One morning John Bunyan was trundling his barrow through the streets of Bedford intent on getting work from the housewives. His clear voice rang out through the district and many pots, kettles, and scissors were brought to him. In one of the streets he paused between jobs to rest, and as he did so he saw three or four poor women sitting at a door in the sunshine engaged in earnest conversation. That it was not empty gossip John was sure, for there was no laughter to be heard, and every face had a solemn expression as though what they talked about was deadly serious. Curious, he drew near and lingered nearby to hear what it was all about. He soon learned. They were talking about the things of God.
Although he did not yet know it they were among the twelve foundation members of the Puritan Free Church recently established in Bedford, under John Gifford, the first pastor. Bunyan fancied himself as a brisk talker in religion, as Talkative his later invention was, and thought he might as well join in and add his wisdom to theirs. But to his dismay he found himself quite out of his depth; indeed, their conversation was far above and beyond him. “Their talk,” he tells us, “was about a new birth, the work of God on their hearts, also how they were convinced of their miserable state by nature. They talked how God had visited their souls with His love in the Lord Jesus, and with what words and promises they had been refreshed, comforted, and supported against the temptations of the devil.” Not only the matter of their talk impressed John, though as yet he did not understaid it, but also the manner of it, for “they spake as if joy did make them speak; they spake with such pleasantness of Scripture language, and with such appearance of grace in all they said, that they were to me as if they had found a new world.” So, indeed, they had, the world of truth and salvation and Christ, instead of that of ignorance and sin and Satan. This was rather like an informal “experience meeting” before the time of John Wesley. How few today get together to tell of God’s dealings with their souls, and of his gracious work of sanctification in their lives. Plenty of talk at sunlit doors concerning sport, politics, strikes, inflation, last night’s television programme—but how little about the things of God and of eternity!
In one of his illuminating lectures on Grace Abounding, Dr Alexander Whyte has this to say about these poor women of Bedford sitting talking in the sunshine. “From this page of John Bunyan we learn this also, what and where is the true Church of Christ on the earth. The true test of a true Church as of a true tree is its fruit. Those three or four poor women were the true tests and the true seals of the true Church of Christ in Bedford. It is of next to no consequence how the Church of Christ is governed, whether by popes, or by cardinals, or by bishops, by presbyters, or by managers: a true Church is known not by its form of government but by its fruits; by the walk and the conversation of its members The one thing of any real consequence for a Church is this: What do her people, and especially what do her poor women talk about when they meet and sit down in the sun? ‘Have you forgot the close, and the milk-house, and the stable, and the barn, where God did visit your souls?’ asks Bunyan of his first readers. That is the true communion roll which has a people upon it like that. That is the true Church of Christ and He will acknowledge no other.” And Dr Whyte concludes by quoting the famous text in Malachi 3:16-17—”Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another; and the Lord hearkened and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of Hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him.”
It was some while before John came into the full assurance of saving faith. He was going through a period of introspection and retrospection that kept him in an unsettled state, largely the result, no doubt, of contact with Puritan preachers and soldiers in the army. Texts torn from their contexts, doubts, voices, hopes, fears formed a “miry slough” through which he waded. He could never have written as he did years later had he not himself experienced the spiritual conflicts through which his pilgrims had to go.
The immediate effect of the conversation of the women that he heard was to make him distrust his apparent religious condition. This was all to the good, for self-deception is a bondage that still keeps many from knowing the saving grace of Christ. He realised that he had never thought before of the absolute necessity of the new birth; nor did he know the comfort and promises of the Word of God; still less did he know the deceitfulness and treachery of his own wicked heart. “As for my secret thoughts, I took no notice of them.”
But he thought much of what he had heard and contrived to go again and again to that part of Bedford in the hope of hearing them talk of the things of God again. “I could not stay away,” he tells us. All unknown to himself the grace of God was at work in his heart. He became constrained by the Scriptures they quoted, meditated on them, so that, as he says, “my mind was fixed on Eternity.” The Bible became precious to him. He even began to read the letters of Paul.
One day he met in a country lane an old acquaintance of his named Harry, who when asked how he was, replied that he was well, followed by an outburst of profane oaths. John, who himself used to talk like this, was genuinely shocked. “But Harry,” he said, “why do you curse and swear so? What will become of you if you die in this condition?” Harry looked at his former companion in vice with anger and contempt. “Why, what would the devil do for company”, he shrugged, “if it were not for such as I?” This encounter, too, made an impact on his soul.
In his travelling among the villages he came upon some people who belonged to the sect called Ranters, loose and shallow sectarians, antinomian in doctrine; but he found no comfort or wisdom in their fanatical notions. Then, one day as he walked from Llstow to Bedford, the idea came to him to test whether he had faith or no. There were many puddles on the road—why not tell the puddles to be dry, and the dry places puddles? But he did not think that he could pray about it, and this discouraged him from the attempt.
Strangely the waves of spiritual conflict surged and swelled, ebbed and flowed. He gained more and more light from the Bedford women members of Mr Gifford’s Church. His powerful imagination presented them in a kind of vision, as if they lived in the pleasant warmth on the sunny side of a high mountain, while he was shivering and shrinking in the cold, afflicted with frost, snow, and dark clouds. But a great wall stood between them and himself, which he greatly desired to pass so that he might join them. He began to realise that he had been trying to change and develop his character into that of a saved child of God, and had not till now realised the need of supernatural power and heavenly grace to do it for him. He wanted what they had. He remembered that the Puritan preachers made much of the “effectual call” of Christ to folk to come to him in faith. He longed for Christ to say to him, “Follow me.” “I cannot now express,” he was to write long afterwards, “with what longings and breakings in my soul I cried to Christ to call me. Thus I continued for a time, all on a flame to be converted to Jesus Christ … How lovely now was everyone in my eyes that I thought to be converted men and women! They shone, they walked like people that carried the broad seal of Heaven about them.”
Then he did the sensible thing and told the godly women of Bedford that he too longed for the new birth. They in turn, very wisely introduced him to their pastor John Gifford, who became to John Bunyan both his Evangelist and his Interpreter. They could not have done better, for Gifford himself had had a narrow escape from the City of Destruction, and this was now to be John’s experience also.
John Gifford is easily the most arresting character in the Bunyan story, apart from Bunyan himself. He had had a strange career. On the 1st June 1648 a very bitter fight was fought at Maidstone in Kent in a rain-storm, between the Parliamentary forces under Fairfax and a Royalist body, making insurrection in a lost cause on behalf of Charles. Sir Thomas Fairfax never performed a more brilliant exploit than when on that one memorable night at Maidstone the Royalist insurrection was stamped out and extinguished in its own blood. Hundreds of dead bodies filled the streets of the town, hundreds of the enemy were taken prisoners, while hundreds more hid in the hop-fields and woods around the town only to fall into Fairfax’s hands the next morning. Among the prisoners was John Gifford, a Royalist major of dragoons, a Kentish man of good family, but known as a fierce and notorious swashbuckler. He had been a leader in the Maidstone uprising and was one of the very few prisoners condemned to death. On the night before his execution, by the courtesy of Fairfax himself, Gifford’s sister was permitted to visit her brother in prison. The guards were overcome by weariness and drink and lay heavily asleep; Gifford’s sister urged him to escape, and showed him the door to freedom. He got clear away without discovery. For three days he lay in hiding in a ditch, and when the hue and cry after him had died down, he went in disguise to London, and thence to the shelter of some friends of his at Bedford. Here he married and settled down to the practice of medicine which he had studied before he entered the army.
Gifford had been a dissolute man as a soldier and he became a still more scandalously dissolute man as a civilian. He spent much time with the wine cup and the dice-box. His hatred and opposition to the Puritans of Bedford made his name an infamy and a fear. He reduced himself almost to beggary with gambling and drink, and when near suicide God laid mighty hold upon him and he came under the power of the truth. In the providence of God there came into his hands a Puritan book by John Bolton, The Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Hell and Heaven, published in 1633. The Bedford Church Book records it thus: “Something therein took hold upon him and brought him into a great sense of shame, wherein he continued for ye space of a moneth or above. But at last God did so plentifully discover to him by His word the forgiveness of his sins for the sake of Christ, that (as he hath by severall of the brethren been heard to say) all his life after, which was about ye space of five yeares he lost not the light of God’s countenance.” Converted he surely was, and his changed life was apparent to all who knew him. In a very short time he was in fellowship with the leading Puritans of Bedford. His talents could not be hid, and before long he was exhorting the saints at meetings in their homes, organising them into a spiritual society, and then becoming their minister and gathering a sizeable congregation drawn from the town and surrounding villages.
Very soon, wonder upon wonders, John Gifford was actually appointed parish minister of St John’s Church, Bedford, under Cromwell’s evangelical but otherwise inclusive ecclesiastical establishment. Oliver Cromwell, though a strict Calvinist himself, was extremely tolerant of all forms of Christianity except episcopacy and papacy. Any peaceable Christian, he insisted, was entitled to liberty of worship as he thought fit. He sought to establish one Church in which all true believers could worship. In his State Church the parish clergy might have been Presbyterians, Independents, Baptists, or even former Episcopalians who accepted the new situation. During the Interregnum about two thousand clergy out of nine thousand parishes in the country gave up their benefices, so that a substantial majority of English clergy carried on as usual—as Christopher Hall at Elstow did. Under Cromwell two sets of officials governed Church leadership: there were Triers, godly ministers who had to examine new incumbents; and there were Ejectors, prominent local Puritan citizens with local knowledge, who could deprive them of their benefices if they neglected their duties or led immoral lives.
As Lord Protector, Dr Maurice Ashley reminds us, Cromwell maintained the system of paying clergy out of tithes and he allowed lay patrons to appoint parish clergy. It was in this way, through the commendation of leading Puritan citizens of Bedford, that John Gifford was appointed parish minister of St John’s. Cromwell’s inclusive Church Establishment might be the scorn of the prelatic party, but it was a genuine attempt to obtain order in the Church, without enforcing restricting regulations regarding, for example, the administration of baptism. He would have liked to make the National Church the comprehensive Church that his friend Dr John Owen sought. But Cromwell did not live long enough to see this come about. The Roman Catholic sympathies of both Charles II and James II were decisive against such a system: during their reigns Nonconformists looked back to the Cromwellian Protectorate as a golden age of liberty and peace.
So in 1653 Cromwell’s Commissioners, satisfied that John Gifford had the root of the matter in him, appointed the ex-major to the sequestrated living of St John’s, Bedford. The Bedford dissenting congregation had been founded in 1650 with some of the leading citizens, including an ex-Mayor, belonging to it. When Gifford became their Pastor at the small Church of St John’s, as the Church Book records: “They made choice of Brother Gifford to be their Pastor, or elder, to minister to them the things of the Kingdom of God, to whom they had given themselves before; wherefore Brother Gifford accepted of the charge and gave himself up to the Lord and to His people, to walke with them, watch over them, and dispense the mysteries of the Gospel among them.”
The Church thus reformed by him consisted of twelve members “in the Congregational way”. Their principal of union was stated as follows: “Now the principle upon which they thus entered into fellowship one with another, and upon which they did afterwards receive those that were added to their body and fellowship, was Faith in Christ and Holiness of life, without respect to this or that circumstance or opinion in outward and circumstantial things. By which means grace and faith was encouraged, love and amity maintained, disputings and occasion to janglings and unprofitable questions avoided, and many that were weak in the faith confirmed in the blessing of eternal life.” It was this simple principle of church unity that so influenced John Bunyan and moulded his own views of church fellowship and the sacraments in days to come. This remarkable Church still exists in Bedford, proud of its association with John Gifford and John Bunyan.
Brother Gifford, or “holy Mr Gifford” as Bunyan calls him, invited John to St John’s rectory for conversation, and there in his spacious garden, he opened up to the troubled tinker the way of salvation—repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Lovingly, patiently, and clearly he did it, and Bunyan’s burden was slowly lifted and his guilty conscience healed as he drank in the spiritual truths Gifford showed him in private talk and public exhortation. Eagerly Bunyan attended Gifford’s ministry at St John’s. One sermon by Gifford on a text from the “Song of Songs” —”Behold, thou art fair, my love”, reminded the hearers that the love of Christ was not ,as John was inclined to think, withheld from the tempted and afflicted soul. This promise filled him with so much hope, Bunyan tells us, that he felt he could have spoken of God’s mercy to the crows that sat on the ploughed fields. In Grace Abounding, paragraph 89, we have John Gifford’s sermon outline, and very good it is.
John Bunyan continued for more than a year in a state of spiritual uncertainty. Sometimes a text would lift his soul on high, but a day or so later another text would send him to despair. He was altogether too introspective. In the pages of Grace Abounding he sets down at length these spiritual struggles, which we need not further discuss here. Eventually, however, the truth gripped his soul that through the sin-atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and through faith in his finished work for sinners he could be forgiven and become a true child of God. The text, “He hath made peace by the blood of his cross” was a powerful message to his soul. He received Christ as his Saviour in true repentance for sin, and simple faith and promised obedience, and his struggles were over. In the process he came across a tattered copy of Luther’s Commentary on the Epistle of St Paul to the Galatians, in a shop, which he bought and carried home to study. It was so old that it almost fell to pieces in his hand. It was greatly to his enlightening and strengthening, for Martin Luther had known spiritual struggles similar to his own. “I do prefer this book of Martin Luther upon the Galatians,” he tells us, “(excepting the Holy Bible) before all the books that ever I have seen, as most fit for a wounded conscience.”
John Bunyan was formally received into the Puritan Church at Bedford worshipping in St John’s Church, in 1653. He was still living at Elstow, but had been attending Gifford’s ministry since 1651. Some biographers, who should have known better, boldly stated that Bunyan joined the Baptist Church at Bedford. This is a mistake. There was no Baptist Church in Bedford in 1653 or for many years afterwards. Gifford’s church fellowship, as we have seen, was a Union Church, comprising both Congregational and Baptist members. Tradition has it that Gifford baptized John Bunyan one dark night by immersion in the river Ouse, and a place is pointed out where baptizing later on took place. It is indeed possible, but there is no record of this happening, and John himself never mentions it. Only twice between 1650 and 1690 is baptism mentioned in the Church Book of Bedford Meeting, and neither of these is of John Bunyan. At any time between his conversion and his death he would have denied that he was a Baptist—or Anabaptist as the denomination was then known. In his attitude to baptism and other forms of ritual he was deeply influenced by the principles of John Gifford his pastor, and later by those of his friend William Dell who would have abandoned baptism altogether. Writing a farewell letter to the Bedford Church a little before he died John Gifford clearly warned them to avoid “separation from the Church about baptisme, laying on of hands, Anoynting with Oyls, Psalmes, or any externalls”. He urged them instead to concentrate on the fundamental truths of the faith. Baptism, he considered, was not one of these. Nor was it to John Bunyan. He did not “preach up” baptism of believers by immersion, as some did in his day, and some do today. Indeed, he was to engage in controversy with some London Baptists of the stricter sort. Towards the end of his book, A Confession of my Faith he dealt briefly with the terms on which Christians should be admitted to Communion. He deplores undue attention being given to questions of ritual, “taking off Christians from the more mighty things of God, and to make them quarrel and have heart-burnings one against another.”
This tolerance exposed him to a violent attack by three leaders of the more rigid type of London Baptist, William Kiffin, and two colleagues Paul and D’Anvers. He replied to them in 1673 in Differences in Judgement about Water Baptism no Bar to Communion. “I dare not say,” he wrote, “No matter whether water-baptism be practised or not’. But it is not a stone in the foundation of a church … The saint is a saint before, and may walk with God, and be faithful with the saints, and to his own light also, although he never be baptised … I am for communion with saints because they are saints; show me the man that is a visible believer, and although he differ with me about baptism, the doors of the church stand open for him.” And he is resolved to have nothing to do with the nomenclature of the sects. “I must tell you, I know none to whom that title (Baptist) is so proper as to the disciples of John. And since you would know by what name I would be distinguished from others, I tell you I would be, and I hope I am, a CHRISTIAN, and choose, if God should count me worthy, to be called a Christian, a Believer, or other such name as is approved by the Holy Ghost. And as for those factious titles of Anabaptists, Independents, Presbyterians, or the like, I conclude that they came neither from Jerusalem nor Antioch (where disciples were first called Christians) but from Hell and Babylon, for they naturally tend to divisions.” This was always John Bunyan’s position. He was non-sectarian and Evangelical in the best sense.
The members of the Bedford Church joined in fellowship on the principle of “faith in Christ and holiness of life, without respect to this or that circumstance or opinion in outward and circumstantial things.” This was ever Bunyan’s rule and practice concerning church membership.
In 1654 when blind Mary was nearly four years old, a second daughter Elizabeth was born at Elstow, and was christened and registered at the Abbey Church. John seems to have made no objection to infant baptism. A year later he removed his family to a cottage in the parish of St Cuthbert’s in Bedford, so that he could more easily attend the ministry of John Gifford. It was a modest house with a gabled roof above the door, with two small living rooms on either side of it, and bedrooms above. The small room on the right became known as “Bunyan’s Parlour”, and the upper bar of the grate was a steelyard inscribed with the initials “J. B.”.
John Gifford was pastor of the Bedford congregation for nearly five years. He had a remarkable influence as a preacher, and throngs of people from villages round about Bedford attended his ministry. Many villagers of Elstow, seeing the difference in John Bunyan’s heart and life also began to frequent St John’s. Gifford died in 1655, and was buried in the churchyard of St John’s, although no stone marks the spot. He was greatly mourned by many in the town of Bedford and the surrounding area. He was a true Mr Great-heart and a Valiant-for-Truth. And to lead John Bunyan to true faith in Christ was a work for which the world-wide Church of God should be abundantly thankful.
John Bunyan, by God’s grace, has now left the City of Destruction and is firmly set on the pilgrim highway of spiritual life that leads to the Celestial City. But many are to be his trials and frustrations, as well as his joys and triumphs, before he safely reaches his goal.