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LAST YEARS OF HIS IMPRISONMENT: ELECTION
TO THE PASTORSHIP: HIS RELEASE.
THE strictness of Bunyan's confinement appears to have been considerably abated during the last four years of its continuance ; for in 1669, 1670, and 1671, he was regularly present at the church meetings, as appears from the records, which also contain three appointments for him to visit disorderly members, in 1668. This liberty must doubtless, as in the former instance, be ascribed to the friendship of the jailer; for the spirit of persecution was then raging more strongly than
The “ Conventicle Act," which had expired some time before, was, in October, 1669, re-enacted, with additional clauses, rendering it much more severe; and in 1670 it received the royal assent. This abominable Act, which was first passed in 1663, provided, " That every person above sixteen years of age, present at any meeting, under pretence of any exercise of religion, in other manner than is the practice of the Church of England, where there are five persons more than the household, shall, for the first offence, by a justice of peace be recorded, and sent to jail three months, or pay £5; and for the second offence, six months, or pay £10; and for the third time, being convicted by a jury, shall be banished to some of the American plantations, except New England or Virginia, for seven years, or pay £100; and in case such a person return, or make his escape, he is to be adjudged a felon, and suffer death without benefit of clergy.” It was a great hardship attending this Act, that it gave a justice the power to convict a person without jury; for if the convicted person was innocent, there was no relief to be obtained, the justice being both judge and jury.* It was also rendered more grievous from its ambiguity. “ No man that ever I met with,” says Baxter, “could tell what was a violation of it, and what not, not knowing what was allowed by the Liturgy and practice of the Church of England in families, because the Liturgy meddleth not with families; and among the diversity of family practice, no man knoweth what to call the practice of the Church. According to the plain words of the Act, if a man did but preach and pray, or read some licensed book, and sing psalms, he might have more than four. present, because these are allowed by the prac tice of the Church in the church; and the Act
seemeth to grant an indulgence for place and number, so be it the quality of the exercise be allowed by the Church. But when it came to the trial, these pleas with the justices were in vain ; (for if men did but pray, it was taken for granted that it was an exercise not allowed by the Church of England, and to jail they went.).. The people were in a great strait, those especially who dwelt near any busy officer, or malicious enemy. Many durst not pray in their families, if above four persons came in to dine with them, ... and some scarce durst crave a blessing on their meat, or give God thanks for it. Some thought they might venture, if they withdrew into another room, and left the strangers by themselves; but others said, it is all one if it be in the same house, though out of hearing, when it cometh to the judgment of the justices. ... Great lawyers said, if you come on a visit of business, though you be present at prayer or sermon, it is no breach of the law, because
you met not on pretence of a religious exercise: but those that tried them said, such words are but wind, when the justices come to judge you."* In the new Act it was provided that all doubtful clauses should be interpreted in the sense most unfavourable to conventicles, (as all places of
* Orme's Life of Baxter, vol. i, pp. 221, 222.
worship not belonging to the established Church were then called,) it being the intention of par. liament “ entirely to suppress them.”
The enforcement of this Act was, in many places, the cause of much suffering to the pions nonconformists. Among others, Bunyan's relis gious friends at Bedford came in for their share ; and several of them had their goods distrained to pay the fines imposed upon them for worshipping God according to the dictates of their own conscience. To the honour of the people of Bedford it should be mentioned, that they gave no countenance to this legalized plunder of their unoffending fellow-townsmen; a church warden and a constable were fined £5 each for refusing to aid in seizing goods; and after the goods were taken, the regular porters could not be induced to carry them away, some of them saying, they " would be hung, drawn, and quartered, before they would assist in that work."*
Forster, one of the justices by whom Bunyan was tried, appears to have been the prime agent, or ringleader, in this persecution of the Bedford congregation ; a circumstance which of itself renders it pretty certain that the measure of liberty which Bunyan now enjoyed was owing entirely to the "favour” which God"
him * A fuller account is given in Philip's Life of Bunyan
in the sight of the keeper of the prison.” Of this liberty he availed himself to visit his Christian friends, and no doubt encouraged them to "take joyfully the spoiling of their goods," rather than" forsake the assembling of themselves together.” Indeed, had all the nonconformists of that age, both preachers and people, manifested the same determined spirit that was shown by Bunyan and his friends, and by the Quakers, the unrighteous enactments of a persecuting prelacy would have become a dead letter from sheer inability to enforce them.*
In the eleventh year of his imprisonment he was elected one of the pastors of the congregation at Bedford, as appears from the following extract from the “Booke” of records already referred to, which is dated October 21, 1671:“The meeting with joynt consent (signifyed by
* In London " the Quakers were so resolute, and so gloried in their constancy and sufferings, that they as. sembled openly, near Aldersgate, and were dragged away daily to the common jail ; and yet desisted not, but the rest came the next day, nevertheless ; so that the jail at Newgate was filled with them. Abundance of them died in prison, and yet they continued their assem. blies still. They would sometimes meet only to sit in silence, when, as they said, the Spirit did not move them; and it was a great question, whether this silence was a religious exercise not allowed by the Liturgy.”—Baxter.