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John Bunyan: The Jailor's Story

  • Updated Aug 21, 2023
John Bunyan: The Jailor's Story

Taking a Stand

I watched for trouble as John Bunyan preached to a crowd in the town square. The foolish man had been warned he'd be arrested for preaching outside the church. At this rate, he'd end up in my jail before long.

"I must preach," I once heard him tell an officer. "When God lays that on a man's heart, it is terrible to disobey, more terrible than your jails."

"Humph," I thought. "Does he really know what jail is like?" Did he understand how dark they were, how only the faintest light penetrates the damp stone walls? Did he realize that he'd get just a quarter loaf of bread a day and that no one in the crowded cells got to bathe?

If Bunyan did know about these conditions, he didn't let it stop his preaching. I became curious. Why would a man act like this? Did Bunyan really believe what he said about God? What did I believe? These questions were in my mind when I went to hear him, hoping no one in the crowd would recognize me.

Bunyan's preaching kept my attention. I'll give him that. He spoke about what makes a person a Christian. Now that was a funny thing to talk about. Weren't we all Christians since we were born into the Anglican Church?

"Those who receive Christ are the ones who truly know God," he shouted.

That's when it started-- a disturbance at the edge of the crowd. Officers of the British government muscled their way past worshipers. "John Bunyan, we arrest you in the name of the king for holding an illegal religious meeting."

I slipped away and returned to the jail; there'd be a new prisoner to process.

The Times

I stood before him with my hands on my hips. "Well, Bunyan, look at where your preaching got you."

He sat on the rough bench regarding me with peaceful eyes. Fear usually envelops my prisoners' faces.

"You understand the law, don't you?"

"Yes, of course. These are troubled times, and the new king fears that hotheads could stir up revolution. But I'm not interested in politics. My zeal, as you know, is for bringing lost people to Jesus Christ," insisted John.

I jumped. "And how would I know?"

Again, the smile. "I saw you out there today."

"Yes, well, a man can be curious, can't he?" I grumbled and hurried away. John Bunyan wasn't going to get his hooks in me.

Bunyan drew a lot of visitors to my jail, including his devoted young wife, who was expecting a baby. She always came in with her head high and proud, as if defying the stench and the darkness. She constantly went to the authorities to plead Bunyan's case. One man shouted her out of his chambers claiming, "John Bunyan does the devil's work!" Like her husband, she never quit.

When she didn't come to see him for several days, I figured she was out badgering the judges again. When she did come, it was clear that she had lost their baby. Bunyan remained in prison, toiling away, making shoelaces to earn money. I didn't hear him complain, but sometimes he looked very sad.

Never Give Up

Three months after Bunyan came to jail, a big-shot came looking for him, wrinkling his nose at the smell.

"If you promise to stop preaching, you may go free," I heard him tell Bunyan.

"I cannot go against God," he said.

"Pitiful," I thought. "After all he and his family have been through, he's still holding out. What's wrong with him?"

Preach and write, write and preach. That's what Bunyan did day in, day out. Many a morning while I passed the bread along to the hungry inmates, I'd hear him preaching to the others. "God will come to the aid of anyone who believes in Him," he said.

"Don't you ever stop?" I growled at him.

He shook his head and smiled. "I'm already in here for preaching the Gospel. What's to prevent me?"

Blind Mary Brings Soup

For all the hardships I saw him endure, what really got to me was his daughter, Mary, a little girl of 10. The first time I saw her I said, "Why do you want to be coming to a place like this?"

"I've brought my father his supper," she replied holding up a hot jug of soup.

When she tripped over the stoop, I shook my head at her clumsiness. "Better watch where you're goin'."

"I can't help it, sir," she said. "I'm blind."

I could've eaten my words and bitten my tongue. Poor lass! Naturally, I let her in. She memorized the way to the prison and started coming daily to give her father soup. I knew where she got her dedication.

It nearly broke my heart when, three years later, she didn't come.

"Where's the lass?" I asked her brother.

He hung his head. "She's awful sick."

Then she died. I half expected Bunyan to start wailing at the news. Instead, he took up his pen. Through his quiet tears he explained, "I must write about the resurrection of the dead."

That's when I started wondering if it might be true.

John Bunyan's Progress

Twelve years passed, and finally Bunyan was set free. It seemed as if his troubles were over and he could go back to a quiet family life. Yet, one day three years later, I looked up and there he was again.

A pompous looking officer said, "This man is under arrest for illegal preaching."

I sighed. Was there no end to this man's troubles?

"C'mon in," I said. "I believe you know the way."

When he got settled, he started writing again as if he had something urgent to say. He paused a few weeks later and looked up as I brought his bread. "And what keeps you so busy these days?" I asked.

"There's a story I've been working on for a long time. It's about a Pilgrim named Christian who is making his way through a world full of hardship and temptation. He's going to make it, though, to Heaven, or what I call the Celestial City."

"A Celestial City? Ha! This world is so full of troubles, how can anyone believe in heaven? Surely, all your trials have taught you that, John!"

John's eyes held compassion. "My friend, we all have trials in this life. But if we put our faith in God, then we will see that we are just pilgrims passing through this world on our way to heaven."

Finally, it was all so clear to me! John Bunyan was like a Pilgrim on a difficult journey, but he knew he was going to a better place. By keeping his sights on heaven, he could face anything, even imprisonment!

Make It Real! Questions to make you dig a little deeper and think a little harder.

In John Bunyan's time in England there was no freedom of religion. Can you think of places in the world today where religious freedom is restricted?

John Bunyan could have been released from jail if he would stop preaching. Do you think he made the right decision?

John Bunyan's most famous book is The Pilgrim's Progress. The book is an exciting adventure that shares spiritual truths. Why do you think this has become the bestseller of all time, besides the Bible?

John Bunyan used his time in prison for good. Look up Philippians 1:12-14 to learn of another man who worked for good while in prison. Have you ever served God during a time when your circumstances were bad?

Suggested reading:

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

Dangerous Journey by Oliver Hunkin (available from Vision Video)

The Pilgrim's Progress Audio Drama

("John Bunyan: The Jailor's Story" published on on July 19, 2010)

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/allanswart