His wife passed away, leaving him with four children, including his beloved Mary who was blind. To make matters worse, he was a tinker, which involved significant travel for him. Not surprisingly, he remarried. His second wife was an 18 year old young woman from his church. Elizabeth had known the Bunyan family for quite a while. She had long observed his loving attitude toward his family, and had been touched at his deep grief when his wife passed.
Elizabeth was a brave soul, taking on four stepchildren! She was up to the challenge, it seemed, and after a few years was expected a baby of her very own. However, that is just the time that trouble struck the Bunyan household.
John Bunyan knew he was in danger of imprisonment for preaching when the monarchy of England was restored in 1660. One evening, before a the service started, someone warned Bunyan that a warrant was out for his arrest. Rather than flee, Bunyan felt led of the Lord to stand his ground and continue the service as planned.
He was arrested by Justice Wingate, who burst in with his men. They had caught John red-handed, along with his congregation: they had their Bibles out and opened. John was just opening the service with prayer when they rushed in. They allowed him to speak a few sentences before they led him off. John reminded the people that it was better to be arrested for doing something right than it was for doing something wrong.
Why Bunyan Didn't Flee
An interesting question that comes up is this: why didn't Bunyan flee in time to avoid arrest? One of the reason’s Bunyan didn’t try to escape was concern over the effect it would have on those he had preached to, and especially the new converts. He didn't want them to feel that he wasn't as strong in deed as he was in word, because he didn't spare words when it came to sin and the dangers or hell. Another concern of his was that if he ran, it would make him look guilty -- perhaps, in the eyes of the people, guilty of something evil. Bunyan, therefore, stood his ground ... knowing they were coming to arrest him.
Legal Issues behind Bunyan's Arrest
Bunyan was arrested under the Conventicle Act of 1593, which made it a punishable offense to attend a religious meeting other than one held at the parish (Anglican) church, with more than five people in attendance who you weren't related to. This offence carried a stiff penalty: 3 months in prison, followed by banishment from the area or even execution if the you didn't promise that you would not repeat the offense. This law had been around since before Bunyan was even born, and was rarely enforced. In short, it was used as an excuse to arrest him
Bunyan's arrest went very hard on his wife, Elizabeth, who was about 20 years old when this happened. When he was imprisoned, she was left with four step-children and a baby on the way. Sadly, she miscarried, no doubt due to the stress and chaos of her husband's arrest. Elizabeth pleaded with the powers that be to release John, but to no avail. As long as he intended to continue to preach and attend non-conformist meetings, he would remain their prisoner.
Finances were a major problem for Elizabeth. Bunyan tried to contribute to the household by making shoelaces from his jail cell, but as you can imagine this didn't provide much. He also wrote some religious pamphlets to help offset the financial need. John also published his biography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, while imprisoned -- but he never made much money from any of his books. As a result, Elizabeth primarily relied on the charity of the members of their church and others who wanted to help.
John Bunyan was far from oblivious to the problems his stand took on his family: "O I saw in this condition I was a man who was pulling down his house upon the head of his Wife and Children; yet thought I, I must do it, I must do it.”
A Few Notes
When you realize that Bunyan had only been a lay preacher for about four years when he was arrested and was still a relatively new convert, it is amazing that he survived twelve years in prison. All he had to do was promise not to preach any more or attend any more non-conformist meetings and he could go back to his family -- but he stood his ground.
He had to watch his family struggle in poverty, knowing that he had the skills to make a good living for them. His children grew up while he was in prison -- a four year-old would be sixteen by the time he was released. As we will discuss in the next post, he was allowed to visit with them, but that is not the same as being at home with them. Still, he stood his ground.
By the time Bunyan was released from Bedford jail, he had spent 3/4 of his ministry working from within a prison cell. Truly, the Lord works in ways that we will never understand in this life.
TO BE CONTINUED
Sara McCaslin is an engineer, a computer scientist, and a freelance writer.