John Bunyan writing in prison, Bedford Free Church stained glass window, photo courtesy of Tony Lane.
Some prison writings are clearly inspired by the experience of prison. Such are Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Other books so little suggest prison that they could seemingly have been written anywhere. Such are Grotius’ Commentary on St. Matthew or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
It seems that everyone knows Bunyan wrote his allegory Pilgrim’s Progress in prison. There he also wrote the Holy War and Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, an autobiographical account of his conversion, first steps as a preacher, and incarceration for preaching. It is Grace Abounding that we excerpt, rather than the more famous Pilgrim’s Progress, as we show the spirtual battles he fought during his imprisonemnt, and his resultant growth in faith and character. This excerpt has been slightly modified to make it more understandable to modern readers.
A Brief Account of the Author’s Imprisonment.
Having made profession of the glorious Gospel of Christ a long time, and preached the same about five years, I was apprehended at a meeting of good people in the country, among whom, had they let me alone, I should have preached that day, but they took me away from among them, and had me before a justice; who, after I had offered security for my appearing the next sessions, yet committed me, because my sureties would not consent to be bound that I should preach no more to the people.
John Bunyan, Journey of a Pilgrim, is a look at the prisoner who wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, the most circulated book of all time, next to the Bible.
At the sessions, after I was indicted as an upholder and maintainer of unlawful assemblies and secret religious meetings, and for not conforming to the national worship of the Church of England, after some conference there with the justices, they, taking my plain dealing with them for a confession, as they termed it, of the indictment, did sentence me to a perpetual banishment, because I refused to conform. So being again delivered up to the jailer’s hands, I was taken back to prison, and there have lain now a full twelve years, waiting to see what God would allow those men to do with me.
In this condition I have continued with much contentment, through grace, but have met with many turnings and goings upon my heart, both from the Lord, Satan, and my own corruption; by all which, glory be to Jesus Christ! I have also received, among many things, much conviction, instruction, and understanding, which I shall not here discuss at length, but only give you a hint or two, a word that may stir up the godly to bless God, and to pray for me; and also to take encouragement, should the case be their own, not to fear what man can do to them.
I never had in all my life so great an insight into the Word of God as now: Those scriptures that I saw nothing in before, were made in this place and condition to shine upon me; Jesus Christ also was never more real and apparent than now; here I have seen and felt him indeed. Oh! that word: “We have not preached unto you cunningly devised fables” (2 Peter 1:16), and this: “God raised Christ from the dead, and gave him glory, that your faith and hope might be in God,” were blessed words unto me in my imprisonment.
These three or four scriptures also have been great refreshments to me in this condition: John 14:1-4; John 16:33; Colossians 3:3,4; and Hebrews 12:22- 24. So that sometimes when I have been in the enjoyment of them I have been able to laugh at destruction, and to fear neither “the horse nor his rider” (Exodus 15). I have had sweet sights of the forgiveness of my sins in this place, and of my being with Jesus in another world. Oh! the Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the innumerable company of angels, and God the judge of all, “and the spirits of just men made perfect,” and Jesus (Hebrews 12:22-24), have been sweet to me in this place. I have seen such things here, which I am persuaded I shall never, while in this world, be able to express: I have seen a truth in this scripture, “Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8).
I never knew what it was for God to stand by me at all turns, and at every offer of Satan to afflict me, etc., as I have found him since I came in here: For look, if fears have presented themselves, so have supports and encouragements; yes, when I have started up, even as it were at nothing but my own shadow, yet God, as being very tender to me, has not allowed me to be bothered, but would, with one scripture or another, strengthen me against everything; insomuch that I have often said, “Were it lawful, I could pray for greater trouble, for the greater comfort’s sake” (Ecclesiastes 7:14; 2 Corinthians 1:5).
Before I came to prison I saw what was coming, and had especially two considerations warm upon my heart; the first was, how to be able to encounter death, should that be here my portion. For the first of these, that scripture, Colossians 1:11, was great information to me, namely, to pray to God “to be strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and long-suffering with joyfulness.” I could seldom go to prayer during the whole year before I was imprisoned, but this sentence or sweet petition would, as it were, thrust itself into my mind, and persuade me, that if ever I would get through a lengthy suffering, I must have patience, especially if I would endure it joyfully.
As to the second consideration, that saying was of great use to me, “But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead,” 2 Corinthians 1:9. By this scripture I was made to see, that if ever I would suffer in the right spirit I must first pass a sentence of death upon everything that can properly be called a thing of this life, even to consider myself, my wife, my children, my health, my enjoyments, and all, as dead to me and myself, as dead to them.
The second was to live upon God that is invisible, as Paul said in another place; the way not to faint is to “Look not on the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” 2 Corinthians 4:18. And thus I reasoned with myself, If I provide only for a prison, then the whip comes at me unawares, and so does the pillory. Again, if I only provide for these, then I am not prepared for banishment: Farther, if I conclude that banishment is the worst, then if death comes I am surprised: So that I see, the best way to go through sufferings is to trust in God through Christ, as touching the world to come; and as touching this world, to count the grave my house, to make my bed in darkness; to say to corruption, “You are my father, and to the worm, You art my mother and sister:’that is, to familiarize these things to me.
But notwithstanding these helps, I found myself a man encompassed with infirmities; the parting with my wife and poor children has often been to me in this place as the pulling of the flesh from my bones, and that not only because I am somewhat too fond of these great mercies, but also because I should have often brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries, and wants that my poor family were like to meet with should I be taken from them, especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than anyone else.
Oh! the thoughts of the hardship I thought my poor blind one might go under, would break my heart to pieces. Poor child! thought I, what sorrow you are likely to have for your portion in this world! You must be beaten, must beg, suffer hunger, cold, nakedness, and a thousand calamities, though I cannot now endure the wind should blow upon you. But yet recalling myself, I thought, “I must risk all of you with God, though it goes to the most painful senses to leave you.” Oh! I saw in this condition I was as a man who was pulling down his house upon the head of his wife and children; yet thought I, I must do it, I must do it. And now I thought on those two milch cows that were to carry the ark of God into another country, and to leave their calves behind them (1 Samuel 6:10).
But what which helped me in this temptation were various considerations, of which three in special here I will name: The first was the consideration of these two scriptures, “Leave thy fatherless children, I will preserve them alive, and let thy widows trust in me.” And again, “The Lord said, ‘Verily it shall be well with thy remnant, verily I will cause the enemy to entreat thee well in the time of evil,’” (Jeremiah 49:11; 15:11).
I had also this consideration, that if I should risk all for God, I engaged God to take care of my concerns: but if I forsook him in his ways, for fear of any trouble that should come to me or mine, then I should not only falsify my profession, but should count also that my concerns were not so sure if left at God’s feet, while I stood to and for his name, as they would be if they were under my own care, though with the denial of the way of God. This was a smarting consideration, and as spurs into my flanks. That scripture also greatly helped it to fasten the more on me where Christ prays against Judas, that God would disappoint him in his selfish thoughts, which moved him to sell his master. Pray read it soberly (Psalm 109:6-20. 33). I had also another consideration, and that was the dread of the torments of hell, which I was sure they must partake of that for fear of the cross do shrink from their profession of Christ, his words and laws, before the sons of men; I thought also of the glory that he had prepared for those that in faith, and love, and patience, stood to his ways before them. These things, I say, have helped me, when the thoughts of the misery that both myself and mine might, for the sake of my profession, be exposed to, have lain pinching on my mind.
When I have indeed imagined that I might be banished for my profession, then I have thought of that scripture, “They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (of whom the world was not worthy)” Hebrews 11: 37, 38; for all they thought they were too bad to dwell and abide amongst them. I have also thought of that saying, “The Holy Ghost witnesses in every city…that bonds and afflictions await me” (Acts 20:23). I have truly thought that my soul and it have sometimes reasoned about the sore and sad estate of a banished and exiled condition, how they were exposed to hunger, to cold, to perils, to nakedness, to enemies, and a thousand calamities; and at last, it may be, to die in a ditch like a poor and desolate sheep. But I thank God that so far I have not been moved by these most delicate reasonings, but have rather, by them, more approved my heart to God.
I will tell you a pretty business: I was once more than at any other time in a very sad and low condition for many weeks; at which time also, I being but a young prisoner, and not acquainted with the laws, I had this lying much upon my spirits, that my imprisonment might end at the gallows for ought that I could tell. Now therefore Satan laid hard at me, to despirit me, by suggesting thus unto me: “But how if, when you come indeed to die, you should be in this condition; that is, as not to delight in the things of God, nor to have any evidence upon your soul for a better state hereafter?” For indeed, at this time all the things of God were hidden from my soul.
Wherefore when I at first began to think of this, it was a great trouble to me; for I thought with myself, that in the condition I now was in, I was not fit to die, neither indeed did I think I could if I should be called to it; besides I thought with myself, if I should make a scrambling shift to clamber up the ladder [of the scaffold], yet I should, either with quaking or other symptoms of fainting, give occasion to the enemy to reproach the way of God and his people for their timidity. This, therefore, lay with great trouble upon me, for I was ashamed to die with a pale face, and tottering knees, in such a case as this.
So I prayed to God that he would comfort me, and give me strength to do and suffer what he should call me to; yet no comfort appeared, but all continued hidden; I was also at this time so really possessed with the thought of death, that often I was as if I was on the ladder with a rope around my neck; only this was some encouragement to me, I thought I might now have an opportunity to speak my last words to a crowd, which I thought would come to see me die; and, I thought, if it must be so, if God will but convert one soul by my last words, I shall not count my life thrown away nor lost.
But yet all the things of God were kept out of my sight, and still the tempter followed me with, “But where must you go when you die? what will become of you? where will you be found in another world? what evidence have you for heaven and glory, and an inheritance among those that are sanctified?” Thus was I tossed about for many weeks, and knew not what to do; at last this consideration fell with weight upon me, that it was for the word and way of God that I was in this situation; and so I was engaged not to flinch an hair’s breadth from it.
I thought also that while God might choose whether he would give me comfort now or at the hour of death, I might not for my part choose whether I would stick to my profession of faith or not; I was bound, but he was free; yes, it was my duty to stand to his word, whether or not he would ever look upon me or save me at the last: “And so,” thought I, “save the point being thus, I am for going on, and trusting my eternal state with Christ, whether I have comfort here or not. If God does not come in,” thought I, “I will leap off the scaffold even blindfold into eternity, sink or swim, come heaven, come hell, Lord Jesus, if you will catch me, do; if not, I will still risk everything for your name…”