This undercurrent of religious feeling was deepened by providential escapes from accidents which threatened his life - "judgments mixed with mercy" he terms them, - which made him feel that he was not utterly forsaken of God. Twice he narrowly escaped drowning; once in "Bedford river" - the Ouse; once in "a creek of the sea," his tinkering rounds having, perhaps, carried him as far northward as the tidal inlets of the Wash in the neighbourhood of Spalding or Lynn, or to the estuaries of the Stour and Orwell to the east. At another time, in his wild contempt of danger, he tore out, while his companions looked on with admiration, what he mistakenly supposed to be an adder's sting.
These providential deliverances bring us to that incident in his brief career as a soldier which his anonymous biographer tells us "made so deep an impression upon him that he would never mention it, which he often did, without thanksgiving to God." But for this occurrence, indeed, we should have probably never known that he had ever served in the army at all. The story is best told in his own provokingly brief words - "When I was a soldier 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 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 is so often the case in Bunyan's autobiography, we have reason to lament the complete absence of details. This is characteristic of the man. The religious import of the occurrences he records constituted their only value in his eyes; their temporal setting, which imparts their chief interest to us, was of no account to him. He gives us not the slightest clue to the name of the besieged place, or even to the side on which he was engaged. The date of the event is left equally vague. The last point however we are able to determine with something like accuracy. November, 1644, was the earliest period at which Bunyan could have entered the army, for it was not till then that he reached the regulation age of sixteen. Domestic circumstances had then recently occurred which may have tended to estrange him from his home, and turn his thoughts to a military life. In the previous June his mother had died, her death being followed within a month by that of his sister Margaret. Before another month was out, his father, as we have already said, had married again, and whether the new wife had proved the proverbial INJUSTA NOVERCA or not, his home must have been sufficiently altered by the double, if we may not say triple, calamity, to account for his leaving the dull monotony of his native village for the more stirring career of a soldier. Which of the two causes then distracting the nation claimed his adherence, Royalist or Parliamentarian, can never be determined. As Mr. Froude writes, "He does not tell us himself. His friends in after life did not care to ask him or he to inform them, or else they thought the matter of too small importance to be worth mentioning with exactness." The only evidence is internal, and the deductions from it vary with the estimate of the counter-balancing probabilities taken by Bunyan's various biographers. Lord Macaulay, whose conclusion is ably, and, we think, convincingly supported by Dr. Brown, decides in favour of the side of the Parliament. Mr. Froude, on the other hand, together with the painstaking Mr. Offor, holds that "probability is on the side of his having been with the Royalists." Bedfordshire, however, was one of the "Associated Counties" from which the Parliamentary army drew its main strength, and it was shut in by a strong line of defence from any combination with the Royalist army. In 1643 the county had received an order requiring it to furnish "able and armed men" to the garrison at Newport Pagnel, which was then the base of operations against the King in that part of England. All probability therefore points to John Bunyan, the lusty young tinker of Elstow, the leader in all manly sports and adventurous enterprises among his mates, and probably caring very little on what side he fought, having been drafted to Newport to serve under Sir Samuel Luke, of Cople, and other Parliamentary commanders. The place of the siege he refers to is equally undeterminable. A tradition current within a few years of Bunyan's death, which Lord Macaulay rather rashly invests with the certainty of fact, names Leicester. The only direct evidence for this is the statement of an anonymous biographer, who professes to have been a personal friend of Bunyan's, that he was present at the siege of Leicester, in 1645, as a soldier in the Parliamentary army. This statement, however, is in direct defiance of Bunyan's own words. For the one thing certain in the matter is that wherever the siege may have been, Bunyan was not at it. He tells us plainly that he was "drawn to go," and that when he was just starting, he gave up his place to a comrade who went in his room, and was shot through the head. Bunyan's presence at the siege of Leicester, which has been so often reported that it has almost been regarded as an historical truth, must therefore take its place among the baseless creations of a fertile fancy.
Bunyan's military career, wherever passed and under whatever standard, was very short. The civil war was drawing near the end of its first stage when he enlisted. He had only been a soldier a few months when the battle of Naseby, fatal to the royal cause, was fought, June 14, 1645. Bristol was surrendered by Prince Rupert, Sept. 10th. Three days later Montrose was totally defeated at Philiphaugh; and after a vain attempt to relieve Chester, Charles shut himself up in Oxford. The royal garrisons yielded in quick succession; in 1646 the armies on both sides were disbanded, and the first act in the great national tragedy having come to a close, Bunyan returned to Elstow, and resumed his tinker's work at the paternal forge. His father, old Thomas Bunyan, it may here be mentioned, lived all through his famous son's twelve years' imprisonment, witnessed his growing celebrity as a preacher and a writer, and died in the early part of 1676, just when John Bunyan was passing through his last brief period of durance, which was to give birth to the work which has made him immortal.