Hitherto, Bunyan was, at best, only "a brisk talker" about religion, as he calls himself; and that only as it bore upon opinion and a few practical duties. Nothing he knew of religion had humbled him at all, either before God or man; and all that he practiced only made him proud before both. Like many who turn over a new leaf in morals, he never looked at the old leaf, which was still uppermost in his heart.
In his case, this can hardly be wondered at. He had met with none who knew "the plague of their own hearts;" and his reading had not turned at all upon the necessity of a new heart, or of a right spirit, before God. His wife, also, although well disposed, was not well informed on this subject. He remembered all this when his attention was drawn to the state of his heart; and gratefully recorded the means of it. Hence he says, "Upon a day, the good providence of God called me to Bedford, to work at my Calling: and in one of the streets of that town (would we knew which street!) I came where there were three or four women sitting at a door in the sun, talking about the things of God. And being now willing to hear what they said, I drew near, to hear their discourse—for I was now a brisk talker of myself in the matters of religion—but I may say, I heard, but understood not; for they were far above, out of my reach.
"Their talk was about a new birth—the work of God in their hearts; as 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 Promises they had been refreshed, comforted, and supported against the temptations of the devil."
All this was new to Bunyan; and especially that part of it which related to the devil. Of him he had never thought before, as a Tempter to anything but wickedness or crime:—as a Tempter to despair, distrust, impatience, or unbelief, he had never heard or dreamt. Accordingly, he paid unusual attention to what the poor women said on this subject. "Moreover," he says, "they reasoned of the suggestions and temptations of Satan, in particular; and told to each other, by what means they had been afflicted, and how they were borne up under his assaults. They also discoursed of their own wretchedness of heart, and of their unbelief; and did contemn, slight, and abhor their own righteousness as filthy, and insufficient to do them any good."
All this perplexed him, and compelled him to feel that these new things were strange things to him. And yet, he seems to have asked for no explanation of any of them; not even of Satan's temptations, which were an utter mystery to him. This is the more remarkable, as he evidently had a fair opportunity; for the women were communicative, and he was either sitting or standing close by them. This is certain. Accordingly, when they had finished their conversation, "I left them," he says, "and went about my employment again." Thus, he did not overhear them, as he was mending kettles; but was in their company. He might, therefore, have asked questions; for the speakers evidently wished to draw him out. They were talking at him, although not in a wrong spirit. They knew their man; and gladly set themselves, like Priscilla with Apollos, to teach him "the way of the Lord more perfectly."
This is the true reason of their conduct. They were not religious gossips, who would have told their experience to any one. They were "holy women," who knew what Bunyan had been; and what he had become by the reproof of a bad woman; and what he was likely to turn out if left in the hands of his canting companion, the masked Ranter, who could talk "pleasantly" about religion. They knew this, and took care that he should not have all the talk to himself.
I am not ascribing to these poor women more knowledge of Bunyan and his companion, nor more zeal for Bunyan's welfare, than they really possessed: for they were accredited Members of the Baptist Church in Bedford; which was then too young, too small, and too pure, for any of its members to overlook or neglect any returning Prodigal, however far off from his Fattier's house; or to mistake any wolf in sheep's clothing, however woolly. The honor of religion was too dear to the truly godly of' these times, for that. And this will be equally intelligible and credible, to all who know any thing of the regular Dissenting Churches of that day, or of our own times. All spiritual Churches episcopize in this way. Bunyan did not know this at the time: perhaps he never suspected it afterwards, in his own case. But the poor women certainly talked of themselves, that they might teach him.
How well they spoke of experimental religion, will be best seen from his own account. "Methought, 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 I had found a new world; as if they were 'people that dwelt alone, and were not to be reckoned among their neighbors.' At this, I felt my own heart began to shake, and mistrust my condition to be naught: for I saw that in all my thoughts about religion and salvation, the new birth did never enter in my mind; (Nicodemus-like!) neither knew I the comfort of the word and promise, nor the deceitfulness of my own wicked heart. As for secret thoughts, I took no notice of them; neither did I understand what Satan's temptations were, nor how they were to be withstood and resisted."
The last part of this confession, although not the most interesting, had most to do afterwards with Bunyan's strange fears and fancies; and I mark it out, as another of those lights which we shall soon need, when he is "led into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil." He did not understand Satanic temptation when he first heard of it, nor when it began to harass his mind. The Enemy came in upon him "as a flood;" but be saw only the flood itself, and not the Enemy who poured it around and over him.
His ignorance on this point, however, did not hinder his profiting by what he had heard about the religion of the heart. That arrested and humbled him. It followed him to his work like his shadow; nor did he try to shake it off. "I left," he says; "but their talk and discourse went with me: also my heart would tarry with them; for I was greatly affected by their words; both because by them I was convinced that I wanted the tokens of a truly godly man, and also, because by them I was convinced of' the happy and blessed condition of him that was such a one. Therefore, I would often make it my business to, be going again and again into the company of these poor people; for I could not stay away. And the more I went among them, the more I did question my condition: and, as I still remember, presently, I found two things within me, at which I did sometimes marvel: the one was, a very great softness and tenderness of' heart, which caused me to fall under conviction of what, by Scripture, they asserted; and the other was, a great bending in my mind to a continual meditating on it, and on all other good things, which at any time I heard or read of'.
"By these things, my mind was now so turned, that it lay like a horse-leech at the vein; still crying out, "Give, give;' and was so fixed on eternity, and on the things of the kingdom of heaven (that is, so far as I knew; though as yet, God knows, I knew but little), that neither pleasures, nor profits, nor persuasions, nor threats, could loose it, or make it let go its hold. And, though I speak it with shame, yet it is in very deed, a certain truth, that it would have been as difficult for me to have taken my mind from heaven to earth, as I have found it often since, to get it again from earth to heaven."
Bunyan himself marveled, as he well might, at this child-like and angel-like turn of spirit; "especially," as he says, "considering what a blind, ignorant, sordid, and ungodly wretch, but just before, I was." It hardly requires spiritual discernment, in order to see beauty in this change. Mere Philosophy, either moral or mental, must admire it. It is, indeed, the Lion become a lamb! How Mrs. Bunyan must have enjoyed it! Her husband was now more gentle and humble than her father seems to have been. Even those who attach no importance to the religion of the heart, must wonder at the change of the Tinker's heart; it was so sudden and great, and yet so simple withal. His spirit softened like furrows under spring showers; and, like them, soon sent forth "the tender blade." And all this was produced, not by visions nor dreams, but by words which dropped as the rain, and distilled as the dew, from the lips of simple-hearted women, who used no direct persuasion. Christians see, of course, the hand of God in the effect: and even a mere philosopher must confess, that he never sees the same effect produced by the most eloquent maxims or appeals of his ethics, although he tries their force upon more cultivated minds. True; there was latent genius in the Tinker, to work upon. What then? Neither the Tinker himself, nor his Teachers, knew of it. They had never heard of genius. It was not the less there, I grant. Where was it, however, in the women who sat
"Knitting in the sun?"
They had not minds of Bunyan's order: and yet, the truths of the Bible had the same sweet influence upon them. Besides, what is philosophy worth, as a Reformer of the world, if it require genius, as the soil for its seed to root or ripen in?
One of the first-fruits of Bunyan's conversion was, a tender concern for those whom his former example had misled or hardened...
From The Life, Times, and Characteristics of John Bunyan... by Robert Philip. New York: Wm. Carlton Regand, Publisher, 1888.
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