CHAPTER IV. - continued
No new enactment was required to punish Nonconformists and to silence their ministers; though, to the disgrace of the nation and its parliament, many new ones were subsequently passed, with ever- increasing disabilities. The various Acts of Elizabeth supplied all that was needed. Under these Acts all who refused to attend public worship in their parish churches were subject to fines; while those who resorted to conventicles were to be imprisoned till they made their submissions; if at the end of three months they refused to submit they were to be banished the realm, and if they returned from banishment, without permission of the Crown, they were liable to execution as felons. This long-disused sword was now drawn from its rusty sheath to strike terror into the hearts of Nonconformists. It did not prove very effectual. All the true- hearted men preferred to suffer rather than yield in so sacred a cause. Bunyan was one of the earliest of these, as he proved one of the staunchest.
Early in October, 1660, the country magistrates meeting in Bedford issued an order for the public reading of the Liturgy of the Church of England. Such an order Bunyan would not regard as concerning him. Anyhow he would not give obeying it a thought. One of the things we least like in Bunyan is the feeling he exhibits towards the Book of Common Prayer. To him it was an accursed thing, the badge and token of a persecuting party, a relic of popery which he exhorted his adherents to "take heed that they touched not" if they would be "steadfast in the faith of Jesus Christ." Nothing could be further from his thoughts than to give any heed to the magistrates' order to go to church and pray "after the form of men's inventions."
The time for testing Bunyan's resolution was now near at hand. Within six months of the king's landing, within little more than a month of the issue of the magistrate's order for the use of the Common Prayer Book, his sturdy determination to yield obedience to no authority in spiritual matters but that of his own conscience was put to the proof. Bunyan may safely be regarded as at that time the most conspicuous of the Nonconformists of the neighbourhood. He had now preached for five or six years with ever-growing popularity. No name was so rife in men's mouths as his. At him, therefore, as the representative of his brother sectaries, the first blow was levelled. It is no cause of surprise that in the measures taken against him he recognized the direct agency of Satan to stop the course of the truth: "That old enemy of man's salvation," he says, "took his opportunity to inflame the hearts of his vassals against me, insomuch that at the last I was laid out for the warrant of a justice." The circumstances were these, on November 12, 1660, Bunyan had engaged to go to the little hamlet of Lower Samsell near Harlington, to hold a religious service. His purpose becoming known, a neighbouring magistrate, Mr. Francis Wingate, of Harlington House, was instructed to issue a warrant for his apprehension under the Act of Elizabeth. The meeting being represented to him as one of seditious persons bringing arms, with a view to the disturbance of the public peace, he ordered that a strong watch should be kept about the house, "as if," Bunyan says, "we did intend to do some fearful business to the destruction of the country." The intention to arrest him oozed out, and on Bunyan's arrival the whisperings of his friends warned him of his danger. He might have easily escaped if he "had been minded to play the coward." Some advised it, especially the brother at whose house the meeting was to take place. He, "living by them," knew "what spirit" the magistrates "were of," before whom Bunyan would be taken if arrested, and the small hope there would be of his avoiding being committed to gaol. The man himself, as a "harbourer of a conventicle," would also run no small danger of the same fate, but Bunyan generously acquits him of any selfish object in his warning: "he was, I think, more afraid of (for) me, than of (for) himself." The matter was clear enough to Bunyan. At the same time it was not to be decided in a hurry. The time fixed for the service not being yet come, Bunyan went into the meadow by the house, and pacing up and down thought the question well out. "If he who had up to this time showed himself hearty and courageous in his preaching, and had made it his business to encourage others, were now to run and make an escape, it would be of an ill savour in the country. If he were now to flee because there was a warrant out for him, would not the weak and newly-converted brethren be afraid to stand when great words only were spoken to them. God had, in His mercy, chosen him to go on the forlorn hope; to be the first to be opposed for the gospel; what a discouragement it must be to the whole body if he were to fly. No, he would never by any cowardliness of his give occasion to the enemy to blaspheme the gospel." So back to the house he came with his mind made up. He had come to hold the meeting, and hold the meeting he would. He was not conscious of saying or doing any evil. If he had to suffer it was the Lord's will, and he was prepared for it. He had a full hour before him to escape if he had been so minded, but he was resolved "not to go away." He calmly waited for the time fixed for the brethren to assemble, and then, without hurry or any show of alarm, he opened the meeting in the usual manner, with prayer for God's blessing. He had given out his text, the brethren had just opened their Bibles and Bunyan was beginning to preach, when the arrival of the constable with the warrant put an end to the exercise. Bunyan requested to be allowed to say a few parting words of encouragement to the terrified flock. This was granted, and he comforted the little company with the reflection that it was a mercy to suffer in so good a cause; and that it was better to be the persecuted than the persecutors; better to suffer as Christians than as thieves or murderers. The constable and the justice's servant soon growing weary of listening to Bunyan's exhortations, interrupted him and "would not be quiet till they had him away" from the house.
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