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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”) 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.”