age 60, he was the pastor of a small, growing Bedford congregation. He was also in growing demand to supply pulpits in neighboring villages. His reputation preceded him, and increasingly the great congregations of London called him to preach. It was at this time that John Owen heard Bunyan and began attending his lectures whenever he was in London.

Lessons From Bunyan

First, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). God lifted Bunyan high because he went so low. Looking back on his imprisonment he quietly noted: “I was made to see that if ever I would suffer rightly I must first pass a sentence of death upon everything which can properly be called a thing of this life, even to reckon myself, my Wife, my Children, my Health, my Enjoyments, and all as dead to me and myself as dead to them. And second to live upon God that is invisible. I see the best way to go through suffering is to trust in God through Christ as touching the world to come; and as touching this world to count the grave my House, and to make my Bed in darkness.”9

Second, Bunyan persevered in his calling. He was unaware of the vast harvest that would come through his writing after his death. During his prison years, he faithfully devoted hour after hour to Bible study, never knowing how or when God would use him, or if he would be released. He determined to be faithful trusting the harvest to God.

Bunyan didn’t measure success by large numbers or by fine facilities. He measured it by faithfulness. To what has God called us? Are we devoting our lives to it? Are we discouraged by meager results? Take courage. Bunyan measured success by faithfulness, trusting God for results as He saw fit to produce them.

From an earthly perspective, Bunyan saw few results during his life. He is enjoying his reward now in eternity. If we persevere in our calling, we will have the same reward. Emulate John Bunyan. He was a faithful man.

History is His story.

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