Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

John Bunyan as a Spiritual Guide

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

John Bunyan as a Spiritual Guide

Article excerpt

You may expect a very short article on such a subject as John Bunyan as a spiritual guide. Although Puritans borrowed many things from medieval contemplatives, they did not revive or recreate the office of spiritual director common in Roman Catholic religious orders.

Bunyan himself resisted conformity to The Book of Common Prayer to the point that in I Will Pray with the Spirit, which he wrote in 1663 while in prison for unlicensed preaching, he railed against the use of set forms of prayer, including the Lord's Prayer. Praying such prayers would be only "a little lip labor and bodily exercise," he said. (1) How then, you ask, can you conceive of John Bunyan as a spiritual guide?

Spiritual guidance takes place in ways other than the office of spiritual director, and all churches must provide some kind of spiritual guidance, whether for formation or for deformation. Notice that I prefer the term "guidance" to "direction," because the latter sounds more officious and authoritarian.

Recipient of Spiritual Guidance

Bunyan himself experienced spiritual guidance during his battle with depression through some "poor" women in the Bedford Church, through the pastor John Gifford, and through the congregation itself. Bunyan related this about Gifford's guidance. Members of the Bedford church told Gifford about Bunyan, who recorded that Gifford ...

   took all occasions to talk to me, and was willing to be well
   persuaded of me, though I think from little grounds: but he invited
   me to his house, where I should hear him converse with others,
   about the dealings of God with their souls; from all of which I
   still received more conviction, and from that time began to see
   something of the vanity and inward wickedness of my heart; for as
   yet I knew no great matter therein; but now it began to be
   discovered unto me, and also to work at that rate as it never did
   before.

What Bunyan described there would most assuredly fall under the title of group spiritual direction, (3) and we do not have to strain the evidence from Bunyan's ministry as a pastor to conclude that he followed the example set by his mentor.

The Bedford congregation, too, Bunyan makes clear in both Grace Abounding and The Pilgrim's Progress, figured significantly in the resolution of the crisis in his spiritual journey. In a dream or vision he saw the church under the image of a high mountain warmed and lighted by the sun but surrounded by a wall through which Christian (Bunyan) desired to pass, with only a "straight and narrow passage to allow him to enter." With effort he slid through, rejoicing, and "went and sat down in the midst of them, and so was comforted with the light and heat of their sun." (4) It was in this gathering that the scripture that resolved his crisis, "My grace is sufficient for thee" (2 Cor 12:9), darted three times into his mind and heart. In The Pilgrim's Progress he depicted the Bedford congregation in the image of Interpreter's House, where Christian met the Comforter "to guide thee in the way that leads to the City." As he departed, he penned how crucial the House and the Interpreter (almost certainly John Gifford) were for his pilgrimage.

   Here I have seen things rare and profitable;
   Things pleasant, dreadful, things to make me stable
   In what I have begun to take to hand;
   Then let me think on them and understand
   Wherefore they showed me were; and let me be
   Thankful, O good Interpreter, to thee. (5)

Quite clearly, then, Bunyan knew something about spiritual guidance. The main object of the rest of this essay is to show how he served as a spiritual guide for others. My contention is that he sought to offer direction to people who struggled, sometimes not too successfully, to live as they thought God demanded. While he was free to preach during the two years of Richard Cromwell's reign (1558-60), he would have been able to do one-on-one spiritual guidance through the tiny gatherings in the Bedford church. …

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