John Bunyan and the Women Who Shaped His Life

John Bunyan and the Women Who Shaped His Life

            If it’s true that behind every great man there is a great woman, John Bunyan had a good company of great women behind him.

Mother

            We don’t know hardly anything about Bunyan’s mother, Margaret Bentley. Like her husband Thomas and their children, she was a native of Elstow, in the English county of Bedfordshire. She was Thomas’s second wife, and only a few months younger than him.

            In his writings, John Bunyan never talks about his mother, while he mentions how he wished that his father had taught him “to speak without this wicked way of swearing” that had marked his life for so many years.

            Margaret died when John was 17, and he left home a few months later in order to join the Parliamentary Army. Her death might have something to do with his decision, but there might have been other reasons – for one, his father’s hasty third marriage, just two months after Margaret’s death.

First Wife

            Bunyan returned home in July 1617, after Parliament had disbanded his regiment, and found a wife who had been brought up in a pious family. Bunyan never mentions her name. She was also poor, and her only dowry were two popular devotional books she had inherited from her father: Arthur Dent’s The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and Lewis Bayly’s The Practice of Piety.

            At times, Bunyan read these books with his wife. He followed some of their advice, and started to go to church faithfully. Later, he realized he was doing it out of superstition, as the priests, in their flowing robes, had some special powers. In his heart, nothing had changed, and the short times of conviction over his sins were followed by a return to his bad habits.

            His wife stayed by his side through all this and through the following roller-coaster of spiritual highs and lows, supporting her family on Bunyan’s small income. She died in 1658, leaving Bunyan with four children: Mary, Elizabeth, John, and Thomas. Mary was blind.

Bedfordshire Women

            Besides his wife, a few other women had a significant impact on Bunyan’s life as a tinker. The first was a neighbor who became sick and tired with his bad language. She didn’t have a good reputation (Bunyan described her as “a very loose and ungodly wretch.”)[1] Still, she said he had the foulest mouth she had ever heard, and that he was going “to spoil all the youth in the whole town.”

            This unexpected rebuke shook him up, and he stopped using bad language. He was actually surprised to see that, after so many years, he could speak without cussing. The whole town was amazed. They all started to praise him and treat him as a godly man. He liked their praise, but deep inside he knew this was just a superficial change.

            What turned him around was another encounter, this time with a group of “poor women” in nearby Bedford. He heard them talking about God, and went closer to listen carefully. He didn’t fully understand what they were saying, because he was not used to that type of conversation – all about a new, spiritual birth, and God’s work in their lives. One thing impressed him most of all: they said that their own righteousness was worth nothing. In fact, they called it “filthy, and insufficient to do them any good.”[2]

            In spite of this self-depreciation, they spoke “as if joy did make them speak” – in fact, “as if they had found a new world.”[3] Bunyan found he couldn’t stay away long. He kept visiting them, and it was probably through these women that he was introduced to the independent church in Bedford.

Elizabeth Bunyan

            Elizabeth Bunyan is the best known of all the women in Bunyan’s life, mostly for her dramatic intervention during his imprisonment. Bunyan married her within a year after the death of his first wife. He was about 31 years old, and Elizabeth 17.

            She might have been aware of the risk she was taking. By that time, Bunyan was a popular preacher in his region and, technically, this type of preaching was illegal in England. In 1593, Queen Elizabeth I had passed a law, ordering that every man and woman in England must attend the services in the Church of England, and no one could meet for worship outside the approved church.

            But in 1649 Parliament had won the civil war and had turned England into a free Commonwealth. Since many of the men in Parliament were Puritans, independent preaching was often allowed.

            Even when, in 1660, the poor government of Richard Cromwell forced Parliament to call Charles I’s son (Charles II) on the throne, many Puritans were still optimistic. Religious toleration had been part of the stipulations in the restoration of the monarchy.

            That’s why Bunyan was not excessively troubled when he got news that the authorities had issued a warrant for his arrest, that was going to take place during a church service in Lower Samsell, near Bedford. In fact, it was only about two months later, during his court session in Bedford, that he realized he had been indicted.

           Bunyan had a difficult decision to make. Surely, he had to think about his wife and children, who would be left without a source of income while he was in prison. What’s worse, when Elizabeth had first heard of his arrest, she had become so distressed that the baby she was carrying in her womb was born prematurely and died soon after that. Bunyan must have wanted to be with her at that difficult time.

           Bunyan enlisted Elizabeth’s help to plead with the judges. She took a petition first to London, then to the local judges in Bedford. She even threw one copy inside the coach of a judge, who was not pleased.

           She was finally able to speak to the judges during their last session, in a crowded Bedford inn. One of her lines of defense what that Bunyan had never pleaded guilty because he was never formally asked that question. But when a judge said they would hear Bunyan if he promised never to preach again, she admitted that her husband would never stop preaching as long as he had breath.

           Elizabeth tried to move the men to compassion. She told them she was a young mother of four small children, one of whom (Mary) was blind. She also explained she had just lost a baby. Some of the men were moved, but one said she was using her poverty to get what she wanted. In fact, he said that Bunyan made more money as a preacher than he did as a tinker. He added that Bunyan was preaching the teachings of the devil.

           “My lord,” she replied, “when the righteous Judge shall appear, it will be known that his doctrine is not the doctrine of the devil.”[4] In the end, Elizabeth left the room in tears. She later told her husband she was mostly crying for those men’s hard hearts, knowing that God would judge them unless they repented.

           Elizabeth continued to visit her husband in prison, bringing the children along. She and John had two more children together: Sarah and Joseph She died in 1691, three years after Bunyan.

Christiana and Mercy

           This company of godly women must have influenced Bunyan’s depiction of Christiana and Mercy in Pilgrim’s Progress II – two brave women who embarked, together with their children, on the same journey Christian had undertaken before them. Like the women in Bunyan’s life, Christiana and Mercy are intelligent, brave, and persistent.

           Christiana knocks insistently at the gate, commands two assaulters to “stand back,” and “spurned at them with her feet”[5] when they try to lay hands on them. She quotes Scriptures and trains her children to study the Bible and learn sound theology. And her courageous stand (“Now I am risen a mother in Israel”) encourages Great-Heart to kill Giant Grim.

           Like Christian in part I, Christiana and Mercy are also vulnerable and willing to admit their sins, mistakes, and fears (including their foolishness in not asking a man to protect them along the way).

           Bunyan was a man of his times. He believed that women are spiritually weaker than men and more susceptible to the devil’s enticements. But life taught him they are equal heirs of God’s promises and valuable fellow-pilgrims on the way to the Celestial City.

 

 



[1] John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Project Gutenberg, Transcribed from the 1905 The Religious Tract Society, par. 26. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/654/654-h/654-h.htm

[2] Ibid., 37

[3] Ibid., 38

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress in Two Parts, London: Barret, Holborn, and Saunders, 1795, part II, p. 27

 

Simonetta Carr