Crossing the River

The contrast between Bunyan’s mastery of devotional English writing and his earlier unregenerate use of the language is truly staggering.

The Bible was the antidote for Bunyan’s early, unpromising years, which held out little hope for his writing the most popular Protestant devotional work of the ages. This is not, to say the least, the usual expectation for a tinker (his father’s trade as well) with very little formal education. John Owen, Oxford’s Puritan theologian par excellence, who declined Harvard’s offer of its presidency, would take every opportunity to hear Bunyan preach.

 

Charles Haddon Spurgeon said he had read Pilgrim’s Progress one hundred times. Alexander Whyte said he had read it almost as often. These two giants of the British pulpit have been called the “last of the Puritans,” so thoroughly immersed were they in Puritan writings. Spurgeon gives us the key to Bunyan’s genius: “Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like reading the Bible itself. He had studied the Bible; he had read it till his very soul was saturated with Scripture and…he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress — that sweetest of all prose poems — without continually making us feel and say, ‘Why, this man is a living Bible!’ Prick him anywhere; his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God.”

The Bible was the antidote for Bunyan’s early, unpromising years, which held out little hope for his writing the most popular Protestant devotional work of the ages. This is not, to say the least, the usual expectation for a tinker (his father’s trade as well) with very little formal education. John Owen, Oxford’s Puritan theologian par excellence, who declined Harvard’s offer of its presidency, would take every opportunity to hear Bunyan preach. When King Charles II expressed surprise at this, Owen responded that he would gladly exchange all of his learning for the tinker’s ability to touch the heart. Bunyan kept his common touch: Once, when told he had preached a grand sermon, he replied, “Aye, you have no need to tell me that, for the devil whispered it to me before I was well out of the pulpit.”

The contrast between Bunyan’s mastery of devotional English writing and his earlier unregenerate use of the language is truly staggering. In his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, he writes: “One day, as I was standing at a neighbor’s shop window, and there cursing and swearing and playing the madman after my unwanted manner, there sat within the woman of the house, and heard me, who, though she was a very loose and ungodly wretch, yet protested that I swore and cursed at the most fearful rate that she was made to tremble to hear me; and told me further, that I was the ungodliest fellow for swearing that she had ever heard in all her life, and that I by thus doing was able to spoil all the youth in the whole town, if they came but in my company.”

Bunyan says he was silenced and shamed by this reproof and soon after “I beetook me to my Bible.” By God’s grace in conversion and providence, the tinker would come to write what has been described as the finest piece of writing in the English language — his description in Pilgrim’s Progress of Christian’s crossing the river of death into the city of the great King. Robert Browning put it this way: “His language was not ours: ‘Tis my belief, God spake: No tinker has such powers.”

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