The young man walked about the grounds of the farmyard deep in thought. Before him lay a decision that would change the course of history.
The man was John Bunyan, the date was November 12, 1660 and it is an early autumn evening. Just moments before, the master of the house had taken him aside and in an agitated voice said, “Oh Mr. Bunyan, there is a warrant out against you, and the officers are on the lookout for you. We cannot have our meeting! … You must leave!” “What, brother,” says Bunyan, “go away and not have the meeting!” “Oh yes, Mr. Bunyan, they are in search of you, and they’ll have you in prison if they can find you.” “What if they do? I will by no means stir, neither will I have the meeting dismissed for this.”
Brave words! Words spoken in haste less than an hour before. But now, as he thinks more rationally under the calming influence of reason will he not sing a different song?
The farmer’s wife comes to hang out the afternoons wash. She walks with that endearing waddle peculiar to women about to give birth and his thoughts turn to his own wife, Elizabeth. She is also on the verge of birth. How will his loved one fare if he is cast into prison or perhaps exiled? What about the new infant and his little blind daughter, Mary? Ah, dear blind child. She is the pride of his life and the thought forcing her to live as a fatherless child tears at his heart.
More guests are arriving, singly or in small groups of 2 or 3. They all come from different directions to avoid rousing the suspicions of the authorities. Here and there his parishioners cluster to hear the news as it is carried from one to another. “A warrant for his arrest, do you say?” “Indeed? Well why does he not run then?” “Got me. There is yet time.” But he does not run.
He begins the meeting with prayer and a verse from the Word of God. Suddenly there are strange voices and a knock at the door. Eager, anxious faces turn to stare at the door – it opens – And there stand before them two unfamiliar forms. No one needs to tell them that it is the constable and the justice’s man.
John Bunyan, tinker and lay preacher is under arrest. Thus began 12 years of imprisonment at a time when religious freedom was a rare thing.
Oh, certainly, one was free to serve truth according to the dictates of their conscience – as long as it was the same truth that the king served. Any other variety was against the law. And the preaching of any other variety was even more sternly forbidden. Fines, imprisonment, torture and even death were common fare for the unlicensed preacher who dared gather a crowd to hear him. And of this crime John Bunyan was clearly quite guilty.
He is carried to the justice who is not home. Friends offer to be surety for him and he is allowed to go to his home to break the news to his dear ones. “Run, John. You can run!” “No, Elizabeth, I cannot run for I am a slave to my own promise.”
There is a farce of a trial where he is offered promises of freedom if he will but agree to be silent. He answers, “I tell you, sir, that if I were released today I would, by God’s grace, be preaching again tomorrow.”
And so the next 12 years were spent in a loathsome dungeon surrounded by profligates and felons. Yet in that dismal den John Bunyan breathes the very atmosphere of heaven and there he writes that immortal classic that we know as “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” A book that has been translated into more languages, been published in more editions and changed more lives than any other non-Biblical book in history (now available in dramatized audio in the store).
Why did Bunyan, under the inspiration of God, refuse to flee? Why, in order to strike a magnificent bargain. The trade of 12 years of one man’s life for the changed lives of hundreds of thousands. And, if you are a believer in eternity, you must consider it to have been a good trade. 20% of one man’s life given in exchange for the eternal lives of thousands.
As one scholar put it… “Thus . . .[was] the man who was forbidden to speak to a few assembled in a peasant’s cottage, furnished with facilities for writing a book by which he speaks to millions in every land, and through all succeeding generations; while the men who sought to silence him are forgotten. So do the enemies of the Gospel frustrate their own schemes. So does the right live on, emerging into ever-increasing splendor, while the wrong sinks into merited oblivion.” Robert Magguire, D.D. in his introduction to the superfine edition of “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” A 19th century edition.
In short, John Bunyan was a hero. A man who would do what was right though the heavens might seem to come crashing down about the ears of those he loved most. One of those few great men who chose to suffer loss of freedom so that we who follow after might enjoy total freedom.
John Bunyan – may we meet thee in the kingdom!