John Bunyan was finally released from Bedford Count Gaol in 1677, and had before him just over ten more years o life. They were years of triumph. The story of his courage i imprisonment, the outstanding success of his preaching, am his reputation as a popular author all combined to make hiri one of the best known and loved men amongst th Nonconformists and even beyond their ranks. His remainin: years were full of a variety of activities after his own heart, ii which he strove to serve his Master.
His father, Thomas Bunyan, died in the cottage a Harrowden in February 1676. In his will he left one shillin, each to his sons John and Thomas and his daughters Mar and Elizabeth, while the rest of his goods went to his thin wife Anne, who survived him for four years. He seems t have come round to his son John’s way of thinking, for h bequeathed his soul “into the hands of Almighty God m Maker, hoping that through the meritorious death an passion of Jesus Christ my only Saviour and Redeemer t receive pardon for my sins.”
Charles II died in 1685, a declared Roman Catholic, with numerous progeny by his many mistresses, but none of them legitimate. His brother, James II, a staunch and open Roman Catholic for many years, ascended the throne. He believed it possible that the Church of England could be persuaded to favour Romanism because of its opposition to Protestant Nonconformity. It was an illusion. The new Parliament of May 1685 met with determination to resist both Romanism and Dissent. In July came Monmouth’s rebellion. James, Duke of Monmouth, a son of Charles I, and a Protestant, attempted to overthrow the new regime in the interests of Protestantism. Six thousand men rallied to his cause in the West of England, many of them Nonconformists, but the rising was poorly organized and equipped and easily suppressed. Then followed the “Bloody Assize” of Chief Justice Jeffreys, who hanged three hundred and fifty rebels without mercy. This cruelty was heartily supported by the king. Two of Kiffin’s grandsons perished, in spite of the generous financial support he had given to Charles II. The whole country was stirred and apprehensive. What fresh troubles might ensue? Non-conformists especially began to prepare for the worst.
John Bunyan decided to draw up a “Deed of Gift” which would confer on Elizabeth all his worldly goods, so that should he be arrested once more she would not be penniless. This deed, in John’s handwriting, was drawn up on the 23rd December 1685 and witnessed by four members of the Bedford Church. It begins— “To all people to whom this present writing shall come, I, John Bunyan of the parish of St Cuthberts, in the town of Bedford, Brazier, send greeting. Know ye that I, the said John Bunyan, as well for and in consideration of the natural affection and love which I have and bear unto my well-beloved wife, Elizabeth, as also for divers other good causes and considerations me at this present especially moving, have given and granted … all and singular my goods, chattels, debts, ready money, plate, rings, household stuff, apparel, utensils, brass, pewter, bedding, and all other my substance whatsoever …” This document was not his will, as it has been regarded. It was a document to insure that his goods could not be illegally seized should he be arrested or fined for any reason. Because of the troubled times John hid it in the thatched roof of his house, and not even Elizabeth seems to have known where it was. On his death it was so securely hidden that it could not be found, and his wife was obliged to administer John’s estate as that of an intestate person. In 1838, when the house was pulled down, the document was discovered, and is now in the possession of the Bunyan Meeting, Bedford.
James II gave authority for avowed Romanists among the clergy to keep their benefices. Such men became deans and bishops and members of the Roman Church were also appointed to major posts in the Army. When members of the Franciscan and Caarmelite Orders began to walk openly in London, and mass to be celebrated, there were riots in the city. James made a bid for support by issuing in April 1687 a new Declaration of Indulgence which suspended all penal laws against Catholics and Nonconformists alike. This action alarmed the Established clergy.
Against this background of unrest and uncertainty John Bunyan pursued his vigorous way. The writer who wrote the Continuation of Grace Abounding described him as “tall of stature, strong boned, though not corpulent, somewhat of a ruddy face, with sparkling eyes, wearing his hair on his upper lip after the old British fashion; his hair reddish, but in his latter days time had sprinkled it with grey; his nose well set, but not declining or bending, and his mouth moderate large; his forehead something high, and his habit (i.e. clothes) always plain and modest.”
He was in good health and was constantly out and about preaching to the associated congregations of the Bedford Church, as well as expounding Scripture in the mother church, and going to distant places on horse-back. There was, too, the pastoral work of visitation, and the preparing of his writings for the press. He preached at Reading, Hitchin, Aylesbury, Luton, Leicester, and many other places. He went frequently to London where he had large and appreciative congregations, and made many friends. On one of his visits he stayed with friends who occupied one of the many houses then built on London Bridge itself. The city, containing half a million people, enthralled him, but he was always glad to get back to Bedford. He was offered the pastorate of a leading London Nonconformist Church, but declined it, although it would have provided a much better income for him and Elizabeth. He would see springing up in the capital, the new coffee-houses which were beginning to serve tea also. He would be amazed at the fashions of the gaily dressed girls, and at the dandified garments of the men—so different from the clothes worn in days of the Commonwealth. It was six years after the Great Fire of 1666, and everywhere new buildings was in progress, including the new St Paul’s—where years later his hymn, “Who would true valour see” would be sung.
The Nonconformists worshipped in many of the halls of the great City Companies, before their own chapels were built. Pinners’ Hall, Girdlers’ Hall, Salters’ Hall were among them, and in these Bunyan was a welcome preacher. In 1677 the Independents founded a Tuesday morning lecture in Pinners’ Hall, at which leading divines preached, John Bunyan among them. One of his best sermons, “The Greatness of the Soul”, was delivered there in 1688.
Charles Doe recorded the enthusiasm of the common-folk to hear Bunyan preach. “When Mr Bunyan preached in London, if there were but one day’s notice given, there would be more people come together to hear his preach than the meeting-house could hold. I have seen to hear him preach, by my computation, about twelve hundred at a morning lecture by seven o’clock on a working day in the dark winter-time. I also computed about three thousand that came to hear him on Lord’s Day at London, at a town-end’s meeting-house, so that half were fain to go back again for want of room, and then himself was fain at a back-door to be pulled almost over people to get upstairs to his pulpit.”
One of his London friends who was greatly attached to him was Sir John Shorter, Lord Mayor of London in 1687, an eminent goldsmith and firm friend of Nonconformists. He established a meeting in Grocers’ Hall at which Bunyan often preached. Sir John gave him an ivory-headed staff, and a small inlaid cabinet in which to keep his papers. Their friendship was so close that after his death Bunyan was described as “chaplain to the Lord Mayor”, which of course he was not.
Other London friends included Dr. John Owen, the famous Nonconformist divine, who had intervened with Bishop Barlow of Lincoln to secure John’s release from his second imprisonment. His congregation met in White’s Alley, Moorfields, and there also John preached from time to time, greatly pleasing Dr. Owen with his teaching, upon which he commented favourably to Charles 11.
Another friend was George Cokayn, who he had known in Bedfordshire, and who was now pastor of an Independent Congregation in Red Cross Street, in the City of London. John Bunyan preached for him also. In his congregation he met a young grocer of 1-lolborn named John Strudwick with whom he sometimes stayed, and in whose house he was destined to die.
One whose friendship he greatly valued was Charles Doe, a comb-maker of Southwark across the river Thames, where Shakespeare had his theatre. He knew John Bunyan only in the last three years of his life, but instantly John became his hero. He had read some of his books and was constrained to hear him preach. He went to a meeting held in a private house. The text was Proverbs 10:24—”The fear of the wicked, it shall come upon him; but the desire of the righteous shall be granted.” At first Charles Doe was upset, for he was a New Testament man. But he was to write, “Mr Bunyan went on and preached so New Testament-like that he made me admire, and weep for joy, and give him my affections. And he was the first man that ever I heard preach to my unenlightened understanding and experience, for methought all his sermons were adapted to my condition and had apt similitudes, being full of the lvoe of God and the manner of its secret working upon the soul, and of the soul under the sense of it, that I could weep for joy most part of his sermons; and so by a letter, I introduced myself into his acquaintance, and, indeed, I have not since met with a man I have liked so well. I was acquainted with him but about three years before he died, and then missed him sorely.” Doe was so attached to John that after his death he made it his business to search out and publish his unpublished manuscripts.
Bunyan visited his publishers also, such as Nathaniel Ponder and George Larkin, to make arrangements about printing new editions, especially of the allegories. It is not known how much money he received from his various publications, but there must have been some, and it would ease his and Elizabeth’s circumstances. His London friends gave him gifts from time to time, but his main support still came from the Bedford Meeting.
One strange fact is that none of John Bunyan’s letters seem to have survived. We do not know whether he was much of a letter writer, but he must have written some, concerning his preaching appointments at a distance, to his friends, and to his various publishers. None have so far come to light, though it is possible that some may yet be discovered. Perhaps the uncertain character of the times, together with the Great Fire of London caused their destruction.
The years of the reign of James II were fast running out. Disaffection and incipient rebellion were on every hand. In April 1688 the king ordered a Second Declaration of Indulgence to be read in churches, but hardly a clergyman obeyed. In London Samuel Wesley, the father of John and Charles, preached a sermon on the text, “Be it known unto thee, 0 king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.” It met with hearty approval. Seven bishops, including Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, petitioned against the Indulgence. They were put on trial for seditious libel and acquitted, to the delirious joy of the Londoners, and the general satisfaction of the rest of the country.
During the summer of 1688 many leading English figures passed between England and The Hague, in order to strengthen the design to bring William of Orange who had married James’ daughter Mary, to the English throne. William, a staunch Protestant, received an invitation to accept the English crown, supported by the Earls of Shrewsbury, Devonshire, and Danby, Edward Russell of the great House of Bedford, the Marquis of Winchester, Lord Macclesfield, Lord Peterborough, Lord Halifax and many others. The conspiracy planned with great care succeeded. In November Prince William landed at Torbay with thirteen thousand men, and risings occurred simultaneously in the Midlands, Yorkshire, and Scotland. Everywhere the revolt was successful. James, deserted by courtiers and soldiers alike, fled to France. The Protestant succession to the throne, and the Protestant religion were henceforth established in Britain, for the nation saw that the Reformation was something worth maintaining.
John Bunyan did not live to see the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, though he must have been aware of currents of opinion tending that way, and he may even have had contact with some among the Nonconformists who knew of the plans. Had he lived to see it he would have known that the Puritan struggles of his youth had not been in vain; he would have known that they had laid the foundations in concept and example of constitutional monarchy, free Parliaments, and many of the democratic civil and religious liberties which we enjoy today.
While these events were in preparation John Bunyan set out on his last journey. In the middle of August, 1688 he had an engagement to preach in London, but determined to ride by way of Reading to help a young neighbour in trouble. This young man had incurred his father’s anger so much that he had threatened to disinherit him, and he asked John to call on his father at Reading and attempt a reconciliation. This John gladly agreed to do, for Christian love and reconciliation was one of the themes he often preached and wrote about. He also had many friends in Reading and the mission would give him a break in his long journey. He had not been well in the Spring, and he was manifestly tired; but although Elizabeth probably sought to deter him from going, he mounted his horse and set off. In his pocket was the manuscript of The Acceptable Sacrifice, or the Excellency of a Broken Heart which George Larkin was to publish. In two months’ time he would be sixty, but he pressed on with the unshakeable determination which had characterized him from the days of his conversion.
At Reading John stayed with John Rance, pastor of a Meeting House in Mill Lane, and preached there. The next morning he called on the irate father of his young Bedford friend and effected the desired reconciliation. It was nearly midday when he started on the forty-mile ride to London. Before he had got half-way a heavy storm broke and continued with pitiless intensity for some hours. He would have been wise to seek shelter at some inn or roadside house, but for some reason or other he pressed on. Soaked, shivering, and exhausted he reached the house of his friend John Strudwick, the grocer of Snow Hill, Holborn. He was a deacon of the Church presided over by John’s friend, George Cokayn. Strudwick and his wife put him to bed and gave him a hot potion of herbs to drink. Next day he was still unwell, and stayed in the house preparing The Acceptable Sacrifice for the press. In a day or two he felt better, and on Sunday 19th August he walked with John Strudwick to Whitechapel, a mile away, where in Petticoat Lane John Gammon, an old friend, had his Meeting Place. Here, as he looked on the crowded congregation, much of his old vigour returned, and he preached a powerful sermon on John 1:13. Though he did not know it, it was to be his last.
Two days later, on 21st August, the symptoms of pneumonia appeared, and he retired to bed with a high fever. Although not an old man, his physique had been undermined by years in prison, and overwork in pastoral labours. A doctor was summoned but could do little, with the limited medical knowledge of the day, to help him. He became delirious, and his mind and speech wandered to people and things of far away and long ago. His closest friends, John Strudwick, George Cokayn, John Gammon, and Charles Doe were constantly with him. He probably did not know how ill he was, and how close to the last River of which he had written so superbly. Neither did his friends realize it, or they would have sent for Elizabeth.
John himself did not know of the sudden death of his friend Sir John Shorter, ex-Lord Mayor of London. He had been to open the famous Bartholomew Fair, and returning was on his way to see John Bunyan in his sick room, when, only a few minutes walk from Strudwick’s house Sir John was thrown from his horse, and died two or three days later. But John and Sir John certainly met shortly in the Celestial City.
On Friday, 31st August 1688 John Bunyan lay with closed eyes, fighting for breath. He must have realised that he was dying. George Cokayn says that he bore his sufferings “with much constancy and patience; and expressed himself as if he desired nothing more than to be dissolved and to be with Christ … and resigned his soul into the hands of his most merciful redeemer.” And then, a little while later, quietly he died. And for him, too, all the trumpets sounded on the other side!
Two days later the sorrowful tidings reached Bedford, a grievous blow to Elizabeth and the children, and painful also to his friends at the Bedford Meeting. William Hawkes, John Gifford’s son-in-law, recorded John’s death in the Church Book: “Wednesday, 4th of September, was kept in prayer and humiliation for this heavy stroke upon us, the death of dear Brother Bunyan. Appointed also that Wednesday next be kept in prayer and humiliation on the same account.” Yet another day, 18th September, was also set aside for the same purpose. John was greatly loved by his people; it was three years before another Pastor was appointed.
On 3rd September 1688 John Bunyan was buried in Bunhill Fields, the City cemetery near Aldersgate. George Cokayn conducted the funeral service in the presence of many mourners all Puritans from London Noncomformist congregations. No doubt he paid a glowing tribute to John’s faith, spirit, and writings. Many Dissenters were buried in Bunhill Fields, including John Owen, Daniel Defoe, Isaac Watts, William Blake, Susannah Wesley, mother of John and Charles, and Henry Cromwell, great-great grandson of Oliver. John Strudwick provided a new vault for his dead guest beneath the plane trees. A well-carved effigy of John Bunyan was placed on the tomb in 1861, with sculptured pictures of Christian carrying and losing his burden. In December 1940 and in May 1941 Nazi bombers heavily attacked the City of London and Bunyan’s tomb and many others were damaged, but as far as possible the damage has been repaired.
The tinker who in 1650 began housekeeping with his Mary without so much as a dish or spoon between them, was rather better endowed when he died. The Puritan virtues of industry, frugality, and thrift stood him in good stead, as they would us if we practised them. A prolonged search failed to reveal the Deed of gift, and so the administration of his estate was granted to Elizabeth and two of his Bedford friends, Thomas Woodward, Maltster, and William Nichols, Draper. So to her came “all and singular my goods, chattels, debts, ready money, plate, rings, household stuff, apparel, utensils, brass, pewter, bedding, and all other my substance whatsoever”. The total value amounted to £42.95p, perhaps more than £500 of our money today. It appeared, also, that he owned the modest dwelling in St Cuthbert’s parish where he lived.
At the end of 1688 The Acceptable Sacrifice was published with a preface by George Cokayn. Among John’s papers Elizabeth found a number of unpublished manuscripts which he had prepared for the press. But how to proceed with them? On the advice of one of his publishers, Nathaniel Ponder, she inserted an advertisement in the Mercurius Reformatus, one of the newspapers of the time: “Mr John Bunyan, Author of The Pilgrim’s Progress and many other excellent books, that have found great acceptance, hath left behind him ten manuscripts prepared by himself for the press before his death: his Widow is desired to print them … which will make a book for 10 shillings, in sheets, in folio. All persons who desire so great and good a work should be performed with speed, are desired to send in five shillings for their first payment to Norman Newman at the King’s Arms in the Poultrey, London.”
This notice caught the eager eye of Charles Doe, who proceeded post-haste to Bedford and interviewed Elizabeth and studied the manuscripts. A deal was soon made and so, devoted follower of John Bunyan as he was, Charles Doe became a publisher as well as a comb-maker. In his Folio of 1692 Doe published twelve of the manuscripts, previously mentioned, and in 1698 The Heavenly Footman. In all he sold about 3,000 of Bunyan’s books.
Elizabeth lived on in the little house in Bedford where she died in 1691, loved and honoured by all. Like her John’s Christiana, she no doubt called for some Bedford Great-heart and Valiant-for-truth, to whom she commended her children for their spiritual care. “The last word she was heard to say was, ‘I come, Lord, to be with Thee and bless thee’. “… So she went and called, and entered in at the Gate with all the ceremonies of joy that her husband Christian had done before her.”