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Print Version Main Index : Biographies : Life of John Bunyan Index : Page 21
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The Life of John Bunyan
by Edmund Venables, M.A.

CHAPTER V. - continued

We may dislike the tone adopted by the magistrates towards the prisoner; we may condemn it as overbearing and contemptuous; we may smile at Keeling's expositions of Scripture and his stock arguments against unauthorized prayer and preaching, though we may charitably believe that Bunyan misunderstood him when he makes him say that "the Book of Common Prayer had been ever since the apostles' time"; we may think that the prisoner, in his "canting pedlar's French," as Keeling called it, had the better of his judges in knowledge of the Bible, in Christian charity, as well as in dignity and in common sense, and that they showed their wisdom in silencing him in court - "Let him speak no further," said one of them, "he will do harm," - since they could not answer him more convincingly: but his legal offence was clear. He confessed to the indictment, if not in express terms, yet virtually. He and his friends had held "many meetings together, both to pray to God and to exhort one another. I confessed myself guilty no otherwise." Such meetings were forbidden by the law, which it was the duty of the justices to administer, and they had no choice whether they would convict or no. Perhaps they were not sorry they had no such choice. Bunyan was a most "impracticable" prisoner, and as Mr. Froude says, the "magistrates being but unregenerate mortals may be pardoned if they found him provoking." The sentence necessarily followed. It was pronounced, not, we are sure reluctantly, by Keeling, in the terms of the Act. "He was to go back to prison for three months. If at three months' end he still refused to go to church to hear Divine service and leave his preaching, he was to be banished the realm," - in modern language "transported," and if "he came back again without special royal license," he must "stretch by the neck for it."

"This," said Keeling, "I tell you plainly." Bunyan's reply that "as to that matter he was at a point with the judge," for "that he would repeat the offence the first time he could," provoked a rejoinder from one of the bench, and the unseemly wrangling might have been still further prolonged, had it not been stopped by the gaoler, who "pulling him away to be gone," had him back to prison, where he says, and "blesses the Lord Jesus Christ for it," his heart was as "sweetly refreshed" in returning to it as it had "been during his examination. So that I find Christ's words more than bare trifles, where He saith, He will give a mouth and wisdom, even such as all the adversaries shall not gainsay or resist. And that His peace no man can take from us."

The magistrates, however, though not unnaturally irritated by what seemed to them Bunyan's unreasonable obstinacy, were not desirous to push matters to extremity. The three months named in his sentence, at the expiration of which he was either to conform or be banished the realm, were fast drawing to an end, without any sign of submission on his part. As a last resort Mr. Cobb, the Clerk of the Peace, was sent to try what calm and friendly reasoning might effect. Cobb, who evidently knew Bunyan personally, did his best, as a kind-hearted, sensible man, to bring him to reason. Cobb did not profess to be "a man that could dispute," and Bunyan had the better of him in argument. His position, however, was unassailable. The recent insurrection of Venner and his Fifth Monarchy men, he said, had shown the danger to the public peace there was in allowing fanatical gatherings to assemble unchecked. Bunyan, whose loyalty was unquestioned, must acknowledge the prudence of suppressing meetings which, however good their ostensible aim, might issue in nothing less than the ruin of the kingdom and commonwealth. Bunyan had confessed his readiness to obey the apostolic precept by submitting himself to the king as supreme. The king forbade the holding of private meetings, which, under colour of religion, might be prejudicial to the State. Why then did he not submit? This need not hinder him from doing good in a neighbourly way. He might continue to use his gifts and exhort his neighbours in private discourse, provided he did not bring people together in public assemblies. The law did not abridge him of this liberty. Why should he stand so strictly on public meetings? Or why should he not come to church and hear? Was his gift so far above that of others that he could learn of no one? If he could not be persuaded, the judges were resolved to prosecute the law against him. He would be sent away beyond the seas to Spain or Constantinople - either Cobb's or Bunyan's colonial geography was rather at fault here - or some other remote part of the world, and what good could he do to his friends then? "Neighbour Bunyan" had better consider these things seriously before the Quarter Session, and be ruled by good advice. The gaoler here put in his word in support of Cobb's arguments: "Indeed, sir, I hope he will be ruled." But all Cobb's friendly reasonings and expostulations were ineffectual to bend Bunyan's sturdy will. He would yield to no-one in his loyalty to his sovereign, and his readiness to obey the law. But, he said, with a hairsplitting casuistry he would have indignantly condemned in others, the law provided two ways of obeying, "one to obey actively, and if his conscience forbad that, then to obey passively; to lie down and suffer whatever they might do to him." The Clerk of the Peace saw that it was no use to prolong the argument any further. "At this," writes Bunyan, "he sat down, and said no more; which, when he had done, I did thank him for his civil and meek discoursing with me; and so we parted: O that we might meet in heaven!"

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