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

CHAPTER II. - continued

This desperate recklessness lasted with him "about a month or more," till "one day as he was standing at a neighbour's shop- window, cursing and swearing and playing the madman after his wonted manner, the woman of the house, though a very loose and ungodly wretch," rebuked him so severely as "the ungodliest fellow for swearing that ever she heard, able to spoil all the youth in a whole town," that, self-convicted, he hung down his head in silent shame, wishing himself a little child again that he might unlearn the wicked habit of which he thought it impossible to break himself. Hopeless as the effort seemed to him, it proved effectual. He did "leave off his swearing" to his own "great wonder," and found that he "could speak better and with more pleasantness" than when he "put an oath before and another behind, to give his words authority." Thus was one step in his reformation taken, and never retraced; but, he adds sorrowfully, "all this while I knew not Jesus Christ, neither did I leave my sports and plays." We might be inclined to ask, why should he leave them? But indifferent and innocent in themselves, an overstrained spirituality had taught him to regard them as sinful. To indulge in them wounded his morbidly sensitive conscience, and so they were sin to him.

The next step onward in this religious progress was the study of the Bible, to which he was led by the conversation of a poor godly neighbour. Naturally he first betook himself to the historical books, which, he tells us, he read "with great pleasure;" but, like Baxter who, beginning his Bible reading in the same course, writes, "I neither understood nor relished much the doctrinal part," he frankly confesses, "Paul's Epistles and such like Scriptures I could not away with." His Bible reading helped forward the outward reformation he had begun. He set the keeping the Ten Commandments before him as his "way to Heaven"; much comforted "sometimes" when, as he thought, "he kept them pretty well," but humbled in conscience when "now and then he broke one." "But then," he says, "I should repent and say I was sorry for it, and promise God to do better next time, and then get help again; for then I thought I pleased God as well as any man in England." His progress was slow, for each step involved a battle, but it was steadily onwards. He had a very hard struggle in relinquishing his favourite amusements. But though he had much yet to learn, his feet were set on the upward way, and he had no mind to go back, great as the temptation often was. He had once delighted in bell-ringing, but "his conscience beginning to be tender" - morbid we should rather say - "he thought such practise to be vain, and therefore forced himself to leave it." But "hankering after it still," he continued to go while his old companions rang, and look on at what he "durst not" join in, until the fear that if he thus winked at what his conscience condemned, a bell, or even the tower itself, might fall and kill him, put a stop even to that compromise. Dancing, which from his boyhood he had practised on the village green, or in the old Moot Hall, was still harder to give up. "It was a full year before I could quite leave that." But this too was at last renounced, and finally. The power of Bunyan's indomitable will was bracing itself for severe trials yet to come.

Meanwhile Bunyan's neighbours regarded with amazement the changed life of the profane young tinker. "And truly," he honestly confesses, "so they well might for this my conversion was as great as for Tom of Bedlam to become a sober man." Bunyan's reformation was soon the town's talk; he had "become godly," "become a right honest man." These commendations flattered is vanity, and he laid himself out for them. He was then but a "poor painted hypocrite," he says, "proud of his godliness, and doing all he did either to be seen of, or well spoken of by man." This state of self- satisfaction, he tells us, lasted "for about a twelvemonth or more." During this deceitful calm he says, "I had great peace of conscience, and should think with myself, 'God cannot choose but now be pleased with me,' yea, to relate it in mine own way, I thought no man in England could please God better than I." But no outward reformation can bring lasting inward peace. When a man is honest with himself, the more earnestly he struggles after complete obedience, the more faulty does his obedience appear. The good opinion of others will not silence his own inward condemnation. He needs a higher righteousness than his own; a firmer standing-ground than the shifting quicksand of his own good deeds. "All this while," he writes, "poor wretch as I was, I was ignorant of Jesus Christ, and going about to establish my own righteousness, and had perished therein had not God in mercy showed me more of my state by nature."

This revolution was nearer than he imagined. Bunyan's self- satisfaction was rudely shaken, and his need of something deeper in the way of religion than he had yet experienced was shown him by the conversation of three or four poor women whom, one day, when pursuing his tinker's calling at Bedford, he came upon "sitting at a door in the sun, and talking of the things of God." These women were members of the congregation of "the holy Mr. John Gifford," who, at that time of ecclesiastical confusion, subsequently became rector of St. John's Church, in Bedford, and master of the hospital attached to it. Gifford's career had been a strange one. We hear of him first as a young major in the king's army at the outset of the Civil War, notorious for his loose and debauched life, taken by Fairfax at Maidstone in 1648, and condemned to the gallows. By his sister's help he eluded his keepers' vigilance, escaped from prison, and ultimately found his way to Bedford, where for a time he practised as a physician, though without any change of his loose habits. The loss of a large sum of money at gaming awoke a disgust at his dissolute life. A few sentences of a pious book deepened the impression. He became a converted man, and joined himself to a handful of earnest Christians in Bedford, who becoming, in the language of the day, "a church," he was appointed its first minister. Gifford exercised a deep and vital though narrow influence, leaving behind him at his death, in 1655, the character of a "wise, tolerant, and truly Christian man." The conversation of the poor women who were destined to exercise so momentous an influence on Bunyan's spiritual life, evidenced how thoroughly they had drunk in their pastor's teaching. Bunyan himself was at this time a "brisk talker in the matters of religion," such as he drew from the life in his own Talkative. But the words of these poor women were entirely beyond him. They opened a new and blessed land to which he was a complete stranger. "They spoke of their own wretchedness of heart, of their unbelief, of their miserable state by nature, of the new birth, and the work of God in their souls, and how the Lord refreshed them, and supported them against the temptations of the Devil by His words and promises."

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