Like his own Christian John Bunyan lost the guilt and burden of his sin at the cross of Christ, and was “glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, He hath given me rest by His sorrows, and life by His death.” Bunyan’s own spiritual experiences, together with the characters he met on his pilgrim way, he carefully records in The Pilgrim’s Progress. And the classic passage of Christian at the Cross, losing his burden, being enriched with heavenly gifts, receiving the assurance of salvation, was surely his also. “Then he stood still awhile, to look and wonder; for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the Cross should thus ease him of his burden, He looked therefore, and looked again even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks.” At this point three shining ones, evidently angels, come to Christian greeting him with “Peace be to thee.” Bunyan had long sought and longed for peace with God, now he had received it. The first assured him, “Thy sins be forgiven”, and for John with his long drawn-out spiritual struggles it was a relief to know that the crucified one had dealt with and removed the guilt and power of sin. The second shining one “stript him of his rags, and cloathed him with change of raiment”. By this he would have us understand that he had received the robe of the righteousness of Christ imputed to him, instead of the filthy rags of his own self-effort and fancied merit. “The third,” Bunyan proceeds, “also set a mark on his forehead, and gave him a roll with a seal upon it, which he bade him look on as he ran, and that he should give it in at the Celestial Gate.” Many writers have a wrong interpretation of this passage, imagining that the roll was the Bible. The truth is that the roll was Assurance, the assurance of acceptance with God through faith in the Redeemer. And the seal upon it was the gift of the Holy Spirit. Several times did Christian on his pilgrim journey lose his roll, his sense of assurance, but as often as he re-discovered it and pondered it he was strengthened and refreshed for the journey. “Then Christian gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing.” No trace of the gloomy, perverse Puritan here. The burden of his song is—
Blest Cross! blest Sepulchre! blest rather be
The Man that there was put to shame for me.
Bunyan’s Christian faith and knowledge of the Scriptures increased steadily. He grew in grace and in holiness of life. The Independent congregation meeting in St John’s Church had weekly meetings for prayer and Bible study as well as the Sunday services. John was to be identified with them for thirty-five years, and to be their pastor for seventeen years, although as yet he did not know it. The Church kept regular minutes of their proceedings in a Church Book between the years 1656 and 1672, days of great stress and strain for Nonconformists, and we shall note Bunyan’s part in its affairs in due course. His name stands nineteenth in the list of members. He formed many lasting friendships among the saints at St John’s, who not only helped him onward and upward in the Christian life, but in days of dire necessity provided him and his family with practical support also. The Church minutes record the acceptance of converts, the visiting of prisoners in the County Gaol, dealing with delinquent members, and seeking God’s guidance in national troubles.
Bedford, in John’s time, consisted of five parishes with a total population of about two thousand. Many of the houses were roofed with thatch. There was a strongly exclusive spirit in the civic affairs of the town; natives from other parts of the country were not admitted to the merchant-guild; no resident was permitted to let his house to such a “foreigner” without consent of the Mayor (the only exceptions were the Huguenots after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685); no innkeeper could house a stranger for more than eight days without reporting him to the Mayor; between ten at night and five in the morning traffic over the bridge was stopped. The streets were ill-paved where paved at all, and street lighting was practically non-existent. The town was almost completely divided by the river Ouse, the two parts being linked by a stone bridge.
The incumbency of St John’s remained vacant for several months after the death of John Gifford. The Bedford Council wished to nominate a certain Mr Hayes of Papworth, but the Church wanted a younger man much beloved of its members, and had set their hearts on having John Burton. The dispute was referred to Cromwell himself, who decided in Burton’s favour. John Burton was appointed pastor in January 1656, and in the following May the keeping of regular entries in the Church Book began.
By this time a third child had been born to Mary and John; he was named John after his father and was destined to be a member of Bedford Meeting for forty-five years. The leaders of the Church were sure that in the converted tinker they had a recruit of no mean order. “Some of the most notable among the saints with us,” he wrote in his autobiography “did perceive that God had counted me worthy to understand something of His will in His holy and blessed Word, and had given me utterance, in some measure, to express what I saw to others for edification.” So he was asked to accompany the preaching elders when they went to preach in the villages, and added his testimony or a homily to their sermons. The call to exercise his preaching gift was something of a surprise to him, but soon he was regularly engaged in village preaching. Sometime in 1656 in St John’s Church, before the assembled members, John was specifically appointed to the public preaching of the Word, “after some solemn prayer to the Lord with fasting”. He was thus set apart, not only to edify believers, but also “to offer the Gospel to those who had not yet received the faith thereof”. There was also an inward spiritual urge in him to undertake this work, for he came to realise that the Holy Spirit did not intend that men who had gifts and abilities should bury them in the earth, but stirred them up to exercise their preaching gifts. He himself, with true Christian humility, thought himself most unworthy of such duty, and with much fear and trembling went out to preach the Word in the open air on village greens, in barns, in private houses, and sometimes even in parish churches. Bedfordshire and neighbouring shires are full of traditions of his preaching, and several Congregational and Baptist churches claim to have been founded through his preaching. To his amazement, so powerfully did God use him, that people thronged in hundreds to hear him. No doubt the fact of the remarkable transformation made in him through the grace of God brought them flocking to his services, but there was also his homely eloquence, his pictorial style, his pointed admonitions, and his own passionate sincerity to impress and draw them.
At the end of Grace Abounding Bunyan gives “A brief account of the Author’s Call to the work of the Ministry”. He speaks of his own concern for the souls of his hearers, and how he diligently laboured to find some word from God which would awaken their consciences. In this he was successful, for some were convicted of the greatness of their sin and of their need of new life from Christ. And where could he find “some word from God” but from the Bible? Puritanism was, above all else, a Bible movement. To the Puritan the Bible was in truth the most precious possession that this world affords. His deepest conviction was that reverence for God means reverence for Scripture, and serving God means obeying Scripture. To the Puritan it was the living Word of the living God. “To the Puritan Bible student,” says Dr J.I. Packer, “it was God who had uttered the prophecies, recorded the histories, expounded the doctrines, declared the promises, written the visions of which Scripture was made up; and he knew that Scripture must be read, not merely as words which God spoke long ago, but as words which God continues to speak to every reader in every age.” John Bunyan knew that God spoke to him in the Bible, and he prayerfully sought messages from it in order to speak as God’s ambassador to others. “I preached that I felt,” he tells us, “what I smartingly did feel … I went myself in chains to preach to them in chains; and carried that fire in my conscience that I persuaded them to beware of.”
In two telling paragraphs, 278 and 279 of Grace Abounding Bunyan tells us the subject matter of his early sermons. To begin with, “I went for the space of two years, crying out against men’s sins, and their fearful state because of them.” This was standard Puritan practice, and indeed standard evangelical practice at all times. The Lord Jesus began his public ministry with the words, “Repent ye, and believe the Gospel.” Bunyan preached the law of God against sin, and the exceeding sinfulness of sin. The puritan preacher knew that if he did not preach about sin and God’s judgements upon it, then he could not present Christ as the Saviour from sin and the wrath of God. We should learn from the Puritans to put first things first in our preaching. If we are silent about sin and God’s hatred and punishment of sin, and if we preach a Christ who saves only from self and the sorrows of the world we are not preaching the Christ of the Bible. So much modern preaching appears to consist of half-truths about salvation, and does not go to the root of the matter—man fallen, with a sinful nature, who cannot deliver himself or put himself right with God, but who needs the divine power of the supernatural Saviour to cleanse and deliver him from all sin. If the ten commandments were plainly set before men, women and children, we should not have the crime rate or the permissive society that we endure today. Bunyan goes on, “I should labour so to speak the Word, as that thereby, if it were possible, the sin and the person guilty might be particularized by it.” By this he means going into details about particular sins, not making vague statements, but pointing out particular things offensive to a holy God—unbelief, hatred of God’s law, evil desires, impure ways, selfishness, greed, hatred, jealousy etc. This was one great characteristic of Puritan preaching, and it stirred up consciences to repent and seek deliverance.
Bunyan next tells us that as he went on in the Christian life and in Gospel preaching, he made many discoveries of the peace and comfort Christ gives. “Wherefore now I altered in my preaching (for still I preached what I saw and felt); now therefore I did much labour to hold forth Jesus Christ in all His Offices, Relations, and Benefits unto the world.” He still preached the necessity of salvation from sin, but now he emphasised more than formerly the all-sufficiency of Christ as Lord as well as Redeemer. The constant study of the Bible taught him about Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King; of his power as Shepherd, Vine, and Keeper; of his being Friend and Guide; of Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life; in truth as the answer to man’s every need, and the power to enable him to live a holy life.
“After this,” Bunyan says, “God led me into something of the mystery of union with Christ.” By this he means that true faith in the Saviour and obedience to his word, unites the believer with Christ, so that he abides in Christ and Christ abides in him. This faith-union brings into being the graces of a Christ-like character, love, dependence and obedience, and their expression in outward work and service for God and his people.
We may well ponder the emphases of Puritan preaching. They diagnosed the plight of man as guilty of sin, polluted by sin, and in bondage to sin; the state of being wholly dominated by an inbred attitude of enmity against God. They stressed man’s utter inability to improve himself in God’s sight. They declared God’s wrath against sin, but his saving love for sinners. Through the sin-atoning work of the Saviour upon Calvary’s Cross, the vilest offender against God could be reconciled to him, forgiven and remade, upon repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. They stressed also the condescension of Christ. He was never less to them than the divine Son of God incarnate, and they measured his mercy by his majesty. They magnified the love of the cross by showing the greatness of the glory which Christ left for it. And they dwelt upon the omnipotence of his grace to conquer subdue and transform rebellious hearts, and his patience and forbearance in his invitations to sinners to come to him and be healed and blessed.
In our day Christians have been appalled to see Anglican theologians, holding important university teaching posts, publish a book entitled The Myth of God Incarnate, in which the eternal Son of God is reduced to a mere man like ourselves, and thereby his unique person, teaching, and saving work are nullified and rejected. The scepticism of these Unitarian heretics neither rebuked nor dismissed by their church authorities, contrasts strongly with the vigorous faith of the unlettered tinker of Bedford. Bunyan was no mean controversialist as we shall see, and his knowledge of the Scriptures and of the Lord and his saving work would have demolished such pitiful and unscriptural arguments.
For him, the faith was not a matter of the intellect alone. “I have been,” he remarks, “in my preaching, especially when I have been engaged in the doctrine of Life by Christ without works, as if an angel of God had stood by at my back to encourage me. Oh, it had been with such power and heavenly evidence upon my own soul, while I have been labouring to unfold it, to demonstrate it, and to fasten it upon the conscience of others, that I could not be contented with saying, ‘I believe and am sure’ methought I was more than sure that those things which then I asserted were true.”
The Puritan view was that preaching Christ meant teaching the whole Christian system, the character of God, the Trinity, the plan of salvation, the entire work of grace in regeneration and sanctification. Puritan Gospel preaching was above all concerned to honour Christ, to show his glory to needy men and women. And this John Bunyan assuredly did with all his heart.
Bunyan appears to have been appointed a deacon of the Church in 1657, His preaching abilities increased, but his work as a brazier does not appear to have suffered. He is heard preaching the Gospel at Pavenham, Eaton, Gamlingay, Stevington, Ridgmont and other villages near at hand. One wonders whether his father Thomas, that zealous supporter of the Established Church, went to hear him and what he thought of it all. We have no means of knowing. On horseback John often crossed the county borders of Cambridge, Hertford, Buckingham and Huntingdon, and in all these counties are numerous traditions of his preaching visits. At Ridgmont, which was the home of Colonel John Okey, a noted Parliamentary commander, he preached in the small, square-towered Church. On a May morning he preached in a large tithe-barn at Toft, a village west of Cambridge. At the end of the sermon Thomas Smith, the learned Professor of Arabic at Cambridge, told him that he lacked charity in describing his congregation as unbelievers. John, as was his wont, entered into dispute with him on the fallen nature of man. Smith countered with a denial of the tinker’s right to preach, to which John replied that God himself and his congregation had called him to the work.
He had another encounter with a University don at Melbourne near Cambridge, but with a happier result. This man, seeing the crowds gathering, stayed “to hear the tinker prate”. He stayed to some purpose, for the Word of God gripped him and he was converted. He was William Bedford, who in years to come left the Anglican Church and founded the Congregational Meeting at Royston.
Another Professor, meeting John on a country road near Cambridge, enquired how he dared to preach, not having the original Scriptures.
“Have you the originals,” asked John, “the actual copies written by the prophets and apostles?”
“No,” was the reply, “but I have what I know to be true copies.”
“And I,” answered John, “believe the English Bible to be a true copy also.”
One day in December 1657 John went to Eaton to preach. The vicar, the Rev. Thomas Becke had been appointed to St Mary the Virgin by the House of Lords shortly before. He was a staunch Presbyterian, hostile to the Independents, and believing strongly in a well-trained ministry. News of the coming of a tinker to preach in his parish incensed him, and he obtained a legal indictment against Bunyan which was to be heard at the next Bedford assizes. It is doubtful whether there was any legality in this action as the law then stood. John reported the news of his arrest to the Church, and a day was set apart for prayers on his behalf, and concerning the state of the nation. Nothing came of the affair, and it may be surmised that Mr Becke was more concerned to keep an intruder out of his area than to punish the preacher.
Some months later, on Christmas Day 1659, John Bunyan found himself in company with an old acquaintance who had now become a firm friend. He had first met William Dell at Newport Pagnell when serving in the army. Dell was a chaplain to the Parliamentary forces and active in preaching to them. It is doubtful if Bunyan at that time was impressed with Puritan doctrine, but later when he was truly converted he was again brought into contact with Dell, probably through Gifford or some of the Bedford Puritan worthies. William Dell had been a student of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, that stronghold of Puritanism; he was a man of scholarly mind, strongly held opinions, and freely expressed speech. In 1642 he was appointed Rector of Yeldon, near the Bedfordshire-Northamptonshire border, and amongst his congregation were the Earl and Countess of Bolingbroke who greatly appreciated his ministry. It was through this connection that Dell became well-known to the Commonwealth leaders. In 1645-46 he was chaplain in Fairfax’s army at Newport Pagnell. In 1649 he was appointed Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, a post he held while still Vicar of Yeldon. He wrote a number of Calvinist type theological works, including Christ’s Spirit a Christian’s Strength, and Right Reformation. He believed that “all churches are equal as well as all Christians, all being daughters of one mother, beams of one sun, branches of one vine.” He also believed in dispensing with baptism altogether as not being an essential part of the Gospel. High in the confidence of the Commonwealth leaders he officiated at the marriage of Cromwell’s daughter Bridget to General Ireton in 1646. He was one of the Puritans who offered his services to Charles I on his being sentenced to death, and that unhappy monarch sent him a grateful message: “The king sent him thanks for his love of his soul, hoping that he would be mindful of him in his addresses to God, but as he had made choice of Dr. Juxon he would have no other.” Dell was a man of tolerant sympathies and there is little doubt that John Bunyan owed much to him.
Now he rode over to Yeldon to preach a Christmas sermon. William Dell began the service with extempore prayer and reading the Scriptures and then after the singing of a psalm John mounted the narrow oaken stairs of the fifteenth century pulpit. It is a pity that we have no account of this utterance, gladly received by some, gloomily heard by others. After service John joined the Dell family at dinner—one of the daughters being named Mercy, a character whom John was to delineate in Pilgrim’s Progress. After dinner the two men discussed the unhappy state of the nation. The Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, had died in September 1658, worn out before his work was completed, leaving his son Richard as his successor. But Richard’s government began to crumble almost immediately. He had never been actively interested in politics, and unlike his brothers had taken no part in the Civil Wars. Richard, nicknamed “Tumbledown Dick”, resigned, and the struggle between Army and Parliament produced confusion near anarchy. Dell, who was twenty years older than Bunyan, and a scholar of long experience, expressed his opinion that the anarchy would be put down and the monarchy restored. All the hopes and liberties of the Puritans were likely to be swept away, and the old absolutism in government and repression of Nonconformists would return. Men such as they must prepare for this state of things, and above all else, in the strength of the Lord, remain steadfast to their religious and civil principles.
In June 1660 some of Dell’s discontented parishioners sent a petition against him to the House of Lords, in whose archives it is still to be seen. “He has for twelve years past neglected the due administration of the Sacraments, in consequence of which many children were unbaptized upon Christmas Day last one Bunyon a tinker was countenanced and suffered to speak in the pulpit to the congregation and no orthodox minister did officiate in the church that day. Since the restoration of the secluded members of Parliament he (Dell) hath declared that the power was now in the hands of the wicked, and that the land was like to be overflowed again with Popery, he hath put forth various seditious books …” This clearly shows the kind of venom soon to gather force against the Puritans. The petition was dismissed by the House of Lords, rather surprisingly in view of the return of Charles II. But William Dell’s days at Yeldon were numbered as he had foreseen. In 1662 after the passing of the Act of Uniformity Dell was ejected from his living and retired to Westoning on his own estate at Samsell, near where John Bunyan was to be arrested, and he died there in 1669, a true man of God and a wise and faithful friend of Bunyan.
By the end of 1658 another son, Thomas, had been born to Mary and John Bunyan. Soon afterwards, to his great grief his wife Mary died, and so before he was thirty John was left with four young children, one of them a baby and including his beloved but blind Mary. No doubt he took counsel with the saints at St John’s as to what to do in the circumstances, and paid particular attention to the advice of his pastor, John Burton. They recommended him to seek another wife from the Lord to be a mother to his children This, after a short interval and much prayer, he did. His second wife was named Elizabeth, but strangely enough we have no record of the marriage, and like his first wife we do not even know her surname or where she came from. Like Mary, Elizabeth never became a member of the Independent Church to which her husband belonged, and from this fact we may suppose that she remained loyal to the Church of England. She was much younger than John, but a more loyal and loving helpmeet he could not have had, caring for the children with the utmost affection and standing by her husband when dark troubles swept over the nation and her own family.
In the early days of his preaching John Bunyan had many encounters with the sect called “Quakers”. Today, the Society of Friends are known for their testimony against the unlawfulness of war, and their concern for social righteousness in all departments of life. But their modern quietism is far removed from the turbulent and pugnacious activities of their early days. They were the most fanatical of sects. They showed no respect for authority in Church or State. It was a common occurrence with them to interrupt worship in “the steeple house” as they called it, and to denounce the proceedings of prayer and praise as empty and unspiritual forms, and even to shout insults at the Minister by such terms as Hireling, Deceiver, False Prophet, and Dog!
Richard Baxter was thus insulted, and many of the Puritan preachers also. Not infrequently some of them would walk or ride naked into a town as a prophetical act. At Bristol, one of them, James Naylor, accompanied by a small procession of women, rode into the town as the Messiah. Their doctrine of the “inner light” was carried to extremes by many, some of whom including George Fox the founder of the movement, and Edward Burrough often urged their hearers to throw away their Bibles and give heed to the light within. To orthodox Puritans like John Bunyan this was dreadful and dangerous doctrine; the “inner light” being vague and unreliable, while the Bible was the inspired Word of God, concrete and infallible. When a certain Quaker, Anne Blackley, urged him publicly to “throw away the Scriptures”, he calmly replied, “No, for then the devil would be too hard for me.” Oliver Cromwell himself seems to have treated them with toleration so long as they obeyed the law, and even had friendly conversation with George Fox. But most Puritans regarded the Quakers as fanatical and anti-Christ.
In 1654 John Crook, a county magistrate and member of the Little Parliament, had been converted to Quakerism and turned his estate, Beckring’s Park, between Ampthill and Woburn into a stronghold of the Society of Friends. From this place individual Friends, or companies of them, made their way to Bedford where they interrupted meetings and services and generally made themselves obnoxious to the peaceable citizens. They emphasised the “power of Christ within”, and denounced all worship and religious practices not in accordance with their notions. John Bunyan was many times interrupted in his preaching, and came to regard the Quakers as heretics, rejecting the inspired Word of God, and the historic facts of the Christian faith. One clash between him and Quakers occurred in the High Street at the market cross, where John often stood to offer Christ freely as the only Redeemer of sinners. On another occasion at a meeting at Pavenham his message was strongly opposed by a group of Quakers. And at St Paul’s Church, Bedford, on 23rd May 1656 John Bunyan and John Burton his Pastor engaged in open debate with the Quakers on the essential points of the Christian faith.
In Grace Abounding ten years afterwards, John Bunyan condemns the “errors of the Quakers” and the “vile and abominable things fomented by them”. There was reason and justice in his views of them; their errors both in teaching and practice were the direct result of their rejection of the Word of God. Being forced to consider their views and methods, because of their recurrent opposition to his Gospel preaching, led him into his very first attempt at authorship, and thus to becoming one of the foremost “English men of letters”. The work was an answer to the teaching of the Quakers and was entitled, Some Gospel Truths Opened, according to the Scriptures, or the Divine and Human Nature of Jesus Christ … Published for the good of God’s chosen ones, by that unworthy servant of Christ, John Bunyan of Bedford, by the grace of God, preacher of the Gospel of His dear Son. The Puritans delighted in long drawn-out titles of their works, aiming at presenting the reader with a full account of the contents. John Burton, Pastor of the Bedford Church, contributed an Introduction in which he wrote that the tinker-author was “not chosen out of an earthly but out of an heavenly university, where he had through grace taken these three degrees—to wit, union with Christ, the anointing of the Spirit, and experience of the temptations of Satan, which do more fit a man for that mighty work of preaching than all University learning that can be had.”
It was an astonishing work for so young a Christian, showing a knowledge of the Bible and a grasp of essential Christian doctrines that proved beyond doubt that John was a scholar in the school of the Holy Spirit who was showing him the things of Christ, as the Saviour promised that he would. In 216 pages John contended against the Quaker habit of “spiritualizing” the living, literal Jesus, who lived, was crucified and rose again. It is also surprising to see with what a good literary style he sets forth his thesis that the Son of Mary is very God, that he made the world, that he is our Saviour, that he died for sinners, redeeming his church with his own blood. His style is plain, emphatic, and clearly formed by his constant reading of the Bible. He enlarges on the second coming of Christ, a favourite topic of some Puritan preachers, giving the reasons for it and the signs of it, as he understands the Scriptures to show these. He then urges his readers to examine their hearts to see if they have true faith in Christ, and if they are “born again”, setting forth the proofs and evidences of it as he knew them himself. He concludes with “Some questions to the Quakers” on points they disputed with him concerning the divine and human natures of Christ. It is an impressive treatise for a young man of twenty-seven, only three years converted. The book was published in 1656 by J. Wright of London and M. Cowley of Newport Pagnell. Matthias Cowley, his old friend of army days, stationer and bookseller, adding his name to Bunyan’s title page, helped to bring his friend’s publication to the attention of Bedfordshire readers.
John Bunyan’s Gospel Truths Opened roused the wrath of a fervent young Quaker of twenty-three, Edward Burrough, destined to die for his faith in Newgate Prison, London six years later. He replied in a pamphlet hardly marked by Quaker meekness, entitled, The True Faith of the Gospel of Peace, in which he strongly criticised “the professed minister in Bedfordshire”, though without effective Scripture backing. John, warming to his task, dealt with Burrough in a further pamphlet, A Vindication of Gospel Truths Opened, According to the Scriptures, in which he dealt with Ranters as well as Quakers. In particular he deals with the “inner light” or “Spirit within all men”, avowed by Quakers, and he shows it to be contrary to Scripture, This work was also published by J. Wright of London and Matthias Cowley of Newport Pagnell. Burrough replied a second time against “John Bunyan’s foule dirty lies and slanders”, but Bunyan met this onslaught with dignified silence. His notable skill in defending Gospel truths was one of the factors that later led the members of the Bedford Church to choose him as their pastor.
The encouragement he received from his Bedford friends and those further afield, stirred him to use his pen again shortly afterwards. He had preached a sermon on the parable of the Rich Man and the Beggar in Luke 16, 19-31, and no doubt repeated it on many occasions. He proceeded to publish it, giving it the rather horrific title of A Few Sighs from Hell, or the Groans of a Damned Soul. It is a thoughtful verse by verse exposition of the passage in the manner of the time, by one who had himself known the bondage of sin and feared the wrath of God in consequence. He lets his imagination run away with him as he sets forth the terrors of the damned, and the miseries of those in this life who live without Christ; but he is careful to point the way to forgiveness and blessing through faith in the mercy of Christ. In his foreword, “The Author to the Reader” he writes, “I am thine, if thou be not ashamed to own me, because of my low and contemptible descent in the world. John Bunyan.” In the second and subsequent editions this was altered to “I am thine to serve in the Lord Jesus.”
For this book he asked his friend John Gibbs, vicar of Newport Pagnell, whom he had met in his army days, to write a Preface. He was a Cambridge man and quite young when, in 1646, he was appointed the Puritan Vicar of the garrison town. In 1660, when John Burton’s health began to fail, the Bedford Church invited Gibbs and some others to help with the Sunday services. The reason for this was that Gibbs had been ejected from his living at Newport Pagnell for refusing to admit some notorious but influential drunkards to Holy Communion. He had thought of founding an Independent Church in Newport, but meanwhile was very willing to help the Bedford Meeting. He left the vicarage and rented a small cottage at the end of a long yard for fourpence a week. Behind it stood a commodious barn which the Independents soon came to use for their meetings because of its secluded position. The church thus founded was later to have as its Minister the Rev William Bull, friend of John Newton and William Cowper. George Offer, in his collected edition of Bunyan’s works, ascribes the Preface to A Few Sighs from Hell to John Gifford, but Gifford had been dead two years when the book was published in 1658. The Preface is signed J.G. and is known to be by John Gibbs.
John Gibbs writes of John Bunyan thus: “Concerning the author (whatsoever the censures and reports of many are) I have this to say, that I verily believe God hath counted him faithful, and put him into the ministry; and though his outward condition and former employment was mean, and his human learning small, yet is he one that hath acquaintance with God, and taught by His Spirit, and hath been used in His hand to do souls good … you shall find him magnifying and exalting the Holy Scriptures, and largely showing the worth, excellency, and usefulness of them.” The phrase “former employment” is curious, and seems to suggest that John had given up the tinker’s trade. If this is so he must have been supported by the Bedford Church, many of whose congregation were men of substance, so that he could devote his whole time to preaching the Gospel.
But shadows were already gathering over the land and putting fear into many Puritan hearts. General Monck marched his forces from Scotland to end the anarchy in London and to prepare for the Restoration of the monarchy. Many of the Presbyterian leaders had joined with the Royalists to ensure the return of the king, but they were soon to find that, with the Independents, Baptists, Quakers and other nonconformists, they too would know the hand of government oppression upon them. Monck set up the “Convention Parliament”, and Charles II issued the Declaration of Breda in which he promised liberty to “tender consciences” and an amnesty for all except those excluded by Parliament, the regicides and others. Clarendon, his chief political adviser, understood much about the governing of a state, but he could not understand the spirit and principles of the Puritans. On May 25th 1660, Charles stepped ashore at Dover, a swarthy, dark-haired, light-hearted man of thirty. The Mayor received him with the gift of an English Bible, which Charles accepted, declaring that “It was the thing that he loved above all things in the world”—possibly the most monstrous lie ever uttered publicly by any monarch in the world! Before the end of the year episcopacy was reestablished, and the surviving episcopal clergy returned to their livings from which the Puritans had ousted them. Back in triumph to St Mary’s Bedford came Dr Giles Thorne; back to St John’s came the aged Theodore Crowley with his assistant Robert Guidot.
In late August the Bedford Church recorded in their Church Book that “the Lord hath taken to Himself our teacher, bro. Burton.” More significant, perhaps, they added “We desire our bro. Harrington, bro. Coventon, bro. John ffenne to take care to informe themselves of a convenient place for our meeting so soone as they can (we being now deprived of our former place); and reporte it to ye Church.” So the saints of the Bedford Meeting were turned out of St John’s, and the stricken community, deprived of both Pastor and meeting place, did not know that for more than twelve years they would be driven into fields, woods, attics and barns before they found an abiding home.