The Life of John Bunyan
by Edmund Venables, M.A.

CHAPTER I. - continued

And his parents, though poor, were evidently worthy people, of good repute among their village neighbours. Bunyan seems to be describing his own father and his wandering life when he speaks of "an honest poor labouring man, who, like Adam unparadised, had all the world to get his bread in, and was very careful to maintain his family." He and his wife were also careful with a higher care that their children should be properly educated. "Notwithstanding the meanness and inconsiderableness of my parents," writes Bunyan, "it pleased God to put it into their hearts to put me to school, to learn both to read and write." If we accept the evidence of the "Scriptural Poems," published for the first time twelve years after his death, the genuineness of which, though questioned by Dr. Brown, there seems no sufficient reason to doubt, the little education he had was "gained in a grammar school." This would have been that founded by Sir William Harpur in Queen Mary's reign in the neighbouring town of Bedford. Thither we may picture the little lad trudging day by day along the mile and a half of footpath and road from his father's cottage by the brookside, often, no doubt, wet and miry enough, not, as he says, to "go to school to Aristotle or Plato," but to be taught "according to the rate of other poor men's children." The Bedford school-master about this time, William Barnes by name, was a negligent sot, charged with "night- walking" and haunting "taverns and alehouses," and other evil practices, as well as with treating the poor boys "when present" with a cruelty which must have made them wish that his absences, long as they were, had been more protracted. Whether this man was his master or no, it was little that Bunyan learnt at school, and that little he confesses with shame he soon lost "almost utterly." He was before long called home to help his father at the Harrowden forge, where he says he was "brought up in a very mean condition among a company of poor countrymen." Here, with but little to elevate or refine his character, the boy contracted many bad habits, and grew up what Coleridge somewhat too strongly calls "a bitter blackguard." According to his own remorseful confession, he was "filled with all unrighteousness," having "from a child" in his "tender years," "but few equals both for cursing, swearing, lying and blaspheming the holy name of God." Sins of this kind he declares became "a second nature to him;" he "delighted in all transgression against the law of God," and as he advanced in his teens he became a "notorious sinbreeder," the "very ringleader," he says, of the village lads "in all manner of vice and ungodliness." But the unsparing condemnation passed by Bunyan, after his conversion, on his former self, must not mislead us into supposing him ever, either as boy or man, to have lived a vicious life. "The wickedness of the tinker," writes Southey, "has been greatly overrated, and it is taking the language of self-accusation too literally to pronounce of John Bunyan that he was at any time depraved." The justice of this verdict of acquittal is fully accepted by Coleridge. "Bunyan," he says, "was never in our received sense of the word 'wicked.' He was chaste, sober, and honest." He hints at youthful escapades, such, perhaps, as orchard-robbing, or when a little older, poaching, and the like, which might have brought him under "the stroke of the laws," and put him to "open shame before the face of the world." But he confesses to no crime or profligate habit. We have no reason to suppose that he was ever drunk, and we have his own most solemn declaration that he was never guilty of an act of unchastity. "In our days," to quote Mr. Froude, "a rough tinker who could say as much for himself after he had grown to manhood, would be regarded as a model of self-restraint. If in Bedford and the neighbourhood there was no young man more vicious than Bunyan, the moral standard of an English town in the seventeenth century must have been higher than believers in progress will be pleased to allow." How then, it may be asked, are we to explain the passionate language in which he expresses his self-abhorrence, which would hardly seem exaggerated in the mouth of the most profligate and licentious? We are confident that Bunyan meant what he said. So intensely honest a nature could not allow his words to go beyond his convictions. When he speaks of "letting loose the reins to his lusts," and sinning "with the greatest delight and ease," we know that however exaggerated they may appear to us, his expressions did not seem to him overstrained. Dr. Johnson marvelled that St. Paul could call himself "the chief of sinners," and expressed a doubt whether he did so honestly. But a highly-strung spiritual nature like that of the apostle, when suddenly called into exercise after a period of carelessness, takes a very different estimate of sin from that of the world, even the decent moral world, in general. It realizes its own offences, venial as they appear to others, as sins against infinite love - a love unto death - and in the light of the sacrifice on Calvary, recognizes the heinousness of its guilt, and while it doubts not, marvels that it can be pardoned. The sinfulness of sin - more especially their own sin - is the intensest of all possible realities to them. No language is too strong to describe it. We may not unreasonably ask whether this estimate, however exaggerated it may appear to those who are strangers to these spiritual experiences, is altogether a mistaken one?

The spiritual instinct was very early awakened in Bunyan. While still a child "but nine or ten years old," he tells us he was racked with convictions of sin, and haunted with religious fears. He was scared with "fearful dreams," and "dreadful visions," and haunted in his sleep with "apprehensions of devils and wicked spirits" coming to carry him away, which made his bed a place of terrors. The thought of the Day of Judgment and of the torments of the lost, often came as a dark cloud over his mind in the midst of his boyish sports, and made him tremble. But though these fevered visions embittered his enjoyment while they lasted, they were but transient, and after a while they entirely ceased "as if they had never been," and he gave himself up without restraint to the youthful pleasures in which his ardent nature made him ever the ringleader. The "thoughts of religion" became very grievous to him. He could not endure even to see others read pious books; "it would be as a prison to me." The awful realities of eternity which had once been so crushing to his spirit were "both out of sight and mind." He said to God, "depart from me." According to the later morbid estimate which stigmatized as sinful what were little more than the wild acts of a roystering dare-devil young fellow, full of animal spirits and with an unusually active imagination, he "could sin with the greatest delight and ease, and take pleasure in the vileness of his companions." But that the sense of religion was not wholly dead in him even then, and that while discarding its restraints he had an inward reverence for it, is shown by the horror he experienced if those who had a reputation for godliness dishonoured their profession. "Once," he says, "when I was at the height of my vanity, hearing one to swear who was reckoned for a religious man, it had so great a stroke upon my spirit that it made my heart to ache."

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