In April 1671 Charles II prorogued Parliament, which was not called together for two years, and unchecked by the Commons did much as he liked. National affairs were in a bad way. Clarendon had been dismissed and Charles passed from policy to policy as easily as from mistress to mistress. Always there was the need for more and more money, which Charles spent before it was raised. He was in debt to the City and to many private merchants. The Dutch War had been disastrous for England; de Ruyter sailed up the Medway and burnt unopposed the shipping in Chatham docks. John Evelyn beheld the enemy fleet lying unchallenged and at ease at the mouth of the Thames, “as dreadful a spectacle as ever an Englishman saw.” “People make nothing of talking treason in the streets openly,” recorded Samuel Pepys, “and everybody nowadays reflects upon Oliver and commends him.” But although Oliver had passed from the scene there were many thousands throughout the land of the same staunch Puritan principles and steadfast faith.
Charles entered into still closer relations with France which made him practically the pensioner of the French King, Louis XIV. In 1670 he signed the secret Treaty of Dover which pledged Charles to acknowledge himself a Roman Catholic and to bring Britain back under the Popish sway. In return he received from Louis a pension of £200,000 per annum (an immense sum in the values of the day), and the promise of troops if he was resisted by Protestants. This policy met with considerable opposition, but Charles controlled the first standing army England had ever had. The King was indolent and extravagant, and his Court was a hotbed of immorality, gaming, and intrigue, yet somehow he managed to be a popular monarch. And he could be a shrewd politician when it suited him. In order to carry out this French policy he made the first move in issuing a Declaration of Indulgence in March 1672, with the aim of changing the Government’s official religious policy in order to benefit Roman Catholics as well as Nonconformists.
The king was jogged into this action, so to speak, by one of his humble subjects, whom almost all Bunyan’s biographers have overlooked, and who was largely responsible for his release from prison, and that of thousands of others. Not long before, at his morning levee, Charles had noticed a stranger whose face was vaguely familiar. He prided himself on never forgetting faces, and searched his memory for a clue as to who this could be. And then he realised … Gone in a moment was the elegant palace of Whitehall in which he lounged, and his mind reverted to the terrible and dangerous days after the Battle of Worcester, in hiding, and seeking escape overseas. He saw again Shoreham Creek in the twilight, heard the sound of the waves on the shingle, the forlorn cry of the sea-birds, felt the wind on his face; felt, once again, the strong arms of a swarthy fisherman as he was carried out to a boat a little off shore. Yes, it all came back as in a remembered dream. He stared across the crowded room —it was the same man who had carried him to the boat and tended him in the tiny cabin, Richard Carver. He summoned the man to his side, wrung his hand and thanked him once again for helping him to escape to France. He had been the mate of Tattersall’s fishing boat that night long ago and he had come, he said, for his reward. Charles’ brow darkened just a little. Reward? Was everyone he met self-seeking? But Carver did not demand money. He had been converted, he told the king, and was now a Quaker. Since there were 8,000 Quakers in prison, would Charles not exercise his prerogative of mercy and release them? In eloquent words he pleaded for their release, and Charles, much moved, gave a kindly answer.
Since it suited his policy well, the Declaration of Indulgence was issued, and mercy extended not only to Quakers but to all other Nonconformists as well. He was too cunning to announce his adherence to Romanism, but indulgence to Dissenters—by all means. The king’s Declaration admitted that “it was evident by the sad experience of twelve years that there is very little fruit of all these forcible courses”, i.e. the repressive legislation of the Clarendon Code. It continued, “That there be no pretence for any of Our Subjects to continue their illegal meetings and conventicles, We do Declare, That we shall from time to time allow a sufficient number of places, as they shall be desired, in all parts of this Our Kingdom, for the use of such as do not conform to the Church of England, to meet and assemble in, in order to their Public Worship and Devotion; which places shall be open and free to all persons.” Nonconformist meeting-houses were to be licensed by the Secretary of State upon application from the Minister, and more than 3,000 licenses were applied for. Thus after twelve years Charles did something about those of “tender conscience” he had promised to help when he landed in England, and Richard Carver, the fisherman of Sussex, played a vital part in it. Let him not be forgotten!
The prison doors opened, and thousands of England’s finest citizens, including John Bunyan, stepped out into freedom again after their long ordeal. John, when first arrested, had been a broad-shouldered young man of robust health, from perpetually tramping and riding in the open air. Twelve years later, although only forty-three, there were many grey hairs in his auburn hair, many lines on his forehead, and a paleness on his cheeks. His memory, too, was scarred with the impact of what he had seen and felt, the stench of the rat-infested dungeon, the bitter cold of winter, the quarrels among the felons, the vicious practices of longterm criminals, the cruelty and corruption of some of the gaolers, the deaths among his fellow believers. Yet, he had his happy memories also: the joy of Christian fellowship, the blessedness of the prayer-meetings, the inspiration of the preaching, and above all his visions of Heaven and the road to it. There was also, for John was very human, the astonishing fact that he had become an author, and had been enabled to use his pen for the service of God and the furtherance of the Gospel.
After twelve years in prison, and since the publication of Grace Abounding, and his other works, Bunyan’s status had markedly changed, and he was recognised as a wise and reliable leader of the Nonconformists. The Bedford Church, after prolonged meetings and much prayer, solemnly appointed John to be their Pastor on 21st January 1672. The Church Book recording this adds, “And he accepting thereof, gave up himself to serve Christ and His Church in that charge; and received of the Elders the right hand of fellowship.” Seven of the most reliable members were appointed deacons to assist him in the pastorate, some of whom had been in prison with him—John Fenn, Oliver Scott, Luke Astwood, Thomas Cooper, Edward Dent, Edward Isaac, and Nehemiah Cox. In spite of all the repressive measures Nonconformity was everywhere on the increase. In Bedford itself the 30 Nonconformists of 1669 had grown to 121 in 1676, according to a religious census ordered by Archbishop Sheldon. In the whole county there were about 1000; the Quakers numbered 390, the Anabaptists 277, and the Independents 220.
John Bunyan lost no time in applying for a license for a place of worship, not only for the Bedford Meeting, but also for other small congregations associated with it in various villages, whom also he was to shepherd. In May 1672 he applied for his own license to preach, and also for twenty-five other teachers, and for thirty buildings, mostly houses and barns, as meeting places. The Bedford Independents had acquired an orchard and barn which belonged to Josias Ruffhead. It was conveyed to “John Bunyan, of the Towne of Bedford, brasier”, and to five of his colleagues, for £50, “to be a place for the use of such as do not conforme to the Church of England, who are of the persuasion commonly called Congregational”. It stood in Mill Street, quite near John’s own home in St Cuthbert’s Street. The barn was commodious, and when cleaned and fitted with forms and a pulpit made a fine meeting place. On the same site now stands the Bunyan Meeting.
His license dated 9th May, 1672 was for him “to teach as a Congregational Person”—not, be it noted, as a Baptist. It had to be shown to the civil authorities when he was away from home, as it was at Leicester in October, when he preached in a house close to St Nicholas Church, and showed his precious license to “Mr Mayor, Mr Overing, Mr Freeman, and Mr Browne”, who duly chronicled his visit in the Borough Records.
But his office as Pastor of the Bedford Church and its associate congregations, kept him mostly in his own county for a while. He was soon busy preaching in Bedford, Haines, Ridgmont, Steventon, Pavenham, Kempston and many other villages. Indeed, so active was he that he was called “Bishop Bunyan” by some, a term he would have much disliked. Many of the Congregational and Baptist Churches over a wide area are said to have been formed through his preaching. He was now mature in his Christian experience, and his preaching was more balanced, although not less scriptural than formerly. Sometimes he went further afield to preach at Hitchin, Luton, Cambridge, Reading and London. He had many Nonconformist connections with London and usually preached there two or three times a year. Charles II heard that Dr John Owen greatly admired Bunyan’s preaching, and asked in surprise how a learned man such as he could sit and listen to an illiterate tinker. Said Owen, “May it please your Majesty, I would gladly give up all my learning for that tinker’s power of preaching”. Owen often heard Bunyan preach in London.
In The Pilgrim’s Progress the Interpreter takes Christian into his house and shows him a picture hanging on the wall. It was the picture of a “very grave person”—it had “eyes lift up to Heaven, the best of Books in his hand, the Law of Truth was written upon his lips, the World was behind his back; it stood as if it pleaded with men, and a Crown of Gold did hang over his head.” It is a portrait of the Gospel preacher, such as John Bunyan was himself, and it is a challenging example to all Christian preachers of every age.
Being Pastor of the Bedford Church meant not only preaching but visitation, personal exhortation, and pastoral discipline. The Church Book gives many instances of this latter duty. Edward Dent of Gamlingay was dismissed for mismanaging his sister’s affairs. John noted in 1678 that he had to admonish Mary Fosket for scandalmongering against Bro. Honylove. In February 1679 John Stanton was reproved for beating his wife. Other entries refer to members being lax in attendance at worship, or “walking disorderly” in the ways of the world. John maintained with the utmost constancy the principles on which the Church had been founded by John Gifford, with a wise tolerance on matters not fundamental to the Faith. Nevertheless, new members were received only after careful examination of their spiritual state, and neither Arminians nor those guilty of dishonesty, gambling, or Sabbath-breaking were accepted.
The Pastor had trouble with a man named John Wildman, who in 1680 at a church meeting made charges against the congregation “with very great passion”, and also accused John of scandalous financial misbehaviour. The Church listened gravely and then pronounced him “an abominable liar and slanderer”. He was eventually cast out. It is likely that his portrait is partly drawn in “Mr Badman”.
John Bunyan had a true pastoral heart. “If any of those who were awakened by my Ministry did fall back”, he tells us, “as sometimes too many did, I can truly say their loss hath been more to me than if one of my own children, begotten of my body, had been going to the grave … I have counted as if I had goodly buildings and lordships in those places where my children (i.e. converts) were born; my heart hath been so wrapped up in the glory of this excellent work, that I counted myself more blessed and honoured by God by this than if He had made me the Emperor of the Christian World, or the Lord of all the glory of the earth without it.” And although he wrote this about his early preaching it would surely be even more true of his fuller pastoral responsibility. He would be prayerful and faithful also, in visiting the sick and the dying.
John’s family now consisted of Mary, Elizabeth, John and Thomas by his first wife, Mary; and Sarah and Joseph by his second wife, Elizabeth. It is interesting to note that Sarah and Joseph were baptized in St Cuthbert’s Church and that Elizabeth his wife, like Mary before her, was not a member of Bunyan’s Church. It would seem that she preferred Anglican worship. His father, Thomas Bunyan, now in his seventieth year, still lived at Bedford, and surely not without pride in his son in spite of all. John’s own brother, Thomas, was received into fellowship with the Bedford Church in 1673.
Bunyan’s earliest Christian impressions and knowledge had come to him through the services in the Abbey Church, Elstow, where the Prayer Book of Edward VI was in use, at least in part. Although he later resisted all efforts to make him accept and conform to the Prayer Book, he was still influenced by the order and reverence of the liturgical worship. The Revised Prayer Book of 1662 he probably saw later, and it was undoubtedly enriched with new prayers and services. But for himself he much preferred extempore prayer, inspired by the Spirit at the time of its use. Some years before his death he roundly condemned that loose and slovenly kind of public prayer that often degraded “free worship” in his day, and also in our own. “It is at this day wonderful common,” he declared in The Pharisee and the Publican, “for men to pray extempore. He is counted nobody, now, that cannot at any moment, at a minute’s warning, make a prayer of half-an-hour long.” He is not against extempore prayer, he says, “for I believe it is the best kind of praying, but there are a great many such prayers made, especially in pulpits and public meetings that are without the Holy Ghost and therefore unedifying. Wit and reason and notion are now screwed up to a very great height; nor do men want words and fancies or pride to make them do this thing.”
Of his preaching he tells us in Grace Abounding, “In my preaching I have really been in pain, and have as it were travailled to bring forth children to God; neither could I be satisfied unless some fruits did appear in my work. If! were fruitless, it mattered not who commended me; but if I were fruitful, I cared not who did condemn. It pleased me nothing to see some people drink in opinions if they seemed ignorant of Jesus Christ, and the worth of their own salvation, sound conviction of sin, especially for unbelief, and an heart set on fire to be saved by Christ, with strong breathings after a truly sanctified soul. That it was that delighted me; these were the souls I counted blessed.”
He was not much impressed with those in the Church that seemed to have great gifts, but were really like lifeless, clanging cymbals. “A little love, a little grace, a little of the true fear of God, is better than all these gifts … Let all men prize a little with the fear of the Lord. Gifts indeed are desirable, but yet Great Grace and small Gifts are better than great Gifts and no Grace.”
Satan, so he asserted, designed to overthrow his ministry.
Rumours were spread about him that he was a witch, a Jesuit, a highwayman even. Others claimed with the boldest confidence “that I had my Misses, my whores, my bastards, yea two wives at once, and the like”. “To all which I shall only say, God knows that I am innocent … My foes have missed the mark in their shooting at me. I am not the man. I wish that they themselves be guiltless. If all the fornicators and adulterers were hanged by the neck till they be dead, John Bunyan, the object of their envy, would still be alive and well.”
More serious than these slanders, however, was the case of Agnes Beaumont in 1674. From 1670 the Bedford Church occasionally held its meetings at Gamlingay, fifteen miles away on the Cambridgeshire border. The meetings were held in a barn, and here one day John met Agnes Beaumont from the village of Edworth. She was twenty, and on her conversion had been received into the Bedford Church by Bunyan. She was a lively country lass and evidently much drawn to her Pastor. She lived with her widowed father, John Beaumont, in a farmhouse at Edworth. Her brother and his wife, although not members of the Church, were Puritans, and often attended John’s preaching. Originally her father also had held Nonconformist views, but a malicious neighbour poisoned his mind against both the Bedford Meeting and Bunyan himself.
In February 1674 Agnes, with difficulty, obtained her father’s permission to go to Gamlingay for a meeting. But how should she get there, for mud and thawing snow made the seven-mile walk impossible? The only available horse was to be used by her brother taking his wife on the pillion. So it was arranged that John Wilson, who was travelling from Hitchin, should call and take her pillion-wise. When the day came Wilson did not appear. Instead, quite unexpectedly, John Bunyan rode up, and called at her brother’s home. They urged him to take Agnes to the meeting and, very reluctantly, he agreed. So Agnes mounted the horse behind John and off they started. Unfortunately her father saw them from a field and was very angry. More than this, they were recognised as they rode into Gamlingay by a clergyman named Lane, a man who hated all Nonconformists.
The meeting over, John Bunyan told Agnes that he must return to Bedford by another route, and entrusted her to the care of another woman who walked with her most of the way home through the mud. Arriving at the farm she found the door bolted against her, and her father, furious with her, shouted out of the window that he would not let her in unless she promised to give up attending the Bedford Church meetings. She would not promise. So, tired, wet and miserable, Agnes spent a frosty night in the barn, and then went to stay with her brother for a few days. A night or so later, John Beaumont was seized with a fatal illness and died before morning.
When Lane heard of this he began to spread disreputable stories at Baldock where he lived, which soon spread to other places. Agnes had been wooed by a Mr Farrow, a lawyer, whose suit she had rejected. There appeared to be every probability that he had hoped, by marrying Agnes, to inherit all or some of her father’s property. He now saw an opportunity to get his revenge, and started a rumour that Agnes had obtained poison from John Bunyan, a widower, so that she might be free to marry him. Bunyan, of course, was not a widower, and only the most credulous or vindictive would have given credence to such a tale. But many did. These dramatic and titillating tales caused a stir in Edworth and district. The coroner was called in, and it was proved beyond doubt that Beaumont had died from natural causes. So Agnes’ innocence was established, and the malicious accusers confounded. Agnes lived to marry two husbands, and to survive John Bunyan by more than thirty years. She also lived to write the story, The Narrative of the Persecution qf Agnes Beaumont in 1674. She died in 1720 and is buried in the graveyard of Tilehouse Street Chapel, Hitchin, where a wall tablet commemorates her story. It must have been a trying time for John Bunyan but trust in his Lord carried him through.
Early in February 1675 Charles II once again changed his policy, under pressure from the re-called House of Commons. They demanded the recall of the Declaration of Indulgence; if not, no money would be granted. Charles gave way, and calling for the Declaration solemnly broke the seal with his own hands. The licenses issued under the Indulgence were declared null and void, and another period of persecution for Dissenters began. One of the first to feel the effect was John Bunyan. He received a secret warning of impending arrest. On the 4th March 1675 a warrant for his arrest, signed by thirteen county magistrates was issued, for repeatedly preaching at a conventicle during the previous month. The penalty fixed by the Conventicle Act of 1670 was not prison but a fine of £20 for a first offence, and £40 thereafter. If the fine were not paid his goods and chattels could be taken. By no means could John pay such a fine, and so for eighteen months he went “underground”, and was on the run. The warrant is now in a New York library. Many hundreds of Nonconformists had their goods seized in lieu of payment of fines.
Once again John was dependent on the help of such friends as John Wilson of Hitchin, the Foster Brothers of Hunsden House and many others. But he was still active in the service of the Gospel although most careful to avoid arrest. Meetings were held at night, in remote places or in the woods. More than once he had to hide in a chimney or cupboard, or make a hurried exit from a back-door into the woods. Near Hunsden House was Wainwood Dell, a natural amphitheatre surrounded by trees, and here in the depth of night worshippers would steal in from the surrounding countryside to hear John expound the Scriptures. It was like old times! Sometimes he went to Hitchin or Luton. On one occasion, disguised as a drover, whip in hand, he went to Reading and preached.
The warrant had to be served personally, so there was no alternative but for John to leave Bedford and stay hidden in the homes of friends, who gave him loyal and practical support.
Foiled in their attempt to lay hands on John Bunyan by means of the warrant, the authorities tried another procedure.Two or three years earlier he had been accused by the Vicar and church-wardens of St Cuthbert’s for refusing to come to Church and receive the Sacrament, whereupon he was excommunicated by Dr Fuller, bishop of Lincoln in which diocese Bedford then was. John, summoned to appear before the Archdeacon, did not appear, and the sentence was passed in his absence.
Eighteen months after the issue of the abortive warrant in March 1675, John was arrested by the Sheriff under the older legal machinery of non-attendance at church. No details are available of the arrest, but he was back again in Bedford County Gaol for a further short period. In the diocesan archives at Lincoln are details of the Visitation of the Archdeaconry of Bedford in 1674, where it is reported that “John Bunnion, tincker” of the town of Bedford stood excommunicated for refusing to come to church and receive the sacrament. A man taken on a writ of “de excommunicato capiendo” was the king’s prisoner, and it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the Sheriff would commit Bunyan to the County Gaol, not the tiny lock-up on the bridge, even if it was still standing, which is doubtful.
Now there was a law that if any two persons would go to the Bishop of the diocese and offer a cautionary bond that the prisoner should conform in half a year, the bishop might release him upon that bond. This stratagem on John’s behalf was attempted and it succeeded. This bond, discovered in Aylesbury Museum in 1887, is dated the 21st June, 1677. The sureties who undertook that John should conform within six months were two London Nonconformists, friends made in his London preaching visits, Thomas Kelsey and Robert Blaney. They knew perfectly well that he would not conform, but they probably expected that once he was released nothing more would happen. In London his good friend Dr John Owen approached the Bishop of Lincoln, now Dr Thomas Barlow, on his behalf. Such was Dr Owen’s influence and reputation that this would have been a weighty recommendation. So the bond was accepted and he was released, and nothing further was heard of his accusation.
His perilous freedom ended, to the relief of Elizabeth Bunyan, John was back home once more, and ready to resume the pages of The Pilgrim Progress.