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John Bunyan, 1628-1688

by Henry S. Burrage

John BunyanIt is only a slender tie by which Bunyan is united to the hymn writers of the church. Dr. Belcher ("Historical Sketches of Hymns," page 104) is authority for the statement that some lines written by the immortal dreamer of Bedford jail, and found in the Second Part of the "Pilgrim's Progress," have "long been used in some of the Baptist churches in England at the admission of members." They are the words Bunyan puts into the lips of Mercy, as she and Christiana set out on their pilgrimage to the Celestial City.

Let the Most Blesséd be my guide,
  If't be his blesséd will,
Unto his gate, into his fold,
  Up to his holy hill.

And let him never suffer me
  To swerve or turn aside
From his free grace and holy ways,
  Whate'er shall me betide.

And let him gather them of mine
  That I have left behind;
Lord, make them pray they may be thine
  With all their heart and mind.

There are other lines in the Second Part, which the readers of the "Pilgrim's Progress" will recall, especially those which Bunyan puts into the lips of the shepherd boy, commencing

He that is down needs fear no fall;
He that is low no pride;
He that is humble ever shall
Have God to be his guide.

Those given above, however, so far as I am aware, are the only lines by Bunyan that have been sung. Had Bunyan lived a century later, the treasury of Christian song would doubtless have been greatly enriched by hymns from his pen.

John Bunyan was born in Elstow, near Bedford, in 1628. The record of his christening in Elstow church is as follows: "1628. John the sonne of Thomas Bonnionn, Junr. the 30th of Novemb." His parents were poor, but, as he tells us," It pleased God to put it into their hearts to put me to school to learn both to read and write." His advantages, however, were of the most meager kind, and not long enjoyed, for he early passed from the school-room to his father's workshop. In his sixteenth year his mother died, and a few weeks later his sister Margaret. His father almost immediately remarried, and thenceforward the home to Bunyan was not what it had been.

It is believed that his experience in the army, to which he briefly refers in his "Grace Abounding," belongs to this period. The army was disbanded in 1646, and Bunyan returned to Elstow. Two or three years later he was married. Who his wife was we do not know, but she evidently came from a godly home, and desired to have her own home like that from which she came. The four years that followed their marriage were the years of Bunyan's spiritual conflict, which he has so vividly portrayed. Then, at the end of the struggle, came peace. "The chains fell off," and the new life of blessedness began.

Bunyan united with Mr. Gifford's church in Bedford, in 1653. Two years later he made Bedford his home. Here his wife soon died, and Bunyan was left to be both father and mother to his four children. His pastor, Mr. Gifford, also died not long after Bunyan's removal to Bedford, and Bunyan, by request of his brethren who had discovered his gifts, began to preach. Wherever he went the people "came to hear the word by hundreds, and that from all parts, though upon Sunday and from divers accounts." His right to preach was frequently questioned, and in November, 1660, he was arrested, and soon after tried for "devilishly and perniciously abstaining from coming to church to hear divine service, and for being a common upholder of several unlawful meetings and conventicles, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom, contrary to the law of our sovereign lord, the king." Then followed his twelve years' imprisonment in Bedford jail, from 1660 to 1672. Three years of liberty succeeded. Then, in the winter and early spring of 1675-76, Bunyan was again in prison, and it was during this time that he wrote the "Pilgrim's Progress" ("Brown's Life of Bunyan," page 253), continuing his career as an author, upon which he entered not long after he began to preach. The "Pilgrim's Progress" has been sold in many editions and in untold numbers of copies, in all English-speaking lands, and has been translated into between seventy and eighty languages and dialects, and is continually appearing in new forms and new languages. Rufus Choate once called the speech of Mr. Standfast, near the close of the Second Part, "the most mellifluous and eloquent talk that was ever put together in the English language." Of Bunyan's "Holy War," Lord Macaulay says, "If the 'Pilgrim's Progress' did not exist, it would be the best allegory that ever was written."

Bunyan's last years were years of busy work as a writer and a preacher. Wherever he went crowds came together to listen to his words.

His death occurred in London, August 31, 1688, and he was buried in Bunhill Fields.

From Baptist Hymn Writers and Their Hymns by Henry S. Burrage. Portland, Maine: Brown Thurston & Co., ©1888.

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