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Grace Abounding was published in 1666.-It reveals the personality and the personal history that are behind the Pilgrim's Progress, the first part of which appeared twelve years later.
John Bunyan was born in a way-side cottage at Elstow, near Bedford, in the year 1628. “In this my relation of the merciful work of God upon my soul, it will not be amiss," he says, “ if, in the first place, I do, in a few words, give a hint of my pedigree, and manner of bringing up; that thereby the goodness and bounty of God towards me may be the more advanced and magnified before the sons of men.
“For my descent, then, it was, as is well known by many, of a low and inconsiderable generation; my father's house being of that rank that is meanest and most despised of all the families of the land. Wherefore, I have not here, as others, to boast of noble blood or of any high-born state, according to the flesh; though, all things considered, I magnify the heavenly Majesty for that by this door he brought me into the world to partake of the grace and life that is in Christ by the Gospel. But notwithstanding the meanness and inconsiderableness of my parents, it pleased God to put into their hearts to put me to school to learn me both to read and to write ; the which I also attained according to the rate of other poor men's children; though, to my shame, I confess I did soon lose that I had learnt, even almost utterly, and that long before the Lord did work his gracious work of conversion upon my soul.”
His father was a tinker or brazier, and to that trade John was set after his schooling days were over, which was very soon. From his earliest years he was subject to
fearful dreams and visions. These, he believed, were sent by God to frighten him out of the wickedness of which he was guilty; the sins of which he specially accuses himself, and in which he says he had few equals for his age, being “cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God." The boy had, we may suppose, but adopted the prevailing manner of speech and moral tone of his environment, though we may be sure there were other and better elements in the life around him, to which he was no less responsive. Anyhow, his wrong-doing was followed by fits of remorse. So wicked did he feel himself at times to be that he feared, and indeed was very sure, that he was going to Hell, and often wished that, if such was to be his destiny, he might be a devil there, thinking the part of a tormentor preferable to that of the tormented ! But the effect of his frightful dreams and his fears of judgment to come did not last very long; he went from bad to worse, trying to forget the Divine warnings in the enjoyment of his wicked pleasures. “Wherefore,” he says, “ with more greediness, according to the strength of my nature, I did let loose the reins of my lust, and delighted in all transgressions against the law of God; so that, until I came to the state of marriage, I was the very ringleader of all the youth that kept me company, in all manner of vice and ungodliness." There is the best reason, however, for believing that the picture he thus paints of himself is much blacker than it ought to have been—and that he was not really guilty of the grosser sins of which he seems in this passage to accuse himself. At any rate, we know that afterwards he strongly resented the charge of unchastity which had been brought against his early life. As we have seen, Bunyan's particular sins were sins of speech-cursing, swearing, blaspheming. He was one who should have been early taught to say with the Psalmist : “ I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue ; I will keep my mouth with a bridle.” Gifted as he was with extraordinary powers of imagination and expression, and feeling the natural impulse to use them, he was inevitably tempted to dazzle his companions (themselves not very choice in their speech) by what Royce calls his “abounding wealth of skilfully bad language." But it was a sign of grace in him that he could not bear to hear such language from the lips of those whom he esteemed better than himself; for he says, on “ hearing one to swear that was reckoned a religious man, it had so great a stroke upon my spirit, that it made my heart ache.”
He recalls some merciful dealings of God with him. Once, falling into the sea he narrowly escaped drowning. Again, when he was a soldier in the civil war, it was his turn to go on sentry duty at a siege, but just as he was about to go, another man came along and asked to be allowed to go in his stead. On getting Bunyan's consent, he went, and was shot at his post and died. These escapes from death, however, failed to make any serious impression on him at the time, or to bring about any amendment of his life. The first step towards better things was taken when he married at the age of 21. “My mercy,” he says, “ was to light upon a wife whose father was counted godly. This woman and I, though we came together as poor as poor might be (not having so much household stuff as a dish or a spoon betwixt
1 Studies in Good and Evil, p. 55.
us both), yet this she had for her part, The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven, and The Practice of Piety, which her father had left her when he died.” A poor legacy, these two books; but more precious than gold; infinitely precious indeed they proved to be, seeing that they helped to start the pilgrim on his way to the Celestial City. They were popular works in their day, but are interesting to us now only because they were among the possessions, so pathetically scanty, of that humble couple who began their married life in a little cottage still standing at Elstow, and because they were among the forerunners of Bunyan's immortal book.1
The change that was being wrought in Bunyan began to show itself in his regular attendance at Church on Sundays, and in a great reverence for everything pertaining to the Church, including the preacher's vestments. But still he continued to join in the Sunday sports on the village green, as had been the common practice since the issue of King James' Book of Sports in 1618, wherein that monarch proclaimed that after service on Sundays, “no lawful recreation should be barred to his good
1 The Plainman's Pathway to Heaven, by Arthur Dent, was first published in 1601. These words from its opening dialogue anticipate many a delightful passage in the Pilgrim's Progress :
Philagathus : Well met, good Master Theologus.
Philagathus : Are you walking here all alone in this pleasant meadow ?
Theologus : Yea, for I take some pleasure at this time of the year to walk abroad in the fields for my recreation, both to take the fresh air, and to hear the sweet singing of birds.
Philagathus : Indeed, Sir, it is very comfortable, especially now in this pleasant month of May; and thanks be to God we have had a very forward spring, and as kindly a season as came this seven years.
Theologus : God doth abound towards us in mercies ; Ob that we could abound towards him in thanksgiving !
people.” He took part in the games without thinking that there was any harm in doing so until one Sunday the clergyman, who was a strict Puritan, preached a sermon against such sports; and Bunyan went home with a heavy heart and an uneasy conscience. But after he had had his mid-day meal the impression of the sermon began to wear off, and by and by he was on the green as usual, and playing the game of Cat. In the midst of the game, however, “a voice," he says, “ did suddenly dart from heaven into my soul, which said, 'Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to Heaven, or have thy sins and go to Hell ?' At this I was put to an exceeding maze ; wherefore, leaving my cat upon the ground, I looked up to Heaven, and was as if I had, with the eyes of my understanding, seen the Lord Jesus looking down upon me, as being very hotly displeased with me, and as if he did severely threaten me with some grievous punishment for those and other ungodly practices." · That, it seems, was the moment when Bunyan became, as he would have said, convicted of sin; it was the moment when the Pilgrim became aware of the great black burden on his back. But the immediate effect was to plunge him into despair. As he felt that he had sinned beyond the possibility of recovery, he thought he might as well be damned for many sins as for few; and so he went on with his Sunday games, and his speech continued to be as ribaldrous and ungoverned as ever. But one day, as he was standing at a shop window, and cursing and swearing as usual, the woman who kept the shop, and who was herself rather a disreputable character, overheard him, and she forthwith began to tell him plainly what she thought of him. She said that his language