Life as a soldier had been singularly care-free. Taking up civilian life again brought many trials, anxieties, and conflicts of conscience. He had left home a boy; he returned a man. We do not know how he was received at the cottage in the fields, but very probably he was warmly welcomed, especially as Thomas now had an additional helper at the forge and on his daily rounds. Thomas had written to his son at Newport Pagnell several times, giving him the local news, such as the visit of Oliver Cromwell with 600 horse to Bedford in June 1645, and how in August the king himself with 300 Royalist horse had plundered the village of Goldington, and how Charles had entered Bedford only to be driven off by Lt-Col Richard Cokayn, who fought a brilliant rear-guard action at Bedford Bridge. Family news had been sent too, such as the death of John’s half-brother Charles in May 1645, and the birth of another brother, Thomas, a year later.
Events in the nation seemed to go from bad to worse. The Parliamentary party was almost fiercely divided, the Presbyterians in league with the Scots, demanding uniformity of worship on the Geneva model, and the Independents, especially those in the army (where they were in a majority), seeking toleration and freedom of conscience, and the setting up of Independent Churches on Congregational lines. Both sections were endeavouring to come to terms with Charles, who played off one against the other. It was a sad day for England when the Commons lost Hampden and Pym, wise and constructive statesmen who might well have resolved matters with a constitutional monarchy. If this had been brought about, and it is not certain that it could have been for Charles was a most tricky and unreliable monarch, the Puritans would have been spared persecution, and John Bunyan his twelve years’ imprisonment.
He did not spend over-much time puzzling over national events. To begin with he flung himself into his father’s work; the old skill soon returned, and soon also his seven-year apprenticeship to his father was completed, and he himself recognized and accepted as a fully trained brazier, under the Statute of Apprentices. His step-mother and her children doubtless made the cottage a happy home, but increasingly John felt that he did not belong to it and constantly thought of seeking a home of his own. He was nineteen years of age.
To set himself up as an independent tinker or brazier Bunyan had to make or acquire the tools required for his trade. No doubt with the approval and help of his father John acquired a hammer, soldering iron, a pair of pliers, snippers for cutting tin, and a “roundhead” for shaping the lids of kettles and saucepans. Most important and more costly, was an anvil, and John decided that he would forge this heavy instrument himself, with the help of a Bedford moulder whom he knew. It had a spear-point to hold it firm in a metal or wooden base and when it was finished it weighed sixty pounds. When it was completed he carved his name on it—J. BVNYAN, and on the other side the date 1647 and the word “HELSTOWE”. In 1905 this very anvil was discovered in a marine store in St. Neots where it had lain for forty years. Its history was carefully traced back through a number of owners, and ultimately, it is alleged, to an Elstow innkeeper who took the anvil and some other tools from John Bunyan to pay a debt. There is some doubt about the latter part of this story, but that the anvil was actually John Bunyan’s there is no doubt. The signature has been compared to other Bunyan signatures known to be genuine, and the V in BVNYAN agrees with the same letter in John’s copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Other experts have examined the anvil and declare it to be of seventeenth century workmanship. It is now one of the most prized Bunyan relics at the Bunyan Meeting in Mill Street, Bedford.
The shock of horror that swept through England at the trial and execution of Charles I on January 30, 1649 reached Elstow also, but we have no means of knowing how John reacted to it. He was busy with his work, perhaps preparing for marriage, or even enjoying married life. For he married in 1648 or 1649. We have no knowledge of the date, or the church where he was married, or even the name of his first wife. All he tells us in Grace Abounding, paragraph 15, is—”Presently after this, I changed my condition into a married state, and my mercy was to light upon a wife whose father was counted godly. This woman and I, though we came together as poor as poor might be (not having so much household stuff as a dish or spoon betwixt us both) …”
There is no registration of this marriage in any of the parish registers of Elstow, Bedford or neighbouring places. Because of the Civil War registers were not scrupulously kept and were sometimes destroyed. When in 1645 Parliament dissolved the Established Church as it had previously existed, marriages were allowed to be made before a magistrate, whose records also were often carelessly kept, lost or destroyed. Bunyan’s wife may have been a childhood friend from Elstow, or someone he had met at Bedford. But it is equally possible, and much more likely, that John met her at Newport Pagnell when he was a soldier. She may well have been a relation or friend of John’s bookseller friend Matthias Cowley. She may have been a member of the family with which John was billeted. We do not even know her name, but from the fact that often in those days the first-born daughter was called after her mother, and John’s elder daughter was called Mary, his first wife might well have been Mary. Of her surname we have no knowledge. She would appear to have been an orphan. Strange as it may seem, she was never a member of the Bedford Puritan Church, but appears to have remained an Anglican.
John and Mary Bunyan (if Mary was indeed her name) rented a small cottage in the main street of Elstow village. It had a lean-to shack at one side which he used as a workshop, and a small garden behind where they probably kept a few chickens. It was cheaply built of timber and pebble stones, and here John found a home brightened by peace and love. Somehow they managed to get some furniture and household things together, from the gifts of friends, well-wishers among his customers, and his own earnings. The cottage pointed out to visitors to Elstow as the one in which John lived is certainly not in the same condition as it was in Bunyan’s day, for it has plainly been rebuilt, has a tiled roof whereas Bunyan’s cottage was thatched, and the lean-to forge has gone. But it is probably not the original Bunyan cottage at all, for James Copner, Vicar of Elstow for many years, and a local antiquarian, says that Bunyan’s cottage was demolished about 1836 and another built on its site.
“There was no imprudence in this early marriage,” comments Robert Southey, not because John had a trade to support them, but because “the girl had been trained up in the way she should go.” She certainly had, and Bunyan himself describes this as “a mercy”. She was gentle, affectionate, and religious. Her father was an Anglican Puritan. “She would be often telling me,” says Bunyan in Grace Abounding, “what a godly man her father was, and how he would reprove and correct vice, both in his house, and amongst his neighbours; what a strict and holy life he lived in his day both in word and deed.” His wife’s reminiscences had some spiritual effect on John and made him a more regular church-goer.
Mary’s dowry consisted of two devotional books left her by her father. The first was, The Plain Man Pathway to Heaven, published in 1601 by Arthur Dent, the parish minister of Shoebury in Essex. It was really a sermon on repentance, and had reached its twenty-fourth edition by 1637. In an Introduction, Puritan Dent assured his readers that his book did not meddle with Church controversies, but only entered on “a controversie with Sathan and sin.” It was a book of 423 pages and was in the form of a conversation between Theologus a divine; Philagathas, an honest man; Asunetas, an ignorant man; and Antilegon, a caviller. Such topics as original sin, worldly corruption, salvation and damnation were discussed with light and heat. It made some impression upon John when he first read it, and thirty years later when he was writing The Life and Death of Mr Badman, he used the dialogue technique of Arthur Dent.
The second book that Mary Bunyan possessed was The Practice of Piety, also very popular in its day especially amongst Puritans. It was published in 1612 by Lewis Bayly of Evesham, afterwards Bishop of Bangor. It was written for the purpose of “directing a Christian how to walke, that hee may please God.” James Frazer of Brea, the Minister of Culross and a notable Scottish Presbyterian leader, was converted through reading it. The book consisted of Meditations on “the Essence and Attributes of God, out of the Holy Scriptures”.
These two books John and his Mary read together in the evening after the toil of the day was done and he says that “though they did not reach my heart to awaken it about my sad and sinful state, yet they did beget within me some desires after religion; so that, because I knew no better, I fell in very eagerly with the religion of the times; to wit, to go to Church twice a day … and there should very devoutly both say and sing as others did, yet retaining my wicked life.”
The vicar of Elstow was Christopher Hall who was appointed in 1639 by Archbishop Laud, but managed to hold his appointment through the Civil Wars, the Commonwealth and the Protectorate, thanks in part to Cromwell’s flexible ecclesiastical policy. The truth was that, although hardly a strict Puritan, he held some of their views in a moderate way, was a supporter of the Parliamentary side in the war, and yet seems to have continued to use the proscribed Prayer Book, or parts of it, at his services. When the Restoration came in 1660 he was allowed to continue in his post. It is difficult to judge whether he was a man of courageous principle, or a Mr Facing-both-ways, but on the whole he would appear to have been the former. To this good man and his services and sermons John Bunyan began constantly to resort, sitting beside Mary on the unvarnished bench near the high oak-carved pulpit, still to be seen in Elstow Church.
Bunyan tells us that in his attendance at the Parish Church he was “so overrun with the spirit of superstition, that I adored, and that with great devotion, even all things (both the High Place, Priest, Clerk, Vestment, Service, and what else) belonging to the Church; counting all things holy that were therein contained, and especially the Priest and Clerk most happy, and without doubt, greatly blessed.” It is surprising to see the liturgical service and vestments continued, when Parliament had supposedly suppressed them, and when anything savouring of episcopacy would have secured the ejection of the vicar. But Christopher Hall was attached to the liturgy, and did not abandon the vestments. He was allowed to continue the use of these no doubt because he was a supporter of the Parliament, and also because Elstow was but a small and obscure place.
As to what John means by “retaining my wicked life” it is not easy to come to a perfectly satisfying conclusion. It appears that he was a leader of the youth in Elstow, and may even have been a popular hero because of his army experience. No doubt he embroidered many tales of adventures and horrors to eager listeners. “It was my delight,” he records, “to be taken captive by the Devil at his will, being filled with all unrighteousness … that from a child I had but few equals both for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy Name of God.” Again, “I did still let loose the reins to my lust, and delighted in all transgression against the Law of God: so that, until I came to the state of marriage, I was the very ringleader of all the youth that kept me company, in all manner of vice and ungodliness. Yes, such prevalency had the lusts and fruits of the flesh in this poor soul of mine, that had not a miracle of precious grace prevented, I had not only perished by the stroke of Eternal Justice, but had also laid myself open even to the stroke of those laws which bring some to disgrace and open shame before the face of the world.”
He tells us also of his prowess in bell-ringing and various sports. One day, he says, as he was standing at a neighbour’s shop-window, “cursing and swearing, and playing the madman after my wonted manner”, the woman of the house who was a very loose and ungodly wretch, came out and reproved him, and told him that he was likely to spoil all the youth of the town. This shamed him, and made him wish that his father had not given him such a bad example in this way. Strangely enough, he immediately left off swearing and could “speak better and with more pleasantness than ever I could before”. His vocabulary was enlarged and purified.
Probably it is best not to imagine that Bunyan’s early years of manhood were spent in extreme profligacy. It must be remembered that the Puritans were great soul-searchers and delighted to “keep close accounts with God”, their consciences accusing them severely for the least departure from the strait and narrow way. In October 1638 Oliver Cromwell wrote to his cousin Mrs Oliver St John: “The Lord accept me in His Son, and give me to walk in the light, as He is the light! He it is that enlighteneth our blackness, our darkness. I dare not say He hideth His face from me. He giveth me to see light in His light … blessed be His name for shining upon so dark a heart as mine! You know what my manner of life hath been. Oh, I lived in, and loved darkness, and hated light; I was a chief, the chief of sinners. This is true: I hated godliness, yet God had mercy on me!” This is a typical Puritan statement of a man who regarded his sins as more heinous than others would. It may equally have been so with John Bunyan whose worst faults were no doubt swearing, lying, drinking, gambling and Sunday sports. And of course these would appear in darker colours after his conversion.
Although Christopher Hall had been appointed to his parish by Laud he did not follow that unfortunate cleric’s “Book of Sports”, so hated by the Puritans. Indeed, one Sunday the vicar preached a powerful sermon against Sunday sports, no doubt going into details about them and the vile influence they would have on the spiritual life. To John, a great lover of the parson’s sermons, this was a blow indeed. He went home conscience-stricken, thinking that Hall had preached the sermon “on purpose to show me my evil-doing”. And perhaps he had!
But after a good dinner he shook the sermon out of his mind, and joined his sporting companions on the village green for a game of “Cat”. This game is still played in Bedfordshire. On this particular Sunday afternoon John had struck the peg out of the hole into the air, and club in hand he strode after it to strike it again. But before he did so he hesitated, and listened like one who heard an unexpected call. Eternity seemed to take the place of time. “A voice”, he tells us, “did suddenly dart from Heaven into my soul, which said, ‘Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to Heaven, or have thy sins and go to Hell?’ ” This is the relevant and immediate question—even for people today! The ultimate alternatives presented themselves to Bunyan there on the village green. He dropped his club to the ground, looked up to Heaven, and it seemed to him as though the Lord Jesus looked down upon him—”hotly displeased with me” on account of his ungodly practices. As he mused he came to the conclusion “that I had been a great and grievous sinner, and that it was now too late for me to look after Heaven; for Christ would not forgive me, nor pardon my transgressions … I resolved in my mind I would go on in sin: for, thought I, if the case be thus, my state is surely miserable. Miserable if I leave my sins, and but miserable if I follow them.” All this and more crossed his mind in an instant between one blow at the “cat” and the next. Although his companions looked at him curiously, he chose to tell them nothing, and they all resumed the game.
But the voice from Heaven had deeply impressed him, and the tremendous question with which he was faced—”Heaven or Hell?”—refused to be banished from his mind. Undoubtedly remembered scraps of Puritan sermons heard at Newport Pagnell stirred his conscience. It is most likely that great stress was laid on divine judgement and doom against sin and sinners. What Bunyan needed was a wise and loving person who could show him God’s great love and power in sending his Son to take away sin by his sacrifice on the Cross, and that by repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ he could be forgiven, freed from sin, and receive the gift of eternal life. But it seems that no one ever helped John in the spiritual burden of his soul, and for three or four years he was tormented by guilt, doubt, fears and many imagined horrors. The time was to come when the burden would be lifted by the very One he thought looked in condemnation upon him; and it is certain that when he became a true believer and a preacher of the everlasting Gospel he had winsome power, borne of experience, to lead troubled souls to Christ and his grace.
Meanwhile, with Mary, he began to read the Bible, especially the historical parts, but “as for Paul’s epistles and suchlike Scriptures, I could not away with them, being as yet but ignorant, either of the corruptions of my nature, or of the want and worth of Jesus Christ to save me.” There was some outward reformation in his conduct, which impressed his neighbours who took him “to be a very godly man, a new and religious man, and did marvel much to see such a great and famous alteration in my life and manners.” But all was not well within. In addition, another burden was added to them. Their first child, a daughter, was born to Mary and John, and on 20th July 1650 Christopher Hall christened her “Mary”. They rejoiced in her birth, but to their dismay soon found that she was blind. It was a sore blow to them, particularly to John who later wrote of her—”my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had beside”.
Before the divine question came to him on the village green John had greatly enjoyed ringing the bells of Elstow steeple. There are five bells, and tradition has it that Bunyan was in charge of number four. Sunday by Sunday, and at bell-ringing practices, sturdy and muscular John pulled away with all his heart. But now he began to have qualms about it. It was a vanity, not fitting to a religious man. With much regret he gave it up, although so fond of it was he that he would stand in the belfry doorway to watch the ringers. Then the thought came to him. Suppose one of the bells fell on him and killed him! About that very time a flash of lightning had struck a nearby village church and killed a man who was tolling the bell. Or suppose the steeple should fall! John knew that he was not ready to face death as yet, and so the bell-ringing was given up and he kept away from the belfry. But he did not lose the love of the bells, and years later when writing The Pilgrim’s Progress he made all the bells of the Celestial City ring out to welcome Christian and Hopeful. He even wrote some verses about them:
Bells have wide mouths and tongues, but are too weak,
Have they not help, to sing, or talk, or speak,
But if you move them they will mak’t appear
By speaking they’ll make all the Town to hear. When ringers handle them with Art and Skill,
They then the ears of their Observers fill,
With such brave Notes, they ting and tang so well As to outstrip all with their ding, dong, Bell.
And he ends with this reference to himself and his long-past days:
O Lord! If Thy poor Child might have his will
And might his meaning freely to Thee tell,
He never of this Musick has his fill,
There’s nothing to him like thy ding, dong, Bell.
It was harder still for John to give up dancing, of which he was very fond and he hung on to this pastime for a year, but in the end his accusing conscience bade him give it up also.
All this time Bunyan was very busily engaged in his calling, at his forge adjoining his cottage, or travelling to other villages and to Bedford in pursuit of work. Often the tinker’s cry was heard from his lips in village street or Bedford market-place—”Pots to mend, knives to grind”, varied with, “Have you any work for a tinker? Have you any old bellows to mend?” Work there was in plenty and he prospered. During 1650 his occupation took him to the village of Willington, four miles east of Bedford. Here was the mansion of the Gostwick family, renowned in English history, one of their ancestors being most valiant at the Field of the Cloth of Gold; another, Sir John Gostwick, Master of the Horse to King Henry the Eighth, helped Thomas Cromwell to suppress the monasteries. Within the Gostwick estate stood two finely built outbuildings, a dove-cote and a cow-house, and John’s task was to repair the metal-work on these centuries old structures. The dove-cote, for some reason or other, was called “King Henry’s Stable”, and here in a large upper chamber stood an open fire-place. On this John carved his name with his tinker’s tools:
It is still a fascinating sight for Bunyan lovers.
His inward struggles continued and increased. He saw himself as “nothing but a poor painted hypocrite”. But he was proud of his new godliness and did all he could to be seen and be well spoken of by men. No doubt it was also good for business! He made every effort to keep the commandments, and thought that God must be pleased with him. But he was to know later that in God’s sight justification by works or human effort was impossible. He was to learn that justification comes only by faith in the sin-atoning work of the Redeemer. This was the great discovery of the Reformation, and Martin Luther’s “article of a standing or falling Church.” To this experience of trust in the saving mercy of Christ John Bunyan was now to be introduced.