Read Part 1
- Part 1 - The place is England, the time 1660. England's experiment with parliamentary government has ended with the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 and the return of King Charles II from exile. One November night Elizabeth Bunyan's husband John, a dissenting preacher, is arrested for holding religious meetings unauthorized by the Church of England.
Read Part 2
- Part 2 - John's imprisonment drags on. But his conscience won't allow him to promise to stop preaching. When things look blackest he discovers pardons are being issued in honor of Charles II's coronation. John asks Elizabeth to go to London and seek such a pardon for him.
Read Part 3
- Part 3 - Part 3 - Elizabeth goes to London with John's petition for a pardon. But Lord Barkwood won't issue one. Instead he tells Elizabeth to take his case to the local judges at the next assizes in Bedford.
Illustration from 1894 edition of Pilgrim's Progress
POWERFUL DEFENDER - a story of Elizabeth Bunyan
(Part 4 of 4)
Blind Mary gently patted Elizabeth’s hair and dress with her thin, sensitive hands. "You look wonderful, Ma," she said. "I will pray for you." Then the others hugged and kissed her goodbye, and she was on her way, walking toward the Embankment and the courthouse.
It was finally the August day Elizabeth had looked forward to and dreaded since returning from London. John had been ignored, no one else had come forward, today the judges arrived and it was all up to her.
"We must believe that this is how God wills it," John had kept encouraging her.
When Elizabeth arrived at the courthouse, the crowd was thick, with many already assembled. Elizabeth joined a line to await her turn. Through the long morning and into the afternoon, she inched forward as one after the other presented their petitions to the judge. When she got closer, her hands grew clammy and she felt her heart begin to pound. Too much was riding on the next few minutes.
She rehearsed again what she planned to say: Your Honor, my husband John Bunyan has been jailed these nine months for a crime he has never been tried for or pleaded guilty to. No, ‘crime’ was too strong. He has been jailed these nine months for a mere oversight, a misunderstanding –"
"Next," the clerk’s voice cut into Elizabeth’s thoughts. The judge looked coolly down on her.
"My name is Elizabeth Bunyan," she began, surprised at the strength in her voice.
"Judge Hale," he said, giving her a nod.
"I am here on behalf of my husband, John Bunyan. Here is his petition." She handed him John’s petition. "He has been in prison these nine months for a misunderstanding – for something he was never tried for or been found guilty of."
When Judge Hale looked at her she saw kindness in his eyes. "I will do the best good I can for thee," he said. "But I fear I’ll not be able to do anything."
Elizabeth’s heart dropped at his words. She opened her mouth to say something more, but the clerk was already calling out, "Next!"
She stopped at the jail on her way through town.
"How did it go?" John asked.
"I gave the petition to Judge Hale," she began. "He was kind, but he said he didn’t think he could help us."
"We must have faith. God can work the impossible,"
"Also," Elizabeth went on, "there were crowds of others with petitions. The place is so busy. Thy case may well get lost in a sea of papers."
"Perhaps we should give it to other judges as well," John said. "Here, take these." He handed her several more packets.
If only John were allowed to speak for himself, or someone else took up his cause, she thought again, as she made her way home. Please, send us some help, Elizabeth prayed all the way home.
The next day, Elizabeth went out again. She took up a spot along with others on the Embankment, near the courthouse. She wasn’t sure what she would do with the petitions she clutched in her hand. But as the carriages carrying the judges drew near, she had an idea. It was daring, but what did she have to lose? She elbowed her way to the front of the crowd, stepped up to the carriage and just as the door opened, tossed a petition inside.
A red-faced judge emerged and scanned the crowd. Then his eyes locked with Elizabeth’s.
Around her she heard a murmur of the bystanders.
He picked the petition off the carriage floor, deliberately unfolded it and skimmed its contents while she waited hardly daring to breathe. Then, looking straight at her with angry eyes and speaking with barely suppressed rage, he said, "This John Bunyan is a convicted person. He cannot be released unless he promises to preach no more!"
Elizabeth felt her face go red under the scrutiny of the judge and the bystanders. How could they not see that John was no criminal, that he was a far better risk to be pardoned than the thousands of real criminals who had already been freed by the king’s pardon? Instead, all these powerful men seemed to have made their minds up about John.
But for so long Elizabeth had been sure that the king’s pardon would be the means of John’s release, she would not give up now. Somehow these judges must be convinced that John was innocent and belonged at home with his family.
The next day was another day of public hearings and Elizabeth was again in line at the courthouse, clutching another of John’s petitions. When it was her turn, she saw with relief that kindly Judge Hale was on the bench.
"And what can I do for you, young lady," he asked, not showing any sign that he recognized her from the days before.
She stepped forward with her petition, but before she had a chance to say anything, another official, a sly man, took the paper from her.
"This is John Bunyan’s wife," he explained to the judge. "He is a high spirited fellow who’s been convicted by the court. Don’t even consider freeing him."
Judge Hale gave her a regretful smile and dismissed her with a wave of his hand.
On her way out of the courthouse, the high sheriff stopped her. "How did it go?" he asked.
"An official took my petition,"she told him. "He said John was a condemned man so I never even got to say a word to the judge. But they are wrong. They tricked him into an indictment. He’s done no crime."
"There, there," the sheriff said in a kind voice, patting her on the shoulder. Elizabeth heard the sympathy in his tone and her eyes fill with tears. She hurried away before she shamed herself by weeping in front of them all.
The next few days Elizabeth busied herself at home. House duties had been neglected the last few days, the garden was ripening fast and there was much to do. But as busy as she was, she couldn’t stamp out the fearful thoughts of facing another winter without John. As the days wore on, and she knew the court sessions were drawing to a close, her prayers grew ever more desperate. Oh God, let John speak, she prayed, or send someone powerful and persuasive plead his case.
The last day of the assizes dawned and Elizabeth was at home attending to the children’s breakfast when there was a knock at the door. It was a young man, a court page, who handed her a message:
"A hearing has been arranged for thee before the judges in Swan Chamber this afternoon one hour after noon. Bring John’s petition. His Majesty’s High Sheriff of Bedford."
The remainder of the morning was a blur of activity – getting ready, making arrangements for the children, stopping by the prison to tell John. She forgot all about eating and when at last she was called in to the courtroom to face the crowd of judges, justices and gentry, she couldn’t tell whether it was hunger or nervousness that made her tremble.
She spotted Judge Hale and stepped over to where he sat. "My Lord," she said shyly, "I make bold to come once again to your Lordship, to know what may be done with my husband."
Judge Hale looked at her with kindness and recognition. But his voice was resigned. "Woman, I told the before, I could do thee no good; because they have taken for a conviction what thy husband said at the sessions. Unless there be something done to undo that, I can do thee no good."
Elizabeth felt her indignation rise. "My Lord, he is kept unlawfully in prison. They clapped him in there before there was any proclamation against the meetings. The indictment is false too. He never admitted his guilt and he did not confess."
One of the justices, who had been listening intently, broke in, "My Lord, he was lawfully convicted."
His assertion made Elizabeth furious. "It is false!" she exclaimed. "For when they said, do you confess the indictment, he said only that he’d been at several meetings where there was preaching and prayer and that God’s presence was there."
There was a moment of silence. The whole room was electrified at her bold response. Then another angry, and familiar voice boomed out. "What! Do you think we can do whatever we want?" Judge Twisdon’s face was red with anger. "Your husband is a peace breaker and is convicted by the law!"
But Elizabeth would not let Judge Twisdon have the last word. "My Lord," she said, looking straight into the angry man’s eyes, "he was not lawfully convicted.!"
"What?" It was Judge Twisdon again. "Will your husband leave preaching? If he will do so, then send for him."
"He dares not leave preaching as long as he can speak."
Twisdon threw back his head in disgust. "See here, what should we talk any more about such a fellow? He is a breaker of the peace."
"He desires to live peaceably," Elizabeth insisted, "and follow his calling to support his family. Moreover my Lord, I have four small children that cannot help themselves and one of them is blind. We have nothing to live on but the charity of good people."
But Judge Twisdon scoffed. "You make a show of your poverty."
"Why don’t you let him speak for himself," Elizabeth pleaded. "He preaches nothing but the Word of God."
"He? Preach the Word of God?" Judge Twisdon looked so angry, Elizabeth thought he might strike her. "His doctrine is the doctrine of the devil." Looking over toward Judge Hale he bellowed, "Send her away!"
"I am sorry, but I can’t do thee any good." Judge Hale took his cue from Twisdon. "Bring the statute book. Here, I’ll show you the three things thou canst do."
But a great despair swept over Elizabeth, caught in her throat and flooded her eyes with tears. She had failed. She strode from the room, trying to muffle her sobs.
Elizabeth didn’t visit John until the next day. "I have failed thee," she blurted as he came to meet her in the common room.
"No," said John, comforting her. "That is not what I heard. Those that were there said thou wast magnificent, that thou spokest like a different person, with passion and persuasion."
Elizabeth looked into his eyes through tears. "But I failed to convince them to release thee, Why would God give us this hope and then leave us with only failure?" She began to sob.
John took a handkerchief from his sleeve. "There, there my dear," he said as he wiped her eyes, "they’ve said no more about banishment or the gallows. We thought this was God’s way, but we cannot know His plans."
"But how will we survive the winter?" Elizabeth asked.
"I have news on that front," John said with renewed vigor. "I have met a man in here who knows how to make long tagged laces for boots. He will teach me. We can sell them to the hawkers. And who knows but God may provide another opportunity to appear before the courts. If He does," John went on, with a twinkle in his eye, "I will have no one speak for me but my shy wife."
A reluctant smile crept over Elizabeth’s face. Her performance in the courthouse yesterday had surprised no one more than herself. Surely the God who had heard her prayers and had given her the boldness of a different person would continue to hear her prayers through the coming winter, and spring and summer...
John Bunyan was released from prison eleven years later, in September of 1672 but was jailed again for six months in 1675. During his time in prison he wrote many books, one of which was Pilgrim’s Progress. This fanciful allegory was an instant success when it was first published in 1678. By 1688 eleven English and five Dutch editions of the book had been printed. Today it has been translated into over 200 languages and dialects and is one of the most popular books ever written.
After his release from prison, John Bunyan continued working as a popular itinerant preacher and pastor. He died in 1688 at the age of 60. Elizabeth died about five years later.