The Life of John Bunyan

Author: Edmund Venables

Chapter VI.

The exaggeration of the severity of Bunyan’s imprisonment long current, now that the facts are better known, has led, by a very intelligible reaction, to an undue depreciation of it. Mr. Froude thinks that his incarceration was "intended to be little more than nominal," and was really meant in kindness by the authorities who "respected his character," as the best means of preventing him from getting himself into greater trouble by "repeating an offence that would compel them to adopt harsh measures which they were earnestly trying to avoid." If convicted again he must be transported, and "they were unwilling to drive him out of the country." It is, however, to be feared that it was no such kind consideration for the tinker-preacher which kept the prison doors closed on Bunyan. To the justices he was simply an obstinate law-breaker, who must be kept in prison as long as he refused compliance with the Act. If he rotted in gaol, as so many of his fellow sufferers for conscience’ sake did in those unhappy times, it was no concern of theirs. He and his stubbornness would be alone to blame.

It is certainly true that during a portion of his captivity, Bunyan, in Dr. Brown’s words, "had an amount of liberty which in the case of a prisoner nowadays would be simply impossible." But the mistake has been made of extending to the whole period an indulgence which belonged only to a part, and that a very limited part of it. When we are told that Bunyan was treated as a prisoner at large, and like one "on parole," free to come and go as he pleased, even as far as London, we must remember that Bunyan’s own words expressly restrict this indulgence to the six months between the Autumn Assizes of 1661 and the Spring Assizes of 1662. "Between these two assizes," he says, "I had by my jailer some liberty granted me more than at the first." This liberty was certainly of the largest kind consistent with his character of a prisoner. The church books show that he was occasionally present at their meetings, and was employed on the business of the congregation. Nay, even his preaching, which was the cause of his imprisonment, was not forbidden. "I followed," he says, writing of this period, "my wonted course of preaching, taking all occasions that were put into my hand to visit the people of God." But this indulgence was very brief and was brought sharply to an end. It was plainly irregular, and depended on the connivance of his jailer. We cannot be surprised that when it came to the magistrates’ ears - "my enemies," Bunyan rather unworthily calls them - they were seriously displeased. Confounding Bunyan with the Fifth Monarchy men and other turbulent sectaries, they imagined that his visits to London had a political object, "to plot, and raise division, and make insurrections," which, he honestly adds, "God knows was a slander." The jailer was all but "cast out of his place," and threatened with an indictment for breach of trust, while his own liberty was so seriously "straitened" that he was prohibited even "to look out at the door." The last time Bunyan’s name appears as present at a church meeting is October 28, 1661, nor do we see it again till October 9, 1668, only four years before his twelve years term of imprisonment expired.

But though his imprisonment was not so severe, nor his prison quite so narrow and wretched as some word-painters have described them, during the greater part of the time his condition was a dreary and painful one, especially when spent, as it sometimes was, "under cruel and oppressive jailers." The enforced separation from his wife and children, especially his tenderly loved blind daughter, Mary, was a continually renewed anguish to his loving heart. "The parting with them," he writes, "hath often been to me as pulling the flesh from the bones; and that not only because I am somewhat too fond of these great mercies, but also because I should often have brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries, and wants my poor family was like to meet with, should I be taken from them; especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer to my heart than all beside. Poor child, thought I, thou must be beaten, thou must beg, thou must suffer hunger, cold, nakedness, and a thousand calamities, though I cannot now endure the wind should blow on thee. O, the thoughts of the hardships my blind one might go under would break my heart to pieces." He seemed to himself like a man pulling down his house on his wife and children’s head, and yet he felt, "I must do it; O, I must do it." He was also, he tells us, at one time, being but "a young prisoner," greatly troubled by the thoughts that "for aught he could tell," his "imprisonment might end at the gallows," not so much that he dreaded death as that he was apprehensive that when it came to the point, even if he made "a scrabbling shift to clamber up the ladder," he might play the coward and so do discredit to the cause of religion. "I was ashamed to die with a pale face and tottering knees for such a cause as this." The belief that his imprisonment might be terminated by death on the scaffold, however groundless, evidently weighed long on his mind. The closing sentences of his third prison book, "Christian Behaviour," published in 1663, the second year of his durance, clearly point to such an expectation. "Thus have I in few words written to you before I die, . . . not knowing the shortness of my life, nor the hindrances that hereafter I may have of serving my God and you." The ladder of his apprehensions was, as Mr. Froude has said, "an imaginary ladder," but it was very real to Bunyan. "Oft I was as if I was on the ladder with a rope about my neck." The thought of it, as his autobiography shows, caused him some of his deepest searchings of heart, and noblest ventures of faith. He was content to suffer by the hangman’s hand if thus he might have an opportunity of addressing the crowd that he thought would come to see him die. "And if it must be so, if God will but convert one soul by my very last words, I shall not count my life thrown away or lost." And even when hours of darkness came over his soul, and he was tempted to question the reality of his Christian profession, and to doubt whether God would give him comfort at the hour of death, he stayed himself up with such bold words as these. "I was bound, but He was free. Yea, ’twas my duty to stand to His word whether He would ever look on me or no, or save me at the last. If God doth not come in, thought I, I will leap off the ladder even blindfold into Eternity, sink or swim, come heaven, come hell. Lord Jesus, if Thou wilt catch me, do. If not, I will venture for Thy name."

Bunyan being precluded by his imprisonment from carrying on his brazier’s craft for the support of his wife and family, and his active spirit craving occupation, he got himself taught how to make "long tagged laces," "many hundred gross" of which, we are told by one who first formed his acquaintance in prison, he made during his captivity, for "his own and his family’s necessities." "While his hands were thus busied," writes Lord Macaulay, "he had often employment for his mind and for his lips." "Though a prisoner he was a preacher still." As with St. Paul in his Roman chains, "the word of God was not bound." The prisoners for conscience’ sake, who like him, from time to time, were cooped up in Bedford gaol, including several of his brother ministers and some of his old friends among the leading members of his own little church, furnished a numerous and sympathetic congregation. At one time a body of some sixty, who had met for worship at night in a neighbouring wood, were marched off to gaol, with their minister at their head. But while all about him was in confusion, his spirit maintained its even calm, and he could at once speak the words of strength and comfort that were needed. In the midst of the hurry which so many "newcomers occasioned," writes the friend to whom we are indebted for the details of his prison life, "I have heard Mr. Bunyan both preach and pray with that mighty spirit of faith and plerophory of Divine assistance that has made me stand and wonder." These sermons addressed to his fellow prisoners supplied, in many cases, the first outlines of the books which, in rapid succession, flowed from his pen during the earlier years of his imprisonment, relieving the otherwise insupportable tedium of his close confinement. Bunyan himself tells us that this was the case with regard to his "Holy City," the first idea of which was borne in upon his mind when addressing "his brethren in the prison chamber," nor can we doubt that the case was the same with other works of his. To these we shall hereafter return. Nor was it his fellow prisoners only who profited by his counsels. In his "Life and Death of Mr. Badman," he gives us a story of a woman who came to him when he was in prison, to confess how she had robbed her master, and to ask his help. Hers was probably a representative case. The time spared from his handicraft, and not employed in religious counsel and exhortation, was given to study and composition. For this his confinement secured him the leisure which otherwise he would have looked for in vain. The few books he possessed he studied indefatigably. His library was, at least at one period, a very limited one, - "the least and the best library," writes a friend who visited him in prison, "that I ever saw, consisting only of two books - the Bible, and Foxe’s ’Book of Martyrs.’" "But with these two books," writes Mr. Froude, "he had no cause to complain of intellectual destitution." Bunyan’s mode of composition, though certainly exceedingly rapid, - thoughts succeeding one another with a quickness akin to inspiration, - was anything but careless. The "limae labor" with him was unsparing. It was, he tells us, "first with doing, and then with undoing, and after that with doing again," that his books were brought to completion, and became what they are, a mine of Evangelical Calvinism of the richest ore, entirely free from the narrow dogmatism and harsh predestinarianism of the great Genevan divine; books which for clearness of thought, lucidity of arrangement, felicity of language, rich even if sometimes homely force of illustration, and earnestness of piety have never been surpassed.

Bunyan’s prison life when the first bitterness of it was past, and habit had done away with its strangeness, was a quiet and it would seem, not an unhappy one. A manly self-respect bore him up and forbade his dwelling on the darker features of his position, or thinking or speaking harshly of the authors of his durance. "He was," writes one who saw him at this time, "mild and affable in conversation; not given to loquacity or to much discourse unless some urgent occasion required. It was observed he never spoke of himself or his parents, but seemed low in his own eyes. He was never heard to reproach or revile, whatever injury he received, but rather rebuked those who did so. He managed all things with such exactness as if he had made it his study not to give offence."

According to his earliest biographer, Charles Doe, in 1666, the year of the Fire of London, after Bunyan had lain six years in Bedford gaol, "by the intercession of some interest or power that took pity on his sufferings," he enjoyed a short interval of liberty. Who these friends and sympathisers were is not mentioned, and it would be vain to conjecture. This period of freedom, however, was very short. He at once resumed his old work of preaching, against which the laws had become even more stringent during his imprisonment, and was apprehended at a meeting just as he was about to preach a sermon. He had given out his text, "Dost thou believe on the Son of God?" (John ix. 35), and was standing with his open Bible in his hand, when the constable came in to take him. Bunyan fixed his eyes on the man, who turned pale, let go his hold, and drew back, while Bunyan exclaimed, "See how this man trembles at the word of God!" This is all we know of his second arrest, and even this little is somewhat doubtful. The time, the place, the circumstances, are as provokingly vague as much else of Bunyan’s life. The fact, however, is certain. Bunyan returned to Bedford gaol, where he spent another six years, until the issuing of the "Declaration of Indulgence" early in 1672 opened the longclosed doors, and he walked out a free man, and with what he valued far more than personal liberty, freedom to deliver Christ’s message as he understood it himself, none making him afraid, and to declare to his brother sinners what their Saviour had done for them, and what he expected them to do that they might obtain the salvation He died to win.

From some unknown cause, perhaps the depressing effect of protracted confinement, during this second six years Bunyan’s pen was far less prolific than during the former period. Only two of his books are dated in these years. The last of these, "A Defence of the Doctrine of Justification by Faith," a reply to a work of Edward Fowler, afterwards Bishop of Gloucester, the rector of Northill, was written in hot haste immediately before his release, and issued from the press contemporaneously with it, the prospect of liberty apparently breathing new life into his wearied soul. When once Bunyan became a free man again, his pen recovered its former copiousness of production, and the works by which he has been immortalized, "The Pilgrim’s Progress" - which has been erroneously ascribed to Bunyan’s twelve years’ imprisonment - and its sequel, "The Holy War," and the "Life and Death of Mr. Badman," and a host of more strictly theological works, followed one another in rapid succession.

Bunyan’s second term of imprisonment was certainly less severe than that which preceded it. At its commencement we learn that, like Joseph in Egypt, he found favour in his jailer’s eyes, who "took such pity of his rigorous suffering, that he put all care and trust into his hands." Towards the close of his imprisonment its rigour was still further relaxed. The Bedford church book begins its record again in 1688, after an interval of ominous silence of five years, when the persecution was at the hottest. In its earliest entries we find Bunyan’s name, which occurs repeatedly up to the date of his final release in 1672. Not one of these notices gives the slightest allusion of his being a prisoner. He is deputed with others to visit and remonstrate with backsliding brethren, and fulfil other commissions on behalf of the congregation, as if he were in the full enjoyment of his liberty. This was in the two years’ interval between the expiration of the Conventicle Act, March 2, 1667-8, and the passing of the new Act, styled by Marvell, "the quintessence of arbitrary malice," April 11, 1670. After a few months of hot persecution, when a disgraceful system of espionage was set on foot and the vilest wretches drove a lucrative trade as spies on "meetingers," the severity greatly lessened. Charles II. was already meditating the issuing of a Declaration of Indulgence, and signified his disapprobation of the "forceable courses" in which, "the sad experience of twelve years" showed, there was "very little fruit." One of the first and most notable consequences of this change of policy was Bunyan’s release.

Mr. Offor’s patient researches in the State Paper Office have proved that the Quakers, than whom no class of sectaries had suffered more severely from the persecuting edicts of the Crown, were mainly instrumental in throwing open the prison doors to those who, like Bunyan, were in bonds for the sake of their religion. Gratitude to John Groves, the Quaker mate of Tattersall’s fishing boat, in which Charles had escaped to France after the battle of Worcester, had something, and the untiring advocacy of George Whitehead, the Quaker, had still more, to do with this act of royal clemency. We can readily believe that the good-natured Charles was not sorry to have an opportunity of evidencing his sense of former services rendered at a time of his greatest extremity. But the main cause lay much deeper, and is connected with what Lord Macaulay justly styles "one of the worst acts of one of the worst governments that England has ever seen" - that of the Cabal. Our national honour was at its lowest ebb. Charles had just concluded the profligate Treaty of Dover, by which, in return for the "protection" he sought from the French king, he declared himself a Roman Catholic at heart, and bound himself to take the first opportunity of "changing the present state of religion in England for a better," and restoring the authority of the Pope. The announcement of his conversion Charles found it convenient to postpone. Nor could the other part of his engagement be safely carried into effect at once. It called for secret and cautious preparation. But to pave the way for it, by an unconstitutional exercise of his prerogative he issued a Declaration of Indulgence which suspended all penal laws against "whatever sort of Nonconformists or Recusants." The latter were evidently the real object of the indulgence; the former class were only introduced the better to cloke his infamous design. Toleration, however, was thus at last secured, and the long-oppressed Nonconformists hastened to profit by it. "Ministers returned," writes Mr. J. R. Green, "after years of banishment, to their homes and their flocks. Chapels were re-opened. The gaols were emptied. Men were set free to worship God after their own fashion. John Bunyan left the prison which had for twelve years been his home." More than three thousand licenses to preach were at once issued. One of the earliest of these, dated May 9, 1672, four months before his formal pardon under the Great Seal, was granted to Bunyan, who in the preceding January had been chosen their minister by the little congregation at Bedford, and "giving himself up to serve Christ and His Church in that charge, had received of the elders the right hand of fellowship." The place licensed for the exercise of Bunyan’s ministry was a barn standing in an orchard, once forming part of the Castle Moat, which one of the congregation, Josias Roughead, acting for the members of his church, had purchased. The license bears date May 9, 1672. This primitive place of worship, in which Bunyan preached regularly till his death, was pulled down in 1707, when a "three-ridged meeting-house" was erected in its place. This in its turn gave way, in 1849, to the existing more seemly chapel, to which the present Duke of Bedford, in 1876, presented a pair of noble bronze doors bearing scenes, in high relief, from "The Pilgrim’s Progress," the work of Mr. Frederick Thrupp. In the vestry are preserved Bunyan’s chair, and other relics of the man who has made the name of Bedford famous to the whole civilized world.


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Chicago: Edmund Venables, "Chapter VI.," The Life of John Bunyan, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 and trans. Stevens, Bertram, 1872 - in The Life of John Bunyan (Boston: John W. Luce and Company, 1911), Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2022,

MLA: Venables, Edmund. "Chapter VI." The Life of John Bunyan, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, and translated by Stevens, Bertram, 1872 -, in The Life of John Bunyan, Boston, John W. Luce and Company, 1911, Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2022.

Harvard: Venables, E, 'Chapter VI.' in The Life of John Bunyan, ed. and trans. . cited in 1911, The Life of John Bunyan, John W. Luce and Company, Boston. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2022, from