The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘Elstow

Needed: a Bunyan for Bedford

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As part of our family holiday, we took a trip through Bunyan territory. The boys were excited by this. Caleb and I have read a large portion of Pilgrim’s Progress, and for family ‘Bible time’ we have been trading on the boys’ obsession with all things warlike and working our way through The Holy War, which they have been loving. Finding out a little more about where John Bunyan was born and lived, and where he was converted, seemed like the natural thing to do.

Taking the scenes in chronological order (for Bunyan), we begin in Harrowden, the hamlet close to which Bunyan was born. The road narrows down to a bridleway at a place called Bunyan Farm, and a quick stroll down the bridleway brings the interested pilgrim to a stream and an entrance to a corn field. A sign suggests that the monument at the site of the cottage where Bunyan was born is to be found within. I trolled in, expecting to find it fairly close at hand. Not seeing anything monumental, I gambolled on gazelle-like through the corn (OK, I ploughed on rhino-style) for about a quarter of a mile, before coming upon the slab of rock commemorating the site (the monument itself was erected for the Festival of Britain in 1951). It is an attractive if fairly ignominious spot, dignified mainly by association.

Moving on, we come to the village of Elstow, where Bunyan was baptized and where he lived with his first wife after he was married.

Now a pleasant, middle-class village, the village green and the church at Elstow are still easily found.

This church in Elstow is where he heard sufficient faithful preaching to stir his soul, and this green where Bunyan was playing tip-cat (an early version of rounders, apparently) when he came under a powerful conviction of sin on account of his disregard for the Lord’s day. A bell-ringer in the church, his sense of his sin made him afraid that the bell he rang would fall on him, so he stood under a beam. He became afraid that the beam too would fall (or be insufficient to protect him), so he took to standing in the doorway, but even that would not salve his conscience. Eventually, he gave up the practice altogether.

Both Elstow and Harrowden are not far from Bedford itself (indeed, are now barely separate from it). It is striking how much of Bunyan’s life was lived out within such a small parcel of land. Moving into Bedford, we come to St John’s church and rectory, where John Gifford pastored the independent church meeting in the building.

Gifford’s own story is remarkable: a hard-living Royalist officer, he narrowly avoided execution after being captured following a battle in Kent. Escaping from custody, he was eventually converted, and became a pastor of the independent church in Bedford. He was, under God, the ideal man to counsel the spiritually-tortured Bunyan. After Bunyan found peace for his soul through true faith in Christ, and not outward reformation and mere religiosity, it was not long before he became the vigorous preacher who “preached what I felt, what I smartingly did feel.” Of course, persecution followed swiftly afterward, and not far up the street from the church building is the bridge over the Great Ouse.

A stroll down the river side for a short distance brings you to the backwater where Bunyan was probably baptised, and a former iteration of the bridge contained a cell where Bunyan may have spent some time imprisoned.

Walking up Bedford High Street, one passes other sites of interest. There is the place where the main gaol was situated, now marked only by a plaque on the ground. Many historians now believe that this was the place in which Bunyan spent the bulk of his imprisonment. Not far away, down a side street, is the church building which sits in the same location as the one in which Bunyan pastored during his times of freedom, and a little further on one can see the place where the cottage stood in which Bunyan and his family came to live.

Finally, at the top of the High Street, stands the well-known statue of one of Bedfordshire’s most famous sons, now a little weathered. Bunyan stands in noble pose, his Bible in one hand and his other resting upon the Word of truth.

He looks out over a town which seems as much in need of the gospel as it did in his day, surveying the hair salons and nightclubs which pepper the town, faced as if challenged by a somewhat salubrious joint selling fake breasts and rubber sixpacks.

It struck me very much as a town which needs the gospel (I speak as a man from Crawley, and hope that I am doing no disservice to any churches in the town which are seeking to carry the good news to those who are dead in sin). Bedford needs a Bunyan again, a man who preaches the truth in Christ which he feels, which he smartingly does feel. Perhaps more accurately, Bedford needs a man powerfully indwelt by the Spirit of the Christ who saved John Bunyan, who trembles before the living God, who knows the horrors of sin and the wonders of grace, and who is prepared to preach those realities with the same fearless faith as Bunyan himself.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 30 July 2011 at 09:00

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