Dr Alexander Whyte, a great lover and student of John Bunyan, whose lectures on Bunyan Characters are so spiritually penetrating and strengthening, has this to say about character in his first volume. “Character comes up out of the heart. There are more good minds in the world than there are good hearts. There are more clever people than good people; character, high, spotless, saintly character, is a far rarer thing in this world than talent or even genius. And yet so true is it that the world loves its own, that all men worship talent, and even bodily strength and bodily beauty, while only one here and one there either understands or values or pursues moral character, though it is the strength and the beauty and the sweetness of the soul.”
Bunyan would have endorsed that. He had come into contact with many men better educated and more cultured than he, but he had found them false, insincere and timeserving. He, as he tells us, “never went to school to Plato or Aristotle”, but he had been led to the Cross, and spent the rest of his days in the school of Christ. He is at one and the same time Mr. Greatheart, Mr. Standfast, and Mr. Valiantfor-truth. But it is possible to see some of the strands that were woven into his character to make him the man and the genius he was.
There was first and foremost in John Bunyan a deep personal love for his Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. “0 methought, Christ! Christ! There was nothing but Christ that was now before my eyes!” And again, “Twas glorious to me to see His exaltation, and the worth and prevalency of all His benefits. And that because I could now look from myself to Him, and should reckon that all those graces of God that were now green on me, were yet but like those crack-groats and four-pence-half-pennies that rich men carry in their purses, when their gold is in their trunks at home! 0, 1 saw that my gold was all in my trunk at home! Even in Christ, my Lord and my Saviour! Now Christ was my all! He was made of God to me all my Wisdom, all my Righteousness, all my Sanctification, and all my Redemption!” And yet again: “Where-ever I have seen the print of His shoe in the earth, there I have coveted to set my foot too.”Bunyan’s books are full of Christ—his welcome, his saving grace, his unshakeable truth, his advocacy for sinners, and so on. We can forgive him for his occasional lapses from good taste, and his overemphasis sometimes on divine judgement, for the sake of his personal devotion to his Saviour, and the way in which he warms our hearts towards Christ. His preaching and writing were Christ-centred, and it was this that carried men’s hearts captive to Christ. If our present-day preachers and theologians had the same emphasis a very different spirit would prevail in both the Church and the State.
Bunyan held the vital elements of the Puritan faith with the utmost constancy. The Protestant emphasis on the authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures concerning Christian doctrine and life was basic with him as with all Puritans. “I prefer the Bible, and having that still with me, I count myself far better furnished than if I had without it all the libraries of the two universities.” The Sovereignty of God in creation, providence, and redemption was also, a matter of deep conviction. The desire to know and do God’s will and to please him, even in the smallest things, made the Puritans take a high and serious view of human life and destiny, and kept their consciences under the control of the Holy Spirit. They were men who walked with God and were actuated first and always by moral and spiritual considerations, and not merely by materialistic or economic or political notions. In all these ways John Bunyan held the Puritan view and was moulded by it.
And thus he came to a spiritual mind. The Bible, prayer, worship, Christian fellowship, Puritan writings, wrought in him a spiritual outlook and emphasis. It was not for nothing that the Puritans were called “the godly”. The instructed Puritan found his authority in the Spirit-prompted response of his heart and mind to the Word. So it is that when Christian meets on the road to the Celestial City people such as Pliable, Mr. Wordly-wiseman, Formalist, Hypocrisy, Talkative, Judge Hategood his attitude to them, and his advice to them is born of Bunyan’s knowledge of spiritual things and his understanding of the teaching of the Bible. Dr. John Owen, a Puritan divine of great spirituality of mind as his great books show, delighted to listen to John Bunyan for this very reason, that the mind of the Lord was in and behind all the preaching. By grace he was a new man in Christ, and his writing and preaching carry the fragrance of it.
There was in Bunyan, also, a deep-rooted tenacity of purpose, a manliness, a trait of character that would never yield once he was convinced his purpose was right. “Set your face like a flint,” urged Evangelist, and Bunyan did just that. He was no Pliable or Facing-both-ways. He did not endure twelve years of imprisonment for a whim or a fancy. It was the witness of his conscience against the carnal reasonings and legislation of ungodly men, his testimony to his call to preach God’s Word come what may. “I am at a point with you,” he declared boldly to Kelynge. “If I was out of prison today, I would preach the Gospel again tomorrow, by the help of God.” This is British courage sanctified! And it has served the nation well in many ages and many causes.
There is also in Bunyan a homeliness that is very attractive. He was very happy in his homelife, when not in prison, enjoying the simple things of family life, playing with the children and making toys for them. In Pilgrim’s Progress and other books he refers to everyday things and activities as one accustomed to them. In the Interpreter’s House, for example, are the candle, the broom, the sprinkled water, the two children each in his little chair, the fire burning, the vessel of oil, the main with the inkhorn. Each homely thing brings some spiritual lesson, and so all along the pilgrim way. He is never high-flown in his descriptions. And the simple, enduring qualities in people—affection, sympathy, helpfulness, courage are what he delights in and points Out to us. He had them abundantly in himself.
His imagination was of the highest order. When he described the Slough of Despond, the fight with Apollyon, Doubting Castle and its Giant, he makes us see and thrill and grasp it all. Here are states of experience visualized to completeness. A few phrases, and men and places are before our eyes. Giant Despair has a grim and surly voice; his dungeon is nasty and stinking; his wife urges him to beat the pilgrims, which he does; and he himself has fainting fits; the remembered key of Promise lets the pilgrims go free. Vanity Fair is full of bustle and splendour like London on Lord Mayor’s Day, as Lord Macaulay says, but also with thefts, murders, adulteries, and many other hurtful things open or concealed. This, and the trial of the pilgrims is one of the master-pieces of Bunyan’s inventive faculty.
John Bunyan’s literary style is of the very finest English. It is clear, plain, directly expressed. Coleridge, no mean judge, spoke of “the inimitable Pilgrim’s Progress, that model of beautiful, pure, and harmonious English.” Dr Samuel Johnson praised John Bunyan highly, and The Pilgrim’s Progress was one of the few books he liked to re-read. “His Pilgrim’s Progress”, he observed, “has great merit, both for invention, imagination, and the conduct of the story; and it has the best evidence of its merit, the general and continued approbation of mankind!” Bunyan’s style is recommended by Lord Macaulay as “an invaluable study to every person who wishes to gain a wide command over the English language. Its vocabulary is the vocabulary of the common people.” Bunyan’s perfect English style was wrought by constant reading of the English Bible. Robert Browning in his poem, “Ned Bratts”, makes Ned say,
His language was not ours:
‘Tis my belief, God spake;
No tinker has such powers.
Bunyan was not unconcerned about the social problems of his day. In his Christian Behaviour he writes of “moral duties Gospelized.” Masters must not forget that they have duties both to the bodies and souls of their servants. They must beware of turning them into slaves by overworking or underpaying them, by beguiling them with false promises and “wire-drawing” them to “such wages as indeed is too little and inconsiderable for such work.” He goes on, “I have heard some poor servants say that in some carnal families they have had more liberty to God’s things, and more fairness of dealing, than among professors. But this stinketh.” “Servants are goers as well as corners; take heed that thou give them no occasion to scandal the Gospel when they are gone, for what they observed thee unrighteously to do when they were with thee.” In his Badman he urges that in commercial dealings a man should design his neighbour’s good and profit as his own, and the theory that a man has the right to buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest is dismissed as contrary to the New Testament. “Every man that makes a prey of his advantage upon his neighbour’s necessities to force upon him more than in reason and conscience, such commodity is worth, may very well be called an extortioner, and judged for one that hath no inheritance in the Kingdom of Heaven..” And he is indignant with those who rig the market, crying, “Scarcity! Scarcity!” where there is none. Neither has he any mercy for extortionate moneylenders: “Such miscreants are the pest and vermin of the Commonwealth, not fit for the society of men.” He anticipates that some may criticize him for not sticking to the simple Gospel. “Perhaps some folk will find fault with me for my meddling with other folks’ matters, and for thus prying into the secrets of their iniquity. But to such I would say, since such actions are evil, it is time they were hissed out of the world.” The greatest need in England, he goes on to say, is a thorough New Testament reformation from the soul outward.
In his book, The Jerusalem Sinner Saved, in which he refers to Martha and Mary, he has something to say about women’s attire. One of the first acts of the converted Mary was to change her gay and wanton attire for a modest dress. The Restoration pride of dress, both in man and woman, exercised him greatly. What, he would know, can be the end of those that are so fond of decking themselves in this antic manner? Why are folk going about nowadays with their bull’s foretops and naked shoulders and painted faces? Even some Puritans decked themselves in a “spangling show”. “For my own part, I have seen many myself, and those church members too, so decked and bedaubed with their fangles and toys, and that when they have been at the solemn appointments of God in the way of his worship, that I have wondered with what face such painted persons could sit in the place where they were without swooning”. He recalls that he once took it upon him to “talk with a maid by way of reproof for her fond and gaudy garment. But she told me the tailor would make it so, when alas! poor, proud girl, she gave order to the tailor to so make it.”
And he is not very happy about the condition of the Dissenting churches under the Restoration. It was “a day that was never heard of, wherein conversion is frequent without repentance”, so that churches “swarm with them that religiously name the name of Christ but yet depart not from iniquity” (A Holy Life). At the same time he is against the extreme narrowness of some his fellow Puritans. The saints, he complains, are often so unloveable, “they will mix their mercies with so many twits,” whereas God gives without twitting. “Why not familiar with sinners, provided we hate their spots and blemishes and seek that they may be healed of them? Why not fellowly with our carnal neighbours” if we use the occasion to seek their good?
He has something to say about Christian unity in his book, The Holy City, a subject which much exercises Christians today. The grace and power of the true Church, he says, comes from above, just as in The Revelation the Holy City descends from above. The New Jerusalem is the spiritual society of the faithful. “It shall not be then, 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.” There shall be an undivided fellowship ruled by love. It marks will be holiness, goodness, and truth. Its glory is spiritual and heavenly, not worldly. Bunyan’s tolerance and large-heartedness are unmistakeable. “Not only is there no fanaticism,” says Goidwin Smith, “but there is hardly even anything sectarian in his writings. Saving one or two passages about the Pope, they might almost have been used by Francis of Assisi, to whose spiritual character that of Bunyan has a certain affinity.” The name he would be known by is that of Christian. He challenged the whole separatist position centred, as it was, on ritual ordinances such as baptism, which he denied was of the essence of the Gospel. “I count them not the fundamentals of our Christianity.” The rule to gather men into Church communion is the rule of faith in Christ, and moral duties Gospelized. “For God’s people to divide into parties or to shut each other from Church communion hath heretofore (i.e. in the New Testament) been counted carnal and the actors herein babyish Christians.”
John Bunyan’s books, especially The Pilgrim’s Progress, had a large circulation in his day, the great Allegory alone reaching a sale of 100,000 copies during the last decade of his life. Edition followed edition in the centuries to come, and translation after translation into many languages.. In the New England colonies of America also, Bunyan’s Pilgrim was known and loved, as Bunyan remarks in his rhymed Introduction to Part Two:
‘Tis in New England under such advance,
Receives there so much loving Countenance
As to be Trim’d, new Cloth’d and decked with gems,
That it might show its features and its limbs,
Yet more; so comely doth my Pilgrim walk,
That of him thousands daily sing and talk.
Coleridge wrote on the fly-leaf of his copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, “I know of no book, the Bible excepted as above all comparison, which I, according to my judgement and experience, could so safely recommend as teaching and enforcing the whole saving truth according to the mind that was in Christ Jesus, as The Pilgrim’s Progress.”
And it is this, his pointing to Christ and his truth and salvation, rather than his stand for religious liberty, great as that was, which is his chief message to our day and age. He tells us that as he was visited and laid hold of and transformed by the abounding grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, so we may be, and so we too may know what life is in the Spirit, and the light and joy and peace which only Christ can give. So also may we negotiate all the hazards of the Pilgrim way with divine strength and guidance, and enter with rejoicing into the Celestial City.
“Bunyan”, remarks Gwilym 0. Griffth, “hardly less than any other living man, helped to keep the soul of England alive.” This is a noble tribute and a just one, and one to confer immortality upon him. He is still at work upon those who read him and partake of his spirit.