Trouble in Bakersfield
I started thinking about John Bunyan (and writing this post) recently after reading Carl Trueman’s article, Trouble in Bakersfield. He highlights the demise of American pluralism where the majority sets the tone of culture while respecting the convictions of even the minority. More and more it seems that those in political power dictate culture, as the “freedom to be tolerant and diverse” had given way to the “intolerant political demand that all should be the same.” In this manner, cultural hegemony dictates culture while the masses embrace change with little to no resistance. The context for the post concerns recent transgender laws in California, particularly related to the resignation of Trueman’s friend from his popular position on a local school board.
Within such a context, Trueman warns us: “Expect no quarter in the conflicts that are already upon us, however many of your neighbors may initially express sympathy with you.” Things are changing in our society in almost a mind-blowing way, while policy-makers become more determined to silence anyone, especially Christians it seems, who get in their way.
Trouble in Lower Samsell
So what’s the connection to John Bunyan? While his seventeenth-century context differs from our own in religious and political particulars, we have something to learn from his situation. “Before I came to prison,” he says in Grace Abounding, “I saw what was a-coming,” as he recollected circumstances surrounding his arrest in Lower Samsell (Nov. 12, 1660). He was eventually imprisoned for preaching at an illegal meeting during the newly established Restoration settlement under Charles II. The religious liberty enjoyed under Puritan rule, was coming to an end for Bunyan and other nonconformists.
Anglican and Royalist backlash for repression experienced under the Puritan Interregnum helps to explain the arrest. Likewise, Charles’s promise of religious liberty for “tender consciences” in the Declaration of Breda proved empty given the rising swell of episcopal resentment. Still, the harsh treatment of Bunyan (Nov. 12, 1660) was unexpected, since systematic persecution under the Clarendon Code (Corporation Act, 1661; Act of Uniformity, 1662; Conventicle Act, 1664; and Five-Mile Act, 1665) had not yet taken place. His arrest highlights the unique interplay of different factors including local political independence, a long-standing Elizabethan statute against seditious meetings, Bunyan’s notoriety and fame, his determination not to flee, and a desire to make an example of him to pesky nonconformists.
He heard about his pending arrest, a warning he ignored to avoid charges of cowardice. Whatever we might say about this decision, we can admire his conviction that we not be “daunted” in preaching God’s Word, which will be rewarded if we suffer for it. That Bunyan did for the better part of the next twelve years. Within the year before his arrest, he thought and prayed much about possible imprisonment. Political instability existing since the death of Oliver Cromwell (1658) certainly encouraged such reflection. Bunyan’s two primary concerns were how well he endure long imprisonment and even death if called to it. His solution was to consider himself dead to all earthly things including family, health, and all enjoyments.
Trouble on the Horizon
I want to encourage us in our twenty-first-century context, as different as it might be from Bunyan’s, to observe what we share in common with him. First, notice how quickly religious liberties can disappear in spite of promises to the contrary. Bunyan lost longstanding freedom quite suddenly even though Charles II promised liberty. Recently in America, Christians were told by the Supreme Court that the legalization of gay marriage would in no way impose upon their convictions. They could hold them without threat of recrimination. We are already seeing Christians suffer for their stance on marriage, even when they act peacefully, since they are viewed as bigoted extremists not to be tolerated.
Second, notice the importance of reflection concerning what is “a-coming.” Whatever we might say about Bunyan’s refusal to avoid arrest, we should emulate his prayerful preparation to suffer as resistance grows and liberty diminishes. Without a spirit of paranoia, is it not time to do this? We truly face a growing threat of persecution in our post-pluralism society. Cultural hegemony will not allow our so-called constitutional liberties to continue unmolested. In recognition of the spiritual forces behind such oppression and the guarantee that Christians will suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3:12), we must prayerfully seek readiness for rougher days ahead.
We, like Bunyan, can remain undaunted in our proclamation of the gospel which continues to be good news for all sinners, even the most anti-Christian policy makers. Just ask Paul (Acts 9:1-2). We too can know the reward that comes for faithful preaching in the midst of suffering. Again, just ask Paul (Acts 9:15, 16).