John Bunyan, whose conversion we are now about to record, was born in the old English village of Elstow, in the year 1628.
His father, who was a poor brazier and tinker, brought him up to the same handicraft. Though at heart an atheist, and terribly profane, he was never a drunkard, or of unclean life. "The thing that gave Bunyan any notoriety in the days of his ungodliness," writes his biographer, Dr. Hamilton, "and which made him afterwards to appear to himself such a monster of iniquity, was the energy which he put into all his doings. He had a zeal for idle play and an enthusiasm in mischief which were the perverse manifestations of a forceful character."
This energetic disposition of character naturally gave him a position of prominence among his fellows, and he became a ragamuffin chief and leading spirit in all the idle sports and pastimes enacted on Elstow Green. "The only restraining influence of which he then felt the power was terror," says the above-mentioned writer. "His days were often gloomy through forebodings of wrath to come, and his nights were scared with visions which the boisterous diversions and adventures of his waking days could not always dispel. He would dream that the last day had come, and that the quaking earth was opening its mouth to let him down to hell; or he would find himself in the grasp of fiends who were dragging him powerless away."
But these influences did not extend beyond the period of his boyhood, and he became hardened, almost "past feeling," as he became older. He several times escaped death in a remarkably providential manner; but this "goodness of God" failed utterly to lead him to "repentance." He married at an early age, and it appears that his wife was the daughter of a godly man. She possessed two small books which her father had left her on his death-bed, as her only legacy; these were, "The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven," and another, called "The Practice of Piety." These books young Bunyan read, and they were the means of creating within him a desire to reform his godless life. So he attended church twice a day regularly, and read the responses from the Prayer-book and sang, as he saw the rest of the congregation doing. So thoroughly did he fall under the blinding influences of superstition at this time that, as one remarks, "Had he seen a priest, though never so sordid and debauched in his life, his spirit would fall under him, and he could have lain down at the feet of such and been trampled upon by them—their name, their garb, their work, did so intoxicate and bewitch him." He adored the altar, worshiped the surplice, and deified the individual who served at the former and arrayed himself in the latter. But this ritualism, as is ever the case, was powerless either to reach his heart or change his life, and he continued in his old course of sin and blasphemy.
One Lord's day, however, in the midst of his usual afternoon diversions, a voice, as if from heaven, seemed to say, Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or have thy sins and go to hell? "His arm," one writes, "which was about to strike a ball, was arrested, and, looking up to heaven, it seemed as if the Lord Jesus was looking down upon him in remonstrance and deep displeasure, and at the same time the conviction flashed across him that he had sinned so long that repentance was now too late." He thought, "My state is surely miserable; miserable if I leave my sins, and but miserable if I follow them. I can but be damned, and if I must be so, I had as good be damned for many sins as few."
So fully was he persuaded that repentance was for him impossible, that he deliberately decided to have his fill of "the pleasures of sin" while life should last, and then suffer forever the fearful consequences. "For a month or more he went on in resolute sinning, only grudging that he could not get such scope as the madness of despair solicited.
"One day as he was standing at a neighbor's window, cursing and swearing, and 'playing the madman after his wonted manner,' a woman of the town protested that he made her tremble, and that truly he was the ungodliest fellow for swearing that she ever heard in all her life, and quite enough to ruin the youth of the whole town. The woman was herself a notoriously worthless character, and so severe a reproof from so strange a quarter had a singular effect on Bunyan's mind. He was silenced in a moment. He blushed before the God of heaven; and as he there stood with hanging head, he wished with all his heart that he were a little child again, and that his father might teach him to speak without profanity; for he thought his bad habit so inveterate now, that reformation was out of the question."
From that day he ceased to swear, and his whole outward life was so reformed that his fellow-townsmen wondered greatly. He commenced to read the Bible, and became greatly interested in the historical parts of it. But this was only another attempt of Satan to deceive him—now by legalism, as at first by ritualism. He says, "I did set the commandments before me for my way to heaven; which commandments I did also strive to keep, and, as I thought, did keep them pretty well sometimes, and thus I should have comfort; yet now and then should break one, and so afflict my conscience; but then I should repent, and say I was sorry for it, and promised God to do better next time, and there get help again; for then I thought I pleased God as well as any man in England. Thus I continued about a year; all which time our neighbors did take me to be a very godly man, a new and religious man, and did marvel much to see such great and famous alteration in my life and manners; and, indeed, so it was, though I knew not Christ, nor grace, nor faith, nor hope."
But one day, after he had removed to Bedford, as he was passing down the street, he noticed a few poor women in conversation in a doorway. He drew near, and listened a while to their talk. They were speaking of the new birth, and the work of God's Spirit in their souls, and their personal experiences of the saving power of God's grace through Christ. He stood amazed, and realized that they possessed something of which he was entirely ignorant.
He then began to perceive that salvation is not from anything that comes from man, or that man can do, but that it is from God, and that to possess it he must have to do with God Himself—that it was something new he must possess in his soul which none but God can give, a forgiveness of sins which none but God can administer. These poor women were basking in the sunshine whilst he, with all his doings, was shivering in the cold.
But long, weary years of doubt and despondency yet passed before Bunyan learned to look away from self to find in Christ and His finished work the way to God and peace. The pride of heart which hinders men from seeing their truly lost condition was very strong in him, and it took long to break it up. Luther's "Commentary on Galatians" fell into his hands one day, and brought him a flood of light. "His happiness," one writes, "was now as intense as his misery had been. He wished he were fourscore years old, that he might die quickly, that he might go to be with Him who had made His soul an offering for his sins."
After this he was again assailed by temptations of Satan, and another season of agony was passed; but finally he was relieved by the text, "The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin." He says, "I saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ Himself, 'the same yesterday, and to-day, and forever."'
This, reader, is the story of the conversion of the author of the immortal "Pilgrim's Progress." Learn from it, as he at last learned, that salvation is by "JESUS ONLY."
John Bunyan by C. Knapp