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Print Version Main Index : Biographies : Life of John Bunyan Index : Page 32
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The Life of John Bunyan
by Edmund Venables, M.A.


Bunyan's protracted imprisonment came to an end in 1672. The exact date of his actual liberation is uncertain. His pardon under the Great Seal bears date September 13th. But we find from the church books that he had been appointed pastor of the congregation to which he belonged as early as the 21st of January of that year, and on the 9th of May his ministerial position was duly recognized by the Government, and a license was granted to him to act "as preacher in the house of Josias Roughead," for those "of the Persuasion commonly called Congregational." His release would therefore seem to have anticipated the formal issue of his pardon by four months. Bunyan was now half way through his forty-fourth year. Sixteen years still remained to him before his career of indefatigable service in the Master's work was brought to a close. Of these sixteen years, as has already been remarked, we have only a very general knowledge. Details are entirely wanting; nor is there any known source from which they can be recovered. If he kept any diary it has not been preserved. If he wrote letters - and one who was looked up to by so large a circle of disciples as a spiritual father and guide, and whose pen was so ready of exercise, cannot fail to have written many - not one has come down to us. The pages of the church books during his pastorate are also provokingly barren of record, and little that they contain is in Bunyan's handwriting. As Dr. Brown has said, "he seems to have been too busy to keep any records of his busy life." Nor can we fill up the blank from external authorities. The references to Bunyan in contemporary biographies are far fewer than we might have expected; certainly far fewer than we could have desired. But the little that is recorded is eminently characteristic. We see him constantly engaged in the great work to which he felt God had called him, and for which, "with much content through grace," he had suffered twelve years' incarceration. In addition to the regular discharge of his pastoral duties to his own congregation, he took a general oversight of the villages far and near which had been the scene of his earlier ministry, preaching whenever opportunity offered, and, ever unsparing of his own personal labour, making long journeys into distant parts of the country for the furtherance of the gospel. We find him preaching at Leicester in the year of his release. Reading also is mentioned as receiving occasional visits from him, and that not without peril after the revival of persecution; while the congregations in London had the benefit of his exhortations at stated intervals. Almost the first thing Bunyan did, after his liberation from gaol, was to make others sharers in his hardly won "liberty of prophesying," by applying to the Government for licenses for preachers and preaching places in Bedfordshire and the neighbouring counties, under the Declaration of Indulgence. The still existing list sent in to the authorities by him, in his own handwriting, contains the names of twenty-five preachers and thirty buildings, besides "Josias Roughead's House in his orchard at Bedford." Nineteen of these were in his own native county, three in Northamptonshire, three in Buckinghamshire, two in Cambridgeshire, two in Huntingdonshire, and one in Hertfordshire. The places sought to be licensed were very various, barns, malthouses, halls belonging to public companies, &c., but more usually private houses. Over these religious communities, bound together by a common faith and common suffering, Bunyan exercised a quasi-episcopal superintendence, which gained for him the playful title of "Bishop Bunyan." In his regular circuits, - "visitations" we may not improperly term them, - we are told that he exerted himself to relieve the temporal wants of the sufferers under the penal laws, - so soon and so cruelly revived, - ministered diligently to the sick and afflicted, and used his influence in reconciling differences between "professors of the gospel," and thus prevented the scandal of litigation among Christians. The closing period of Bunyan's life was laborious but happy, spent "honourably and innocently" in writing, preaching, visiting his congregations, and planting daughter churches. "Happy," writes Mr. Froude, "in his work; happy in the sense that his influence was daily extending - spreading over his own country and to the far-off settlements of America, - he spent his last years in his own land of Beulah, Doubting Castle out of sight, and the towers and minarets of Immanuel's Land growing nearer and clearer as the days went on."

With his time so largely occupied in his spiritual functions, he could have had but small leisure to devote to his worldly calling. This, however, one of so honest and independent a spirit is sure not to have neglected, it was indeed necessary that to a certain extent he should work for his living. He had a family to maintain. His congregation were mostly of the poorer sort, unable to contribute much to their pastor's support. Had it been otherwise, Bunyan was the last man in the world to make a trade of the gospel, and though never hesitating to avail himself of the apostolic privilege to "live of the gospel," he, like the apostle of the Gentiles, would never be ashamed to "work with his own hands," that he might "minister to his own necessities," and those of his family. But from the time of his release he regarded his ministerial work as the chief work of his life. "When he came abroad," says one who knew him, "he found his temporal affairs were gone to wreck, and he had as to them to begin again as if he had newly come into the world. But yet he was not destitute of friends, who had all along supported him with necessaries and had been very good to his family, so that by their assistance getting things a little about him again, he resolved as much as possible to decline worldly business, and give himself wholly up to the service of God." The anonymous writer to whom we are indebted for information concerning his imprisonment and his subsequent life, says that Bunyan, "contenting himself with that little God had bestowed upon him, sequestered himself from all secular employments to follow that of his call to the ministry." The fact, however, that in the "deed of gift" of all his property to his wife in 1685, he still describes himself as a "brazier," puts it beyond all doubt that though his ministerial duties were his chief concern, he prudently kept fast hold of his handicraft as a certain means of support for himself and those dependent on him. On the whole, Bunyan's outward circumstances were probably easy. His wants were few and easily supplied. "Having food and raiment" for himself, his wife, and his children, he was "therewith content." The house in the parish of St. Cuthbert's which was his home from his release to his death (unhappily demolished fifty years back), shows the humble character of his daily life. It was a small cottage, such as labourers now occupy, with three small rooms on the ground floor, and a garret with a diminutive dormer window under the high- pitched tiled roof. Behind stood an outbuilding which served as his workshop. We have a passing glimpse of this cottage home in the diary of Thomas Hearne, the Oxford antiquary. One Mr. Bagford, otherwise unknown to us, had once "walked into the country" on purpose to see "the study of John Bunyan," and the student who made it famous. On his arrival the interviewer - as we should now call him - met with a civil and courteous reception from Bunyan; but he found the contents of his study hardly larger than those of his prison cell. They were limited to a Bible, and copies of "The Pilgrim's Progress," and a few other books, chiefly his own works, "all lying on a shelf or shelves." Slight as this sketch is, it puts us more in touch with the immortal dreamer than many longer and more elaborate paragraphs.

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