John Bunyan valiant for truth
Who would true valour see,
let him come hither,
one here will constant be,
come wind, come weather.
The words are familiar to many as a hymn once sung at school assemblies. We may also recall further lines about ‘hobgoblins’ and ‘foul fiends’ that sent a shiver of apprehension down our spines.
Perhaps also we have read the story of John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’ and his valiant fight with Apollyon, that winged and scaly dragon, or of the fearsome Giant Despair – who locked the pilgrims up in Doubting Castle and beat them with a ‘grievous crab-tree cudgel’ until they were nearly dead.
Bunyan the man
But who was John Bunyan? When did he live and why did he write like that? Born in 1628, just outside Elstow, near Bedford, John was the eldest child of Thomas Bunyan, a poor brazier (or tinker), and his wife Margaret.
The 17th century was a turbulent time in English history – especially in the days of the Civil War, when the King of England, Charles I, raised his standard in Nottingham against his own people. It was a war in which John Bunyan served as a soldier. In 1649 Charles was publicly executed, and the period known as the Commonwealth was ushered in, with Oliver Cromwell becoming ‘Lord Protector’.
John Bunyan’s early days were unpromising. His education was slight, his behaviour unruly, his language appalling. How did such a person eventually become bracketed with the poet John Milton as one of the two 17th century writers of outstanding imaginative genius? The answer lies both in Bunyan’s innate gift and in what God did with this uncouth young man.
Pathway to heaven
The girl Bunyan married when he was about twenty, although bereft of dowry or material possessions, brought with her two books, one of which was called The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven.
She faithfully read this book to John, whose conscience awoke. He felt he must reform his life, but try as he might, he failed and failed again.
Eventually he decided that reform was impossible and decided to sin with a high hand, tasting all that a life of abandon could offer before he died. He was only stopped in his tracks when a woman, almost as coarse in her language as John himself, yelled in shocked tones, ‘John Bunyan, you are the ungodliest fellow for swearing that ever I have heard in all my life … you will spoil all the youth in the whole town, if they come but into your company’.
Amazing to relate, Bunyan was so chastened by the rebuke that he entirely reformed his speech. More than this, he made further strenuous efforts to be religious – worshipping twice a day and giving up all worldly pleasures. With overweening arrogance he thought he now ‘pleased God as well as any man in England’.
But his bravado evaporated a year or two later when he happened to overhear some poor women from nearby Bedford talking together about God’s dealings with them. The tinker stopped abruptly to listen. Such a religious fellow as he could surely add something to this conversation. But what he heard utterly silenced him.
‘Their talk was about a new birth, the work of God on their hearts, also how they were convinced of their miserable state by nature; they talked of how God had visited their souls with his love in the Lord Jesus …’
New birth? John Bunyan had never heard of such a thing. As for their ‘miserable state by nature’ this was something he had banished from his thinking. But this apparently chance meeting marked the beginning of a new dawn for Bunyan.
The way ahead was long and hard, for he had much to unlearn and was almost totally ignorant of true biblical religion. How he longed to know what these women knew – to be certain that God had forgiven his past and accepted even him.
‘Gold!’ he cried, ‘Could it have been gotten for gold, what could I have given for it! Had I had a whole world it had all gone ten thousand times over for this, that my soul might have been in a converted state!’
The best sort of guide
The women introduced the troubled young tinker to their pastor, John Gifford – a man whose colourful background made him just the one to help John Bunyan. Gifford became John’s ideal as the best sort of guide to help anxious enquirers.
Very gradually, Bunyan inched his way towards the assurance that God accepted him for Christ’s sake, not his own. At last he came to see that ‘it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, the same yesterday and today for ever’.
Then he could exclaim in triumph: ‘Now did my chains fall from my legs indeed, I was loosed from my affliction and irons, my temptations also fled away … now also went I home rejoicing for the grace and love of God’.
The tinker turned preacher
Bunyan began preaching – tentatively at first but with increasing confidence. And hundreds flocked to hear him, astonished that the tinker should have turned preacher.
To his amazement John saw tears streaming down the cheeks of his listeners for, as he tells us, ‘I preached what I felt, what I smartingly did feel, even that under which my poor soul did groan and tremble to astonishment’.
John Bunyan’s preaching soon began to trouble the authorities. These were days of turmoil and change in England. Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, and two years later Charles II was recalled from exile and restored to the throne.
Fearful of further unrest, the Royalists, now returned to power, reacted against any preaching outside the strict confines of the Established Church. John Bunyan was among the first to feel the effects of this backlash.
In 1660 Bunyan was committed to Bedford County Jail on a trumped-up charge and, apart from several short intervals, remained there for twelve long years. But gagging the preacher had a result far different from that which the local justices intended.
Despite the filthy, crowded and disease-ridden conditions of the local prison, John Bunyan managed to write – a steady stream of amazing books, still read today with enormous benefit by Christians throughout the world.
And the highest pinnacle of his achievement was The Pilgrim’s Progress, written in prison around 1667-68. Drawing on scenes etched in his memory by his own stormy life, Bunyan follows the progress of his hero.
‘Pilgrim’ discovers with alarm that this present world is a ruin – a City of Destruction – and that the only hope is to flee from the impending disaster and to travel to a better country – the Celestial City.
Nor is the path easy. Burdened by the weight of his sins, Pilgrim only finds relief when he comes to the Place of Deliverance – the cross of Christ. There, the burden rolls from his back, he gives ‘three leaps for joy,’ and goes on his way, singing – a pilgrim still but bearing the new name of ‘Christian’.
The last river
Many further hazards await him. He struggles up Hill Difficulty, suffers persecution and is mocked as he passes through Vanity Fair. But always the Lord of the Way sends timely help, and just beyond lie the shining gates of the Celestial City.
Not until the end of Part II of The Pilgrim’s Progress – the journey of Christian’s wife, Christiana and her children – do we meet Mr Valiant-for-Truth. This character’s outstanding courage gave rise to Bunyan’s song of tribute: ‘Who would true valour see’.
Mr Valiant had struggled single-handed against three rogues who challenged him to join them, or to turn back on the life of pilgrimage, or to die on the spot. He chose the last and ‘fought till my sword did cleave to my hand’. Scarred in the battle he yet emerged victorious as his opponents fled.
And as Mr Valiant crossed the ‘last river’ – the river of death – he gave away that sword, but cried out, ”My marks and scars I carry with me to be witness for me that I have fought his battles, who will now be my rewarder’.
So too John Bunyan, who died in 1688 at almost sixty years of age, fought a valiant fight and carried with him many scars from the conflict. And by his writings he is still pointing out the path of life to our own generation. May we too be valiant for the truth, ‘come wind, come weather’.