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Bunyan Before the Courts

 

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Discourse with clerk about the law

Conversation with the clerk of the peace.

The substance of some Discourse had between the Clerk of the Peace and myself, when he came to admonish me according to the tenor of that law by which I was in prison.

WHEN I had lain in prison other twelve weeks, and now not knowing what they intended to do with me, upon the third of April comes Mr. Cobb unto me, (as he told me,) being sent by the justices to admonish me and demand of me submittance to the Church of England, &c. When he was come into the house he sent for me out of my chamber; and when I was come unto him he said,

Cobb. Neighbour Bunyan, how do you do?

Bunyan. I thank you, sir, said I, very well, blessed be the Lord!

Cobb. Saith he, I come to tell you that it is desired you would submit yourself to the laws of the land, or else at the next sessions it will go worse with you, even to be sent away out of the nation, or else worse than that.

Bunyan. I said that I did desire to demean myself in the world both as becometh a man and a Christian.

Cobb. But, saith he, you must submit to the laws of the land, and leave off those meetings which you were wont to have, for the statute law is directly against it; and I am sent to you by the justices to tell you that they do intend to prosecute the law against you if you submit not.

Bunyan. I said, Sir, I conceive that that law by which I am in prison at this time doth not reach or condemn either me or the meetings which I do frequent: that law was made against those that, being designed to do evil in their meetings, make the exercise of religion their pretense to cover their wickedness. It doth not forbid the private meetings of those that plainly and simply make it their only end to worship the Lord and to exhort one another to edification. My end in meeting with others is simply to do as much good as I can by exhortation and counsel, according to that small measure of light which God hath given me, and not to disturb the peace of the nation.

Cobb. Every one will say the same, said he: you see the late insurrection at London, under what glorious pretenses they went, and yet indeed they intended no less than the ruin of the kingdom and commonwealth.

Bunyan. That practice of theirs I abhor, said I; yet it doth not follow that because they did so, therefore all others will do so. I look upon it as my duty to behave myself under the king's government, both as becomes a man and a Christian; and if an occasion was offered me I should willingly manifest my loyalty to my prince both by word and deed.

Cobb. Well, said he, I do not profess myself to be a man that can dispute; but this I say truly, neighbour Bunyan, I would have you consider this matter seriously and submit yourself; you may have your liberty to exhort your neighbour in private discourse, so be you do not call together an assembly of people, and truly you may do much good to the Church of Christ if you would go this way; and this you may do and the law not abridge you of it. It is your private meetings that the law is against.

Bunyan. Sir, said I, if I may do good to one by my discourse, why may I not do good to two? And if to two, why not to four, and so to eight, &c.?

Cobb. Ay, saith he, and to an hundred, I warrant you.

Bunyan. Yes, sir, said I; I think I should not be forbid to do as much good as I can.

Cobb. But, said he, you may but pretend to do good, and indeed, notwithstanding, do harm by seducing the people; you are therefore denied your meeting so many together, lest you should do harm.

Bunyan. And yet, said I, you say the law tolerates me to discourse with my neighbour; surely there is no law tolerates me to seduce any one; therefore if I may by the law discourse with one, surely it is to do him good; and if I by discoursing may do good to one, surely by the same law I may do good to many.

Cobb. The law, saith he, doth expressly forbid your private meetings, therefore, they are not to be tolerated.

Bunyan. I told him that I would not entertain so much uncharitableness of that Parliament in the 35th of Elizabeth, or of the queen herself, as to think they did by that law intend the oppressing of any of God's ordinances or the interrupting any in the way of God; but men may, in the wresting of it, turn it against the way of God; but take the law in itself, and it only fighteth against those that drive at mischief in their hearts and meetings, making religion only their cloak, colour or pretense; for so are the words of the statute: "If any meetings, under colour or pretense of religion," &c.

Cobb. Very good; therefore the king seeing that pretenses are usually in and among people as do make religion their pretenses only, therefore he, and the law before him, doth forbid such private meetings and tolerates only public; you may meet in public.

Bunyan. Sir, said I, let me answer you in a similitude. Set the case that, at such a wood corner, there did usually come forth thieves to do mischief; must there therefore a law be made that every one that cometh out there shall be killed? May not there come out true men as well as thieves from thence? Just thus is it in this case; I do think there may be many that may design the destruction of the commonwealth, but it doth not follow therefore that all private meetings are unlawful; those that transgress, let them be punished; and if at any time I myself should do any act in my conversation as doth not become a man and a Christian, let me bear the punishment. And as for your saying I may meet in public, if I may be suffered I would be glad to do it; let me have but meetings enough in public, and I shall care the less to have them in private. I do not meet in private because I am afraid to have meetings in public. I bless the Lord that my heart is at that point that if any man can lay anything to my charge, either in doctrine or practice, in this particular, that can be proved error or heresy, I am willing to disown it, even in the very market-place, but if it be truth, then to stand to it to the last drop of my blood. And, sir, said I, you ought to commend me for so doing. To err, and to be a heretic, are two things; I am no heretic, because I will not stand refractorily to defend any one thing that is contrary to the word; prove any thing which I hold to be an error, and I will recant it.

Cobb. But, goodman Bunyan, said he, methinks you need not stand so strictly upon this one thing as to have meetings of such public assemblies. Cannot you submit, and notwithstanding do as much good as you can in a neighbourly way, without having such meetings?

Bunyan. Truly, sir, said I, I do not desire to commend myself, but to think meanly of myself; yet when I do most despise myself, taking notice of that small measure of light which God hath given me, also that the people of the Lord (by their own saying) are edified thereby - besides, when I see that the Lord through grace hath in some measure blessed my labour - I dare not but exercise that gift which God hath given me for the good of the people. And I said further that I would willingly speak in public if I might.

Cobb. He said that I might come to the public assemblies and hear. What though you do not preach, you may hear. Do not think yourself so well enlightened, and that you have received a gift so far above others, but that you may hear other men preach; or to that purpose.

Bunyan. I told him I was as willing to be taught as to give instruction, and I looked upon it as my duty to do both; for, said I, a man that is a teacher, he himself may learn also from another that teacheth; as the apostle saith; "We may all prophesy, one by one, that all may learn;"26 Colossians 14:13 that is, every man that hath received a gift from God, he may dispense it, that others may be comforted; and when he hath done he may hear, and learn, and be comforted himself of others.

Cobb. But, said he, what if you should forbear awhile and sit still, till you see further how things will go?

Bunyan. Sir, said I, Wickliffe saith that he which leaveth off preaching and hearing of the word of God for fear of excommunication of men, he is already excommunicated of God, and shall in the day of judgment be counted a traitor to Christ.

Cobb. Ay, saith he, they that do not hear shall be so counted indeed; do you therefore hear?

Bunyan. But, sir, said I, he saith, He that shall leave off either preaching or hearing, &c.; that is, if he hath received a gift for edification, it is his sin if he doth not lay it out in a way of exhortation and counsel, according to the proportion of his gift, as well as to spend his time altogether in hearing others preach.

Cobb. But, said he, how shall we know that you have received a gift?

Bunyan. Said I, Let any man hear and search, and prove the doctrine by the Bible.

Cobb. But will you be willing, said he, that two indifferent persons shall determine the case, and will you stand by their judgment?

Bunyan. I said, Are they infallible?

Cobb. He said, No.

Bunyan. Then said I, It is possible my judgment may be as good as theirs, but yet I will pass by either, and in this matter be judged by the Scriptures:27 Jesus said He judged no man, but the Word will judge men in the last day (John 12:47-48). I am sure that is infallible and cannot err.

Cobb. But, said he, who shall be judge between you, for you take the Scriptures one way and they another?

Bunyan. I said, The Scriptures should, and that by comparing one Scripture with another; for that will open itself if it be rightly compared. As, for instance, if under the different apprehensions of the word mediator, you would know the truth of it, the Scriptures open it, and tell us that he that is a mediator must take up the business between two, and a mediator is not a mediator of one, "but God is one, and there is one Mediator between God and man, even the man Jesus Christ."28 1 Timothy 2:5 So likewise the Scripture calleth Christ a complete, or perfect, or able high priest. That is opened in that he is called man and also God. His blood also is discovered to be effectually efficacious by the same things. So the Scripture, as touching the matter of meeting together, &c., doth likewise sufficiently open itself and discover its meaning.

Cobb. But are you willing, said he, to stand to the judgment of the Church?

Bunyan. Yes, sir, said I, to the approbation of the Church of God, (the Church's judgment is best expressed in Scripture.) We had much other discourse, which I cannot well remember, about the laws of the nation and submission to governments; to which I did tell him that I did look upon myself as bound in conscience to walk according to all righteous laws, and that whether there was a king or no; and if I did anything that was contrary, I did hold it my duty to bear patiently the penalty of the law that was provided against such offenders, with many more words to the like effect; and said, moreover, that to cut off all occasions of suspicion from any, as touching the harmlessness of my doctrine in private, I would willingly take the pains to give any one the notes of all my sermons, for I do sincerely desire to live quietly in my country and to submit to the present authority.

Cobb. Well, neighbour Bunyan, said he, but indeed I would wish you seriously to consider of these things between this and the quarter sessions and to submit yourself. You may do much good if you continue still in the land; but, alas! what benefit will it be to your friends, or what good can it do to them, if you should be sent away beyond the seas into Spain, or Constantinople, or some other remote part of the world? Pray be ruled.

Jailer. Indeed, sir, I hope he will be ruled.

Bunyan. I shall desire, said I, in all godliness and honesty to behave myself in the nation whilst I am in it. And if I must be so dealt withal as you say, I hope God will help me to bear what they shall lay upon me. I know no evil that I have done in this matter to be so used. I speak as in the presence of God.

Cobb. You know, saith he, that the Scripture saith, "The powers that are are ordained of God?"29 Romans 13:1

Bunyan. I said yes, and that I was to submit to the king as supreme, also to the governors as to them that are sent by him.30 1 Peter 2:13-14

Cobb. Well, then, said he, the king commands you that you should not have any private meetings, because it is against his law; and he is ordained of God, therefore you should not have any.

Bunyan. I told him that Paul did own the powers that were in his day as to be of God, and yet he was often in prison under them for all that. And also, though Jesus Christ told Pilate that he had no power against him but of God, yet he died under the same Pilate and yet, said I, I hope you will not say that either Paul or Christ was such as did deny magistracy, and so sinned against God in slighting the ordinance. Sir, said I, the law hath provided two ways of obeying: the one to do that which I in my conscience do believe that I am bound to do actively; and where I cannot obey actively, there I am willing to lie down and to suffer what they shall do unto me. At this he sat still and said no more; which when he had done, I did thank him for his civil and meek discoursing with me; and so we parted. Oh that we might meet in heaven! (Happy would it be for Christians in general, and for the interest of religion also, if ceremonials and non-essentials had no tendency to disunite them as brethren and servants of the same loving Savior; for in the kingdom of glory above there will be no party spirit, no parting string, but the hearts and voices of the celestial assembly will emulate each other in the very sweetest and loudest notes to redeeming grace and dying love!)

Farewell. J. B.

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