From Darkness into Light: Or, how God used the Giant “Despair” to shape the Life of John Bunyan. Part One of Two.

Taken from, “Brave Men and Women”
Edited by, Osgood E. Fuller, Published in 1886
Biography written by, Thomas Babington Macaulay

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JOHN BUNYAN, the most popular religious writer in the English language,

was born at Elstow, about a mile from Bedford, in the year 1628. He may be said to have been born a tinker. The tinkers then formed a hereditary caste, which was held in no high estimation. They were generally vagrants and pilferers and were often confounded with the gypsies, whom, in truth, they nearly resembled. Bunyan’s father was more respectable than most of the tribe. He had a fixed residence, and was able to send his son to a village school, where reading and writing were taught.

The years of John’s boyhood were those during which the Puritan spirit was in the highest vigor all over England; and nowhere had that spirit more influence than in Bedfordshire. It is not wonderful, therefore, that a lad to whom nature had given a powerful imagination, and sensibility which amounted to a disease, should have been early haunted by religious terrors. Before he was ten, his sports were interrupted by fits of remorse and despair; and his sleep was disturbed by dreams of fiends trying to fly away with him.

As he grew older, his mental conflicts became still more violent. The strong language in which he described them has strangely misled all his biographers except Mr. Southey. It has long been an ordinary practice with pious writers to cite Bunyan as an instance of the supernatural power of divine grace to rescue the human soul from the lowest depths of wickedness. He is called in one book the most notorious of profligates; in another, the brand plucked from the burning. He is designated in Mr. Ivimey’s” History of the Baptists” as the depraved Bunyan, the wicked tinker of Elstow. Mr. Ryland, a man once of great note among the Dissenters, breaks out into the following rhapsody: “No man of common sense and common integrity can deny that Bunyan was a practical atheist, a worthless, contemptible infidel, a vile rebel to God and goodness, a common profligate, a soul-despising, soul-murdering, soul-damning, thoughtless wretch as could exist on the face of the earth. Now, be astonished, O heavens, to eternity! And wonder, O earth and hell, while time endures! Behold this very man become a miracle of mercy, a mirror of wisdom, goodness, holiness, truth, and love.” But whoever takes the trouble to examine the evidence, will find that the good men who wrote this had been deceived by a phraseology which, as they had been hearing it and using it all their lives, they ought to have understood better. There cannot be a greater mistake than to infer, from the strong expressions in which a devout man bemoans his exceeding sinfulness that he has led a worse life than his neighbors.

Many excellent persons, whose moral character from boyhood to old age has been free from any stain discernible to their fellow-creatures, have, in their autobiographies and diaries, applied to themselves, and doubtless with sincerity, epithets as severe as could be applied to Titus Gates or Mrs. Brownrigg. It is quite certain that Bunyan was, at eighteen, what, in any but the most austerely Puritan circles, would have been considered as a young man of singular gravity and innocence.

Indeed, it may be remarked that he, like many other penitents who, in general terms, acknowledged themselves to have been the worst of mankind, fired up and stood vigorously on his defense whenever any particular charge was brought against him by others. He declares, it is true, that he had let loose the reins on the neck of his lusts, that he had delighted in all transgressions against the divine law, and that he had been the ringleader of the youth of Elstow in all manner of vice. But, when those who wished him ill accused him of licentious amours, he called on God and the angels to attest his purity. No woman, he said, in heaven, earth, or hell could charge him with having ever made any improper advances to her. Not only had he been strictly faithful to his wife, but he had, even before marriage, been perfectly spotless. It does not appear from his own confessions, or from the railings of his enemies, that he ever was drunk in his life. One bad habit he contracted, that of using profane language; but he tells us that a single reproof cured him so effectually that he never offended again. The worst that can be laid to the charge of this poor youth, whom it has been the fashion to represent as the most desperate of reprobates, as a village Rochester, is that he had a great liking for some diversions, quite harmless in themselves, but condemned by the rigid precisians among whom he lived, and for whose opinion he had a great respect.

The four chief sins of which he was guilty were dancing, ringing the bells of the parish church, playing at tip-cat, and reading the “History of Sir Bevis of Southampton.” A rector of the school of Laud would have held such a young man up to the whole parish as a model. But Bunyan’s notions of good and evil had been learned in a very different school; and he was made miserable by the conflict between his tastes and his scruples.

When he was about seventeen, the ordinary course of his life was interrupted by an event which gave a lasting color to his thoughts. He enlisted in the Parliamentary army, and served during the decisive campaign of 1645. All that we know of his military career is that, at the siege of Leicester, one of his comrades, who had taken his post, was killed by a shot from the town. Bunyan ever after considered himself as having been saved from death by the special interference of Providence. It may be observed that his imagination was strongly impressed by the glimpse which he had caught of the pomp of war. To the last he loved to draw his illustrations of sacred things from camps and fortresses, from guns, drums, trumpets, flags of truce, and regiments arrayed, each under its own banner. His Greatheart, his Captain Boanerges, and his Captain Credence are evidently portraits, of which the originals were among those martial saints who fought and expounded in Fairfax’s army.

In a few months Bunyan returned home and married. His wife had some pious relations, and brought him as her only portion some pious books. And now his mind, excitable by nature, very imperfectly disciplined by education, and exposed, without any protection, to the infectious virulence of the enthusiasm which was then epidemic in England, began to be fearfully disordered. In outward things he soon became a strict Pharisee. He was constant in attendance at prayers and sermons. His favorite amusements were, one after another, relinquished, though not without many painful struggles. In the middle of a game at tip-cat he paused, and stood staring wildly upward with his stick in his hand. He had heard a voice asking him whether he would leave his sins and go to heaven, or keep his sins and go to hell; and he had seen an awful countenance frowning on him from the sky. The odious vice of bell-ringing he renounced; but he still for a time ventured to go to the church-tower and look on while others pulled the ropes. But soon the thought struck him that, if he persisted in such wickedness, the steeple would fall on his head; and he fled in terror from the accursed place. To give up dancing on the village green was still harder; and some months elapsed before he had the fortitude to part with this darling sin. When this last sacrifice had been made, he was, even when tried by the maxims of that austere time, faultless.

All Elstow talked of him as an eminently pious youth. But his own mind was more unquiet than ever. Having nothing more to do in the way of visible reformation, yet finding in religion no pleasures to supply the place of the juvenile amusements which he had relinquished, he began to apprehend that he lay under some special malediction; and he was tormented by a succession of fantasies which seemed likely to drive him to suicide or to Bedlam.

At one time he took it into his head that all persons of Israelite blood would be saved, and tried to make out that he partook of that blood; but his hopes were speedily destroyed by his father, who seems to have had no ambition to be regarded as a Jew.

At another time, Bunyan was disturbed by a strange dilemma: “If I have not faith, I am lost; if I have faith, I can work miracles.” He was tempted to cry to the puddles between Elstow and Bedford, “Be ye dry,” and to stake his eternal hopes on the event.

Then he took up a notion that the day of grace for Bedford and the neighboring villages was passed; that all who were to be saved in that part of England were already converted; and that he had begun to pray and strive some months too late.

Then he was harassed by doubts whether the Turks were not in the right, and the Christians in the wrong. Then he was troubled by a maniacal impulse which prompted him to pray to the trees, to a broomstick, to the parish bull. As yet, however, he was only entering the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Soon the darkness grew thicker. Hideous forms floated before him. Sounds of cursing and wailing were in his ears. His way ran through stench and fire, close to the mouth of the bottomless pit. He began to be haunted by a strange curiosity about the unpardonable sin, and by a morbid longing to commit it.

But the most frightful of all the forms which his disease took was a propensity to utter blasphemy, and especially to renounce his share in the benefits of the redemption. Night and day, in bed, at table, at work, evil spirits, as he imagined, were repeating close to his ear the words, “Sell him! Sell him!” He struck at the hobgoblins; he pushed them from him; but still they were ever at his side. He cried out in answer to them, hour after hour, “Never, never! Not for thousands of worlds –not for thousands!” At length, worn out by this long agony, he suffered the fatal words to escape him, “Let him go, if he will.”

Then his misery became more fearful than ever. He had done what could not be forgiven. He had forfeited his part of the great sacrifice. Like Esau, he had sold his birthright, and there was no longer any place for repentance. “None,” he afterwards wrote, “knows the terrors of those days but myself.”

He has described his sufferings with singular energy, simplicity, and pathos. He envied the brutes; he envied the very stones in the street, and the tiles on the houses. The sun seemed to withhold its light and warmth from him. His body, though cast in a sturdy mold, and though still in the highest vigor of youth, trembled whole days together with the fear of death and judgment. He fancied that this trembling was the sign set on the worst reprobates, the sign which God had put on Cain. The unhappy man’s emotion destroyed his power of digestion. He had such pains that he expected to burst asunder like Judas, whom he regarded as his prototype.

Neither the books which Bunyan read nor the advisers whom he consulted were likely to do much good in a case like his. His small library had received a most unseasonable addition “the account of the lamentable end of Francis Spira. One ancient man of high repute for piety, whom the sufferer consulted gave an opinion which might well have produced fatal consequences. “I am afraid,” said Bunyan, “that I have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost.” “Indeed,” said the old fanatic,” I am afraid that you have.”

At length the clouds broke; the light became clearer and clearer, and the enthusiast, who had imagined that he was branded with the mark of the first murderer, and destined to the end of the arch-traitor, enjoyed peace and a cheerful confidence in the mercy of God.

Years elapsed, however, before his nerves, which had been so perilously over-strained, recovered their tone. When he had joined a Baptist Society at Bedford, and was for the first time admitted to partake of the Eucharist, it was with difficulty that he could refrain from imprecating destruction on his brethren while the cup was passing from hand to hand. After he had been some time a member of the congregation he began to preach; and his sermons produced a powerful effect. He was, indeed, illiterate; but he spoke to illiterate men. The severe training through which he had passed had given him such an experimental knowledge of all the modes of religious melancholy as he could never have gathered from books; and his vigorous genius, animated by a fervent spirit of devotion, enabled him not only to exercise a great influence over the vulgar, but even to extort the half-contemptuous admiration of scholars. Yet it was long before he ceased to be tormented by an impulse which urged him to utter words of horrible impiety in the pulpit.

End of Part One.