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Sunday, May 10, 2009

This is No Tall Tale: An Interview with John Bunyan

The following is an excerpt from a lengthy interview with John Bunyan, 17th-century English preacher and author (1628 – 1688) (not to be confused with Paul Bunyan, the big lumberjack dude with the even bigger blue ox, Babe).

For ease of reading, Mr. Bunyan's responses have been translated from Olde English into the modern vernacular.

Thank you, Mr. Bunyan, for taking the time to speak with us here at Novel Journey.
The pleasure is all mine. Ever since Chuck Dickens told us about his gig with you in Decemb
er, all of us in Writer Heaven have been itching for a chance to get in on it.

Happy to oblige. Since you're in the habit of hobnobbing with dead
writers, you're probably aware that Rudyard Kipling once referred to you as "the father of the novel." Which is, as you may have guessed, why we're interviewing you for Novel Journey. But what do you think of that appellation? Does it surprise you that your work, The Pilgrim's Progress, is said to be the most widely read book in the English language? Or that it's been translated into more than 200 languages?
Yes, all t
his surprises me. I never set out to create an art form, nor to make myself famous. It was my intention merely to illustrate the typical Christian walk, so that my fellow pilgrims might recognize the pitfalls along the way and realize that they are not alone in their journey.

I'd have to say you accomplished your purpose. No matter where or when we live, we recognize ourselves in your protagonist, Christian; and the supporting characters and the situations portraye
d are familiar to us as well.
That's to be expected. Our Savior is the Savior of all. All who receive Him enter into a common salvation, a common experience, and a common inheritance. What's more, we all share a common Enemy. Why would this tale not ring true for anyone on the same path?

Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to create this timeless allegory? Didn't I hear that you wrote it in prison?

I can't say what you've heard, but I did, in fact, write it while incarcerated.
Both parts of it, during separate imprisonments.

Both parts?
Part I, written in 1678 during my first imprisonment, deals with Christian's journey f
rom the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. He goes there via the Wicket Gate, which stands at the entrance to the straight and narrow King's Highway, the only road leading to the desired destination. The reader walks with Christian as he first seeks deliverance from the burden of sin he carries from his birthplace, until he comes to the sepulcher where the straps that bound his burden to him break, and it rolls away into the grave. From there he progresses, now relieved of his load, through many dangers and protracted battles until he and his companion, Hopeful, cross the River of Death to Mount Zion and are welcomed into the Celestial City.

That's th
e story we're most familiar with. What's Part II?
The second section, written during my second prison term in 1684, deals with the pilgrimage of Christian's wife, their sons, and the maiden, Mercy. I added this part to show that women and children as well as men can be brave pilgrims.

So what
's the deal with these prison terms? Were you some sort of criminal?
Obviously I was! Prior to my own journey by faith through "the Wicket Gate" of salvation
, I was, like St. Paul, the chief of sinners. In my youth I led a life of wild abandon to such a point that I was known as the ungodliest fellow for swearing anyone had ever heard.

It could be said, then, that you've always had a way with words.
Ha! Verily! And it was words that got me in trouble afterward, too, for I was arrested for preaching without a license.

You needed a license to preach?

Oh my yes, that was quite an issue. The Church of England didn't take kindly to recusancy, which was the failure to comply with their established brand of religion. All ministers were required to be ordained and licensed by the Church of England; all services had to use the rites and ceremonies set forth in the Book of Common Prayer; no more than five people who were not members of the official church were allowed to congregate together at any time. And Nonconformist ministers – that is, those not approved and licensed – were forbidden to live within five miles of a parish from which they had been banned, and were forbidden to teach in school
s. In 1672, King Charles II issued the Declaration of Religious Indulgence rescinding the penalties for recusancy, but withdrew it three years later.

I had no idea that sort of thing ever went on in England, but it makes sense, now that I think about it. When I studied American history in school, we learned that the Pilgrims came to the New World seeking religious freedom. I just never heard any particulars about what it was they fled.

I'm surprised at your ignorance, for the situation went on for, like, forever. The laws punishing non-compliance with the state religion first appeared in the mid
dle of the sixteenth century and remained on the books for nearly 300 years. You Americans have no idea what you have in your amazing Constitution. When your country was founded, governmental protection of freedom of worship was unprecedented in history. Even today it's increasingly rare, from what I hear.

Thanks to you, I'm beginning to have a greater
appreciation for that. How much time did you spend behind bars?
I was arrested a number of times, but only imprisoned but thrice. I was first to be confined for a period of only three months, but when I refused to conform or to desist from preaching, my term was extended to nearly twelve years. In 1666 I was released for a few weeks, but was again arrested for preaching and returned to the Bedford gaol for another six years. It wasn't all bad, however for during that time I had the opportunity to preach to an imprisoned congregation of about sixty souls.

Something in this story reminds me of the Apostle Paul.
Yes, quite. His sufferings, triumphs and writings all greatly eclipsed mine, but I cannot deny the weak similarities between my experiences and his.

You said you were imprisoned three times, but you mentioned only two just now.

I was released from my second imprisonment in January of 1672, when Charles II issued the Declaration of Religious Indulgence. Soon thereafter, I received one of the first licenses to preach under the new law. I formed a nonconformist church from my surviving parishioners, established over thirty new congregations, and increased the Bedford congregation to 4,000. They used to call me "Bishop Bunyan" in those days. But when King Charles withdrew the Declaration, I soon found myself back in gaol. This time, however, I had only six months to endure. I was released due to the kind intervention of the Quakers. This came as quite a surprise to me, as I'd earlier fiercely disagreed with Quaker teachings and took part in debates with some of their leaders in the 1650s. The Lord works in strange ways, does He not?

He certainly does. But I notice you've mentioned Bedford a number of times. This caught my attention, because I grew up in a town by that name.

As did I, and I lived most of my life in the vicinity. Where was your Bedford?

In the state of Ohio.

I see. I hate to break it to you, but all the Bedfords in your country – and I
understand many of your states have one -- are but pale imitations of my hometown. No offense intended, just stating the facts.

None taken. Was there a school there in Bedford, a college or a seminary, where you received your education?

I had very little schooling, actually. All told, only two or three years' worth, and that was given with a view toward preparing me for the tinker's trade, which my father practiced before me. It was a lowly profession, and I worked in it for a time. My first wife and I were so poor, we had not even a dish and a spoon between us. No, I cannot boast about the educational opportunities my Bedford provided me.

You wouldn't characterize yourself as a scholar, then.

My only textbook was the English Bible, but I knew it well. I was somewhat influenced by a 1575 translation of Martin Luther's Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, and during my second imprisonment I made good use of John Foxe's Book of Martyrs. But as St. Peter said in his second epistle, in God's holy word "He hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness." I never truly needed any other text.

Yet you were a prolific writer. I'm told you authored some sixty books and tracts.

I wrote what my Savior put on my heart. In prison, I had no shortage of pens and paper. I have to believe the Lord put me there with endless time, ample supplies, and an ever-flowing well of worship within me, for a reason.

I'm inspired by your story, Mr. Bunyan. Not just by your famous allegory, but even more, by your life story, the things you've shared with us today. Do you foresee a time when we in this country will have to make a choice as you did? Do you think that following the Lord will one day bring us official persecution?
I'm just a dead writer, not a prophet, so I can't say. Should the circumstances you describe arise, however, you know what you must do. Remember the words of our Lord as recorded by the pen of St. Matthew, "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." If that is the path you must tread, you shall travel in the best of company.


  1. This is a very exclusive interview... I don't Mr. Bunyan has given such a public interview for a very long time.

    There's plenty of persecution of christians that goes on in the United States, although perhaps it is simply not conducted by the government. People are mocked and insulted for their traditional values, different christians put each other down on account of things they believe in, etc.

    God Bless,

  2. Thanks for your comment, David.

    You're right about the persecution, but what we experience is extremely mild compared to what goes on in some other countries (particular Muslim nations), what the saints of old have experienced, and what the New Testament warns us we can expect.

  3. This was a very creative way to give the story of John Bunyan's remarkable life. Well done.


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