I am a Yorkshireman. My life has been spent in that marvellous part of the world. My childhood was cluttered with the mill towns further down the valley, and opened out by the moors further up it, and as a lad I’d walk up there until there was not a trace of any other human being. It was in such places that my ancestors met to hear the word of God when an Anglican Parliament passed the Conventicle Act of 1664 which tried to force all God-fearing Englishmen back into the Church of England. It was a foolish act, as such acts tend to be. Free-born Englishmen are not to be told on such things. Some joined their families across the Atlantic where they already breathed a freer air – but some just headed out for the moors with their Bibles and listened to the word of the Lord in the open air – closer by far to Him.
The persecution of my forefathers was real. Some were imprisoned, some whipped – but such treatment deterred only those who could be; the true remnant persevered. If, in after days, they seemed ramrod stiff and intransigent, be it remembered that without those qualities, they’d have fallen away. Persecution separates wheat from chaff; but it does not produce diplomats or compromisers. It also produces literature. In this case one of the best of all books, Pilgrim’s Progress. When I was a lad, Pilgrim’s Progress was one of few books in our house. My father, who was not a believer, indeed was the opposite, nonetheless thought Bunyan a great Englishman, and his book one I should read. Not that he’s buy it me, for that it was necessary to save my pocket money. I did, and for 2/6d I bought my copy in the good old Everyman Library series; I have it to this day.
Back then it was one of those books we all read; it seems less so now. Quite apart from its very considerable literary merit – Bunyan’s prose, shaped by the King James Bible and the language of Shakespeare, was clear, direct and yet poetic in cadence – and being readable is never a bar to success. But the book had the impact it had then and since because it spoke to the everyday life of the Christian. If I might, I want to dwell on it for a few posts as time allows.
Bunyan begins with his dream:
I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. Isa 64:6; Luke 14:33; Psalm 38:4. I looked and saw him open the book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled; and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, “What shall I do?” Acts 2:37; 16:30; Habak 1:2,3.
That is where so many of us began, and when I first read it I cried out in recognition, as so many have before and since – that was me. I had a great burden on my back – my accumulated sins – and in my hands I had a book – but how should I divine its purpose? That, too, Bunyan went on to tell me.
That is where we shall go next time.