Eager Writer

John Bunyan was the author of more than sixty works, ranging from slim pamphlets to books of considerable size. When he first realised that he had the ability to express himself in print his pen was that of a ready writer. Many of the earlier works were on controversial topics, but they will repay study. The later works, more mature in tone, include the great allegories, but all are true to his understanding of the Christian faith as he found it taught in Scripture. The books written in verse we shall consider in the next chapter. Here we shall survey the less familiar works in summary fashion, and the other two great allegories in more detail.

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We have already briefly noted John’s earliest controversial works against Quaker doctrine. His fourth book, written before his imprisonment, was The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded; the title page added, “Published by that poor and contemptible creature, John Bunyan of Bedford”. It was issued in 1659 by M. Wright, “at the sign of the King’s Head in the Old Bailey”, and also by his friend Matthias Cowley at Newport Pagnell. It is an exposition of Romans 6,14—”Sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace”, a favourite theme with him. Like many of his shorter works it was no doubt a sermon enlarged for publication. John used notes in preaching, and his prodigious memory enabled him to recall the discourse as well as to add to it. He describes the covenant of works, under which man, a sinner, is obliged to keep the law of God. This he is unable perfectly to do. In contrast, the believer is under a new covenant of grace, made with Christ. He told the story of his early struggles, and how he had seen “through grace that it was the blood shed on Mount Calvary that did save and redeem sinners, as clearly and as really with the eyes of my soul as ever methought I had seen a penny-loaf bought with a penny.”

His next book, A Discourse Touching Prayer (1662) contained the substance of a prison sermon in which he pleaded for spontaneity in prayer as against formalism. The Holy Spirit alone assists men to pray. The Book of Common Prayer, he says, being a merely human invention, cannot do it. In this he is scarcely fair, since Archbishop Cranmer and other reformers compiled the book under the guidance of the Spirit, and it has been helpful to multitudes. And he says, “You will find those that plead for the Spirit of prayer in the gaol, and them that look after the form of men’s inventions only in the alehouse”—not one of Bunyan’s happier statements, and quite untrue as regards many.

The year 1664 was occupied with two volumes—The Holy City, and The Resurrection of the Dead, and Eternal Judgement. The first was a prison address. “Upon a certain first day, (i.e. Sunday; he is adopting Quaker usage!) I being together with my brethren in our prison chamber, they expected that according to our custom, something should be spoken out of the Word for our mutual edification; but at that time I felt myself, it being my turn to speak, so empty, spiritless, and barren, that I thought I should not have been able to speak among them so much as five words of truth with life and evidence.” But the Lord, as always, came to the rescue. There came into his mind a vision of the Holy City spoken of in Revelation 21 and 22, and he preached his sermon, his first glorious dream of the Celestial City, and refreshing to them all. In it he said, “In the end it shall not be as now, a Popish doctrine, a Quaker’s doctrine, a Prelatical doctrine, and the Presbyter, Independent, and Anabaptist thus distinguished, and thus confounded and destroying. Then the City is of pure gold, as showing how invincible and unconquerable is the spirit of the people of God.”

The Resurrection of the Dead was based on Acts 24:14-15, in which he contrasts those who are “dead in sin” with those “alive in Christ”, and their eternal rewards. This was published by Francis Smith in London in 1665, and for long made a great impression, though much of it would not meet the taste of today.

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Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners , published by George Larkin in London in 1666, we have already noted and quoted from. This spiritual Autobiography is of the same order as the Confessions of Augustine, Thomas a Kempis, Imitation of Christ, and in our own time, In Search of Myself by D.R. Davies. How long it took to write we cannot tell, but to his prodigious memory we owe the record of God’s dealing with him in grace, of his preaching, and later in an addition, the record of his arrest and trial. It tells us practically nothing of his education, army life, marriages, and family, things we would dearly love to know. It is clear as we read that John Bunyan has grown in stature since his first setting out on the pilgrim road, to mature conviction and grasp of Christian truth and ways. “I could have enlarged much in this my discourse of my temptations and troubles for sin,” he says in his Preface, “I could also have stepped into a style much higher than this, but I dare not. God did not play in tempting of me; neither did I play when I sunk as into a bottomless pit, when the pangs of Hell caught hold upon me; wherefore I may not play in relating of them, but be plain and simple, and lay down the thing as it was.” He urges his readers to call to mind the former days when God laid hold of them in his grace. “It is profitable for Christians to be often calling to mind the very beginnings of Grace with their souls … Have you forgotten the close, the milk-house, the stable, the barn and the like, where God did visit your souls? … If you have sinned against the light, if you are tempted to blaspheme, if you are down in despair, if you think God fights against you, or if Heaven is hid from your eyes, remember it was thus with me; but out of them all the Lord delivered me.” The experiences he records in Grace Abounding are seen in the characters of The Pilgrim’s Progress, and there is little doubt that he could not have written the great allegory had he not experienced God’s saving mercy recounted in the autobiography. It has an undying vitality and perpetual youth about it, is a record of Puritan experience unsurpassed, and a spiritual stimulus of great value. The Continuation of Mr Bunyan’s Life added to Grace Abounding is thought to have been written by George Cokayne, John’s old friend from Cotton End, but later Pastor of a church in Red Cross Street, London, and one of those who were with him when he died.

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As has been shown there was a six year interval between the writing of Grace Abounding (1666), and his next book, A Confession of my Faith in 1672. Back in prison after his short respite at home he determined to write a book about the principles for which he had been in prison so long. The full title is, A Confession of my Faith; And a Reason for my Practice; or with who, and who not, I can hold Church-Fellowship, or the Communion of Saints. George Offer in his Complete Works of John Bunyan in three volumes, entitles the book, Bunyan on the Terms of Communion, not an improvement on the original, and adds to it two other works, Differences in Judgement about Water Baptism no Bar to Communion, and Peaceable Principles and True. In A Confession of my Faith he reiterates his belief in God, The Trinity, the Deity of Christ, and writes of justification, repentance, faith, and other elements of the Christian faith.

With regard to baptism he writes, “I speak to persuade my brethren of the baptized way, not to make it an essential of the Gospel of Christ, nor yet the communion of saints.” For this he was violently attacked by three leading strict Baptists of London, Paul, D’Anvers, and Kiffin, to whom he replied in the second part concerning water baptism. Faith and holiness, he tells them, and not water baptism are the essential basis of a church. Christ, not baptism, is the way to the sheep fold. Not all New Testament saints were baptized. Baptists are divisive of the Church. “Show me the man that is a visible believer, and although he differ with me about baptism, the doors of the church stand open for him.” Interestingly enough, at the very time he was in controversy with the London men concerning baptism, Elizabeth Bunyan took her son Joseph to be christened at St Cuthbert’s Church. She evidently remained an Anglican, and John made no objection. He was all for toleration on matters of little importance.

In 1674, the year of the deaths of Milton and Clarendon, John published a further reply to Paul and D’Anvers entitled, Peaceable Principles and True. In this he repeats many of his previous arguments, but also says, “I know none to whom the title of Baptist is so proper as to the disciples of John (the Baptist). And since you would know by what name I would be distinguished from others, I tell you I would be, and I hope I am, a Christian … And as for those factious titles of Anabaptists, Independents, Presbyterians or the like, I conclude that they come neither from Jerusalem, nor Antioch, but rather from hell and Babylon, for they naturally tend to divisions.”

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A book which greatly annoyed him came into his hands sometime in 1672. This was The Design of Christianity by Edward Fowler, published the previous year. Fowler had been one of the ejected clergy who in 1662 refused to accept the terms of the Act of Uniformity. Subsequently he conformed, and ended as Bishop of Gloucester. He is said to have inspired the character of Mr Worldly-Wiseman, added to the second edition of The Pilgrim Progress. Fowler’s Design was intended to show that Christianity is meant to restore man to his original state before the Fall, and that by the exercise of his own righteousness or good works. Bunyan took forty-two days to answer this book, which he showed to be contrary to Scripture and to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. He gives a careful statement of the Reformed doctrine of Justification by Faith only, which he had learned long ago from Martin Luther. Living faith is essential to salvation. Fowler replied with an abusive book entitled Dirt Wip ‘t Off, about which the less said the better. John ignored it.

His next book, Light for Them that Sit in Darkness, an elaboration of one of his sermons, was published in 1674. His object was to prove that all our knowledge of the Saviour must be received directly from the written Word; that Christ took on himself our nature, and by his perfect obedience to the Law and making a sin-atoning sacrifice of himself, paid the full price of man’s redemption.

While he was on the run before his arrest in the autumn of 1676, he wrote a catechism entitled, Instructions for the Ignorant, probably while hidden in the home of a friend. He addresses the Bedford Church and speaks of himself as “being driven from you in presence not affection”. It was issued in 1675.

Next came his twenty-fifth publication, Saved by Grace, (1675), in which he went over familiar ground. What it is to be saved, what grace is, who are saved by grace—only the contrite and needy, and the proofs of their salvation.

The following year, 1676, Francis Smith of London brought out Bunyan’s The Strait Gate, or the great Difficulty of Going to Heaven. It is an expanded version of a sermon on Luke 13:24, going over much the same ground as Saved by Grace.

Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, published in 1678 the year of The Pilgrim’s Progress, and based on John 6:37 Eager Writer became one of the most popular books he wrote, several editions appearing in his lifetime. It has often been reprinted in our own day. In it Bunyan seeks to show the cause, truth, and manner of the coming of a sinner to Christ, and of his reception and blessings when he comes. This was followed in 1679 by A Treatise on the Fear of God, in the best Puritan style of many divisions and subdivisions.

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The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, the third of Bunyan’s major works, appeared in 1680, two years after the Part One of The Pilgrim’s Progress. A strong tradition says that he wrote it at Bocking End in Essex, in a farmhouse belonging to John English, an elder of Bocking Independent Meeting. In the intervals of writing it he preached to hundreds of Essex Nonconformists in the great barn of the farm. The Life and Death of Mr. Badman was intended to be the counter-part of The Pilgrim’s Progress, and to show an evil man on the road to hell. Some features of the man Wildman who had so troubled the Bedford Meeting are enshrined in the character of Mr. Badman, and doubtless many characteristics of others whom John had met. The story does not approach the gripping liveliness of The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the narrative is rather slow since it takes the form of a dialogue between Mr. Wiseman and Mr. Attentive. Nevertheless it is very readable, and contains a variety of fascinating anecdotes.

Mr. Badman was “a master-sinner from a childe” much addicted to lying (as John had been), and also to thieving, and even thought that robbing his parents was no crime. He hated the Lord’s Day. He is apprenticed to a master, but to what trade we are not told. He robs his master and frequents ale-houses, and gets “as drunk as a beast” very often. Then he marries a virtuous orphan for her money, breaks her heart with his misconduct, defrauds his creditors by a sham bankruptcy, emerges more prosperous than ever, and finally, through a second marriage—with a woman as worthless as himself, loses everything. But how, it may be asked, does such a man die? Bunyan tells us—”as quietly as a lamb”, and leaves us to ponder the destiny of the finally impenitent. “They are bad men that make bad times”, Mr. Wiseman remarks to Mr. Attentive; “if men therefore would mend, so would the times.”

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The fourth of Bunyan’s major works, The Holy War, appeared in 1682, and is second only to The Pilgrim’s Progress in interest and fascination. Macaulay expressed the opinion that it would be England’s greatest religious allegory if The Pilgrim’s Progress had never been written. The full title is The Holy War, made by Shaddai upon Diabolus for the Regaining of the Metropolis of the World, Or, The Losing and Taking Again of the Town of Mansoul. George Offer remarks that he had studied the book for more than fifty years, and announces it to be a solemn, soul-stirring, and delightful narrative. Which it is. It is a great pity that this grand book is not better known.

The story sets out to recall the fall and redemption of mankind under the guise of a besieged city. The city of Mansoul originally belonged by right to Shaddai or God, but was betrayed through Ear Gate and Eye Gate into the hands of Diabolus or the Devil, the besieging giant who takes control. In the hands of the enemy Mansoul loses its Mayor, Lord Understanding, and Mr. Conscience is dismissed from his post as Recorder. Lord Will-be-will becomes the Lord of Mansoul—man’s fallen will, self-will, and ill-will all combined in one unpleasant and anti-God character. The Pilgrim’s Progress sets forth the spiritual life under the Scriptural figure of a long and uphill journey. The Holy War, on the other hand, is a military history, full of soldiers and battles, defeats and victories. The author’s own experiences in the Civil War taught him many memorable things of the military art, and stamped on his mind many marches, sieges, fights and captures which he uses in the story. The characters, too, are very human, and those whom John knew from time to time. Old Mr. Prejudice, an angry and unhappy churl; Captain Anything, who came from a titled family whose crest was a weather-cock, and who was marked by opportunism, insincerity and deceit; stiff old Mr Loth-to-stoop; Ill-pause, the Devil’s orator, a treacherous villain if ever there was one; young Captain Self-denial, an officer in Emmanuel’s army who overcomes his great enemy Self-love and hangs him on the gallows at the market-cross; Mr. Humble, the juryman, and Miss Humblemind the servant maid; Master Thinkwell, only son of old Mr. Meditation, and Mr. God’s-peace, a godly person—we meet them all in The Holy War. We are introduced also to a Fast-day in Mansoul, and to a Feast-day, to Emmanuel’s livery, all in white, and to Mansoul’s Magna Charta—full, free, and everlasting forgiveness, the holy law, grace, and goodness of Emmanuel himself. Mansoul, in the end, is recaptured by Emmanuel’s forces, and Diabolus driven out.

In Elstow Church is a Memorial window to The Holy War, and beneath it the lines:

To the Memory of Bunyan,

And to remind all Christian People

Of The Holy War they should be engaged in

On the side of Emmanuel.

Bunyan would have liked that.

Vera Brittain thinks that in The Holy War Bunyan satirized the politics of his day. Nothing, surely, was further from his thoughts. He never had much interest in politics. He had only to look into his own soul, with the light of Scripture, and consider the way in which apostate and unbelieving men are brought back to God, to have the entire conflict in The Holy War before his eyes.

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After the publication of The Holy War in 1682 Bunyan wrote six short books before continuing the story of the pilgrims in Part Two of The Pilgrim’s Progress, published in 1685. The Barren Fig-Tree is an exposition of the parable in Luke 13. The Greatness of the Soul, published in 1683, is a sermon he preached in London at Pinner’s Hall. In that year he also wrote, A Case of Conscience Resolved, an answer to an enquiry from some London women as to whether they should meet to pray separately from their men. John’s answer is a decided “No”, but today his answer would be very different! In April 1684 appeared a poem, A Caution to Stir up to Watch against Sin. This was followed, that same year, by A Holy Life, the Beauty of Christianity, also by Seasonable Counsel, or Advice to Sufferers—these being those persecuted for righteousness sake. They are bidden to trust in God, but he includes a statement of loyalty to king and government.

In 1685 came The Perpetuity of the Seventh-day Sabbath, which need not detain us, and The Pharisee and the Publican expounding the parable. The next year came, A Book for Boys and Girls in verse, which will be considered in the next chapter.

1688, the year of John Bunyan’s death, saw no fewer than five publications from his pen. The Jerusalem Sinner Saved, or Good News for the Vilest of Men speaks of the great mercy of Christ to all kinds of sinners. This book has always been a favourite with lovers of Bunyan, and has a message for us still. Its immediate successor, The Work of Jesus Christ as an Advocate, also an expanded sermon, shows the necessity of Christ’s work an as advocate for the believer, and the benefits his advocacy brings. The Water of Life, and Solomon’s Temple Spiritualized are both sermons describing the grace and glory of God. The manuscript of The Acceptable Sacrifice he had in his pocket on his last journey to London, and it was published after his death. It is a discourse on the nature, signs, and proper effects of a contrite heart. Also published in 1689 was John Bunyan’s last sermon on John 1:13, Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God, a true Calvinist sermon, very typical of the preacher.

After Bunyan’s death, Charles Doe visited Elizabeth at Bedford and received from her various manuscripts, chiefly sermons, already prepared by John for the press. These he collected and issued in a Folio in 1692. They consist of the following: An Exposition of the Ten First Chapters of Genesis; Of Justification by Imputed Righteousness; Paul Departure and Crown; Of the Trinity and a Christian; Of the Law and a Christian; Israel’s Hope Encouraged; The Desires of the Righteous Granted; The Saint’s Privilege and Profit; Christ a Complete Saviour; The Saint’s Knowledge of Christ’s Love; The House of the Forest of Lebanon; and Of Antichrist and His Ruin. Later, in 1698, Charles Doe published The Heavenly Footman, consisting of nine directions to those who run for Heaven. It is addressed to “slothful and careless people”. “The Cross,” wrote Bunyan, “is the standing way-mark by which all they that go to glory must pass by.” He had found it to be so himself, long years before, and it had been central to all his preaching and teaching.

A good deal of the writing of John Bunyan will not be to the taste of modern readers, but those who are willing to try will find that reading his minor works can bring much spiritual profit and illumination.