The exaggeration of the severity of Bunyan's imprisonment long current, now that the facts are better known, has led, by a very intelligible reaction, to an undue depreciation of it. Mr. Froude thinks that his incarceration was "intended to be little more than nominal," and was really meant in kindness by the authorities who "respected his character," as the best means of preventing him from getting himself into greater trouble by "repeating an offence that would compel them to adopt harsh measures which they were earnestly trying to avoid." If convicted again he must be transported, and "they were unwilling to drive him out of the country." It is, however, to be feared that it was no such kind consideration for the tinker-preacher which kept the prison doors closed on Bunyan. To the justices he was simply an obstinate law-breaker, who must be kept in prison as long as he refused compliance with the Act. If he rotted in gaol, as so many of his fellow sufferers for conscience' sake did in those unhappy times, it was no concern of theirs. He and his stubbornness would be alone to blame.
It is certainly true that during a portion of his captivity, Bunyan, in Dr. Brown's words, "had an amount of liberty which in the case of a prisoner nowadays would be simply impossible." But the mistake has been made of extending to the whole period an indulgence which belonged only to a part, and that a very limited part of it. When we are told that Bunyan was treated as a prisoner at large, and like one "on parole," free to come and go as he pleased, even as far as London, we must remember that Bunyan's own words expressly restrict this indulgence to the six months between the Autumn Assizes of 1661 and the Spring Assizes of 1662. "Between these two assizes," he says, "I had by my jailer some liberty granted me more than at the first." This liberty was certainly of the largest kind consistent with his character of a prisoner. The church books show that he was occasionally present at their meetings, and was employed on the business of the congregation. Nay, even his preaching, which was the cause of his imprisonment, was not forbidden. "I followed," he says, writing of this period, "my wonted course of preaching, taking all occasions that were put into my hand to visit the people of God." But this indulgence was very brief and was brought sharply to an end. It was plainly irregular, and depended on the connivance of his jailer. We cannot be surprised that when it came to the magistrates' ears - "my enemies," Bunyan rather unworthily calls them - they were seriously displeased. Confounding Bunyan with the Fifth Monarchy men and other turbulent sectaries, they imagined that his visits to London had a political object, "to plot, and raise division, and make insurrections," which, he honestly adds, "God knows was a slander." The jailer was all but "cast out of his place," and threatened with an indictment for breach of trust, while his own liberty was so seriously "straitened" that he was prohibited even "to look out at the door." The last time Bunyan's name appears as present at a church meeting is October 28, 1661, nor do we see it again till October 9, 1668, only four years before his twelve years term of imprisonment expired.
But though his imprisonment was not so severe, nor his prison quite so narrow and wretched as some word-painters have described them, during the greater part of the time his condition was a dreary and painful one, especially when spent, as it sometimes was, "under cruel and oppressive jailers." The enforced separation from his wife and children, especially his tenderly loved blind daughter, Mary, was a continually renewed anguish to his loving heart. "The parting with them," he writes, "hath often been to me as pulling the flesh from the bones; and that not only because I am somewhat too fond of these great mercies, but also because I should often have brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries, and wants my poor family was like to meet with, should I be taken from them; especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer to my heart than all beside. Poor child, thought I, thou must be beaten, thou must beg, thou must suffer hunger, cold, nakedness, and a thousand calamities, though I cannot now endure the wind should blow on thee. O, the thoughts of the hardships my blind one might go under would break my heart to pieces." He seemed to himself like a man pulling down his house on his wife and children's head, and yet he felt, "I must do it; O, I must do it." He was also, he tells us, at one time, being but "a young prisoner," greatly troubled by the thoughts that "for aught he could tell," his "imprisonment might end at the gallows," not so much that he dreaded death as that he was apprehensive that when it came to the point, even if he made "a scrabbling shift to clamber up the ladder," he might play the coward and so do discredit to the cause of religion. "I was ashamed to die with a pale face and tottering knees for such a cause as this." The belief that his imprisonment might be terminated by death on the scaffold, however groundless, evidently weighed long on his mind. The closing sentences of his third prison book, "Christian Behaviour," published in 1663, the second year of his durance, clearly point to such an expectation. "Thus have I in few words written to you before I die, . . . not knowing the shortness of my life, nor the hindrances that hereafter I may have of serving my God and you." The ladder of his apprehensions was, as Mr. Froude has said, "an imaginary ladder," but it was very real to Bunyan. "Oft I was as if I was on the ladder with a rope about my neck." The thought of it, as his autobiography shows, caused him some of his deepest searchings of heart, and noblest ventures of faith. He was content to suffer by the hangman's hand if thus he might have an opportunity of addressing the crowd that he thought would come to see him die. "And if it must be so, if God will but convert one soul by my very last words, I shall not count my life thrown away or lost." And even when hours of darkness came over his soul, and he was tempted to question the reality of his Christian profession, and to doubt whether God would give him comfort at the hour of death, he stayed himself up with such bold words as these. "I was bound, but He was free. Yea, 'twas my duty to stand to His word whether He would ever look on me or no, or save me at the last. If God doth not come in, thought I, I will leap off the ladder even blindfold into Eternity, sink or swim, come heaven, come hell. Lord Jesus, if Thou wilt catch me, do. If not, I will venture for Thy name."