John Bunyan: Prison & Prayer

John Bunyan is no doubt best known for his Pilgrim’s Progress, a beautiful allegory of the Christian life, a book which has lasted the test of time. And in his own day Bunyan was well known as an excellent preacher. He often preached at John Owen’s church in London, where Charles Doe remarked that “if there were but one day’s notice given, there would be more people come together to hear him preach than the meeting house could hold.”[1] His preaching was so highly regarded that even Charles II asked Owen about the poor tinkering preacher, to which Owen responded that he would gladly exchange all his learning for just a bit of Bunyan’s power in the pulpit.

            But one area of Bunyan’s life that often goes unnoticed is his commitment to and delight found in prayer. Before he was either a preacher or a writer he was first a man of prayer. In his own spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding, Bunyan remarks that early in his conversion, where Satan tempted him to unbelief declared his sins unpardonable, Bunyan could only reply, “Well, I will pray.” “It is to no boot”, responded the Devil. “Yet”, said Bunyan, “I will pray.”[2] This theme of praying seemed to last throughout his entire life. One of Bunyan’s last books, published posthumously, was The Saint’s Privilege and Profit, an extended exposition of Hebrews 4:16 and the Christian’s delightful privilege to pray, “coming boldly to the throne of grace.”

            If we consider the turmoil of Bunyan’s life though, this commitment to prayer doesn’t seem out of place. Bunyan was imprisoned for twelve years beginning in 1661. And out of all his writings composed in prison his first was I Will Pray in the Spirit, a treatise on true biblical prayer. Perhaps it was here, in the horrible conditions of prison where prayer became increasingly precious to Bunyan. Indeed, it seems that prayer was part of his main spiritual diet, allowing him to persevere in faithfulness. 

            Christopher Hill describes the conditions of Bunyan’s twelve year imprisonment this way: “Satan can make a jail to look like hell itself’, wrote Bunyan many years later. Insanitary conditions, lack of heating, and overcrowding, led to jail fever and other diseases... The plague of 1665 raged around Bedford jail, claiming forty victims. A pest-house was set up in town.”[3]

            It should be noted that, along with his preaching, Bunyan was also imprisoned (and thus probably wrote this first treatise) because of his opposition to using the mandated set forms of prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer. At the end of his I Will Pray in the Spirit, Bunyan directs his readers to “look into the jails of England... and I trow you will find those that plead for the Spirit of prayer in jail... It is evident also by the silencing of God’s dear ministers, though never so powerfully enabled by the Spirit of prayer, if they in conscience cannot admit of that form of Common Prayer... [May] The Lord in mercy turn the hearts of the people to seek more after the Spirit of prayer; and in strength of that, to pour out their souls before the Lord.”[4] Bunyan is proving to his readers, as it were, that in prison, set forms of prayer will not do. In prison it is only true prayer, the “pouring out of their souls” in the Spirit that will make a man find true rest in Christ.

             And you continually get this sense of comfort that Bunyan found in prayer.  “Sometimes there is a sweet sense of mercy received; encouraging, comforting, strengthening, enlivening, enlightening mercy... In prayer there is sometimes in the soul a sense of mercy to be received. This again sets the soul aflame... This provoked Jacob, David, Daniel [notice: all men who were imprisoned], with others, not by fits and starts, nor yet in a foolish frothy way, but mightily, fervently, and continually, to groan out their conditions before the Lord, as being sensible of their wants, their misery, and the willingness of God to show mercy.”[5] In his later book on prayer The Saint’s Privilege and Profit Bunyan writes that religious persecution is an “hour of darkness... [it is] full of snares, and of evils of every kind. Here is the fear of man, the terrors of prison, of loss of goods and life. Now all things look black, now the fiery trial is come. He that cannot now pray, he that now applies not himself to God on the throne of grace, by the priesthood of Jesus Christ, is like to take a fall before all men, a foul fall... Come therefore boldly unto the throne of grace, that you may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”[6] When all else looked hopeless, for Bunyan prayer was the only answer. “Yet” said Bunyan,”I will pray.”

            John Bunyan, a man whom God clearly used to pour out his ink in writing great books, and who poured out his voice in preaching outstanding sermons, was also a man who evidently poured out his soul in continuous Spirit filled prayer. And so we can be thankful for his writings on prayer which I pray will be used to revive the church and her praying today.

[1] Charles Doe, ‘The Struggler’, The Works of John Bunyan, ed. G. Offor. vol. iii. 766-7. I found this in Christopher Hill’s biography of Bunyan, A Tinker and a Poor Man: John Bunyan and His Church, 1628-1688 (Norton, 1988), 149.

[2] Grace Abounding, 63.

[3] Hill, A Tinker and a Poor Man, 121.

[4] Found in Prayer (Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), 60

[5] ibid., 15-16.

[6] ibid., 154.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

Stephen Unthank