Bunyan's celebrity as a preacher, great before he was shut up in gaol, was naturally enhanced by the circumstance of his imprisonment. The barn in Josias Roughead's orchard, where he was licensed as a preacher, was "so thronged the first time he appeared there to edify, that many were constrained to stay without; every one that was of his persuasion striving to partake of his instructions." Wherever he ministered, sometimes, when troublous days returned, in woods, and in dells, and other hiding-places, the announcement that John Bunyan was to preach gathered a large and attentive auditory, hanging on his lips and drinking from them the word of life. His fame grew the more he was known and reached its climax when his work was nearest its end. His biographer Charles Doe tells us that just before his death, "when Mr. Bunyan preached in London, if there were but one day's notice given, there would be more people come together than the meeting-house could hold. I have seen, by my computation, about twelve hundred at a morning lecture by seven o'clock on a working day, in the dark winter time. I also computed about three thousand that came to hear him one Lord's Day in London, at a town's-end meeting-house, so that half were fain to go back again for want of room, and then himself was fain at a back door to be pulled almost over people to get upstairs to his pulpit." This "town's-end meeting house" has been identified by some with a quaint straggling long building which once stood in Queen Street, Southwark, of which there is an engraving in Wilkinson's "Londina Illustrata." Doe's account, however, probably points to another building, as the Zoar Street meeting-house was not opened for worship till about six months before Bunyan's death, and then for Presbyterian service. Other places in London connected with his preaching are Pinners' Hall in Old Broad Street, where, on one of his occasional visits, he delivered his striking sermon on "The Greatness of the Soul and the Unspeakableness of the Loss thereof," first published in 1683; and Dr. Owen's meeting-house in White's Alley, Moorfields, which was the gathering-place for titled folk, city merchants, and other Nonconformists of position and degree. At earlier times, when the penal laws against Nonconformists were in vigorous exercise, Bunyan had to hold his meetings by stealth in private houses and other places where he might hope to escape the lynx-eyed informer. It was at one of these furtive meetings that his earliest biographer, the honest combmaker at the foot of London Bridge, Charles Doe, first heard him preach. His choice of an Old Testament text at first offended Doe, who had lately come into New Testament light and had had enough of the "historical and doing-for-favour of the Old Testament." But as he went on he preached "so New Testament like" that his hearer's prejudices vanished, and he could only "admire, weep for joy, and give the preacher his affections."
Bunyan was more than once urged to leave Bedford and settle in the metropolis. But to all these solicitations he turned a deaf ear. Bedford was the home of his deepest affections. It was there the holy words of the poor women "sitting in the sun," speaking "as if joy did make them speak," had first "made his heart shake," and shown him that he was still a stranger to vital godliness. It was there he had been brought out of darkness into light himself, and there too he had been the means of imparting the same blessing to others. The very fact of his long imprisonment had identified him with the town and its inhabitants. There he had a large and loving congregation, to whom he was bound by the ties of a common faith and common sufferings. Many of these recognized in Bunyan their spiritual father; all, save a few "of the baser sort," reverenced him as their teacher and guide. No prospect of a wider field of usefulness, still less of a larger income, could tempt him to desert his "few sheep in the wilderness." Some of them, it is true, were wayward sheep, who wounded the heart of their pastor by breaking from the fold, and displaying very un-lamb-like behaviour. He had sometimes to realize painfully that no pale is so close but that the enemy will creep in somewhere and seduce the flock; and that no rules of communion, however strict, can effectually exclude unworthy members. Brother John Stanton had to be admonished "for abusing his wife and beating her often for very light matters" (if the matters had been less light, would the beating in these days have been thought justifiable?); and Sister Mary Foskett, for "privately whispering of a horrid scandal, 'without culler of truth,' against Brother Honeylove." Evil-speaking and backbiting set brother against brother. Dissensions and heartburnings grieved Bunyan's spirit. He himself was not always spared. A letter had to be written to Sister Hawthorn "by way of reproof for her unseemly language against Brother Scot and the whole Church." John Wildman was had up before the Church and convicted of being "an abominable liar and slanderer," "extraordinary guilty" against "our beloved Brother Bunyan himself." And though Sister Hawthorn satisfied the Church by "humble acknowledgment of her miscariag," the bolder misdoer only made matters worse by "a frothy letter," which left no alternative but a sentence of expulsion. But though Bunyan's flock contained some whose fleeces were not as white as he desired, these were the exception. The congregation meeting in Josias Roughead's barn must have been, take them as a whole, a quiet, God-fearing, spiritually-minded folk, of whom their pastor could think with thankfulness and satisfaction as "his hope and joy and crown of rejoicing." From such he could not be severed lightly. Inducements which would have been powerful to a meaner nature fell dead on his independent spirit. He was not "a man that preached by way of bargain for money," and, writes Doe, "more than once he refused a more plentiful income to keep his station." As Dr. Brown says: "He was too deeply rooted on the scene of his lifelong labours and sufferings to think of striking his tent till the command came from the Master to come up to the higher service for which he had been ripening so long." At Bedford, therefore, he remained; quietly staying on in his cottage in St. Cuthbert's, and ministering to his humble flock, loving and beloved, as Mr. Froude writes, "through changes of ministry, Popish plots, and Monmouth rebellions, while the terror of a restoration of Popery was bringing on the Revolution; careless of kings and cabinets, and confident that Giant Pope had lost his power for harm, and thenceforward could only bite his nails at the passing pilgrims."