John Bunyan as a Pastor of Youth

Robert J. McKelvey

Ordained Servant: March 2011

Youth Ministry

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Crowd Control: Managing Electronic Distraction: A Review Article

The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel

The Shepherd Leader

Love III


In The Saint's Privilege and Profit (1692), John Bunyan confesses: "I love to play the child with little children.[1] Here he relates the story of offering to cut off the sore finger of a child and replace it with "a brave golden finger." Not surprisingly, the child turned away unhappily. We may question his approach here, but the incident shows a burden to learn from and minister to youth. He was not a "youth pastor," a title that does not sit well with me, but he certainly was a "pastor of youth," which I maintain that every pastor should be. In this article, we will consider Bunyan's approach to children, examine some of his key writings on the subject, and apply our findings to the church today.

Father Bunyan

In Grace Abounding (1666) and during the seventeenth-century Restoration, Bunyan from prison addresses his persecuted congregation several times with such titles as "my children" or "my dear Children."[2] At that time, he had four children of his own by his first wife (d. 1658). Later, he had two more by his second wife, Elizabeth, after he wrote Grace Abounding. With her, he knew the pain of losing a child at birth, and his beloved blind daughter, Mary, also died before him. He also knew the heartache of spiritual death, as his son Thomas apostatized and was possibly portrayed in The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680). Bunyan was known to be a spiritual leader in his family, and we clearly see that his role as an earthly Christian father fostered his fatherly care to other children in the church.

Oh, the Children of Believers!

Bunyan speaks of those who "make a great ado with the Children of Believers; and Oh the Children of Believers!" as he warns against presumption concerning children raised in a Christian home.[3] As a Particular (Calvinistic) Baptist, Bunyan wrongly denied the idea of a covenant child unless he or she was regenerate, though he did affirm the benefit of a godly home.[4] He also saw the need to minister to believing children in the church who could be among the best of saints.[5] His writings show insight into the ways of children as he ministered to and learned from them, as when he expresses the bitterness of sin from "a little girl that loved to eat the heads of foul Tobacco-Pipes."[6]

Writings for "Catching Boys and Girls"

Christian Behaviour (1663)

This work sets forth the duties of Christian households where good works emerge as the fruit of saving faith.[7] In the process, Bunyan addresses three groups of children: unbelieving children of godly parents who must still honor their parents; believing children of believing parents who share a common faith and are all the more obliged to reverence their parents; and Christian children of unbelievers who must speak to their parents "wisely, meekly, and humbly" and live faithfully before them. The last group must even bear abuse in hopes that their parents may be saved: "O! how happy a thing would it be, if God should use a Child to beget his Father to the Faith!"[8]

Instruction for the Ignorant (1675)

This catechism, affirms Bunyan, is for both the "old and young" under his preaching who yet remain unconverted.[9] Related to children, he asks, "Q. Did God ever punish little Children for sin against him?" The answer states that God did such things as drown little children in the flood, burn them up in Sodom, and maul them with bears. "Alas!" the child cries out, "What shall we little Children do?" Bunyan states, "Either go on in your sins: or remember now your Creator in the days of your Youth, before the evil dayes come." Bunyan later testifies that Jesus loved to see children come to him even if most children do not. God calls even children to worship him while remembering that the offspring of believers are not necessarily "Children of God," but only those who are "the Children of the promise."[10] While relatively few questions directly address children, they all remain useful as they point children to Christ. Further, the burden Bunyan has for the catechesis of children clearly emerges.

The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680)

This work comes as the antithesis to The Pilgrim's Progress, Part I (1678) as it traces the fall of the reprobate Mr. Badman to hell by way of a dialogue between Mr. Wiseman and Mr. Attentive.[11] Badman had godly parents but wallowed in the sins of youth, which serves as a warning to children of the consequences for such a life. For example, he hated the Lord's Day, "because of the Holiness that did attend it; the beginning of that Day was to him as if he was going to Prison, (except he could get out from his Father and Mother, and lurk in by-holes among his Companions, untill holy Duties were over)."[12]

Badman later lured a godly woman into a disastrous marriage. She sought to point their seven children to the Lord, though only two came to Christ. Through her life contrasted to Badman's, we learn the value of godly parents. In a call for a balanced approach of loving discipline, Wiseman advises: "I tell you, that if Parents carry it lovingly towards their Children, mixing their Mercies with loving Rebukes, and their loving rebukes with Fatherly and Motherly Compassions, they are more likely to save their Children, than by being churlish and severe towards them: but if they do not save them, if their mercy do them no good, yet it will greatly ease them at the day of death, to consider; I have done by love as much as I could, to save and deliver my child from Hell."[13] By addressing parents, Bunyan emerges as a protector of youth and at the same time a consoler of parents who seek to raise their children in the Lord. These children may still turn out bad as the "children of wrath."[14] Yet, the benefit of godly parents remains, and Bunyan encourages them to persevere. Further, he counsels all children to count their blessings and rebukes ungodly children regarding the mercies they scorn.[15]

The Pilgrim's Progress, Part II (1684)

In this sequel to Pilgrim's Progress, Part I, Christiana, the wife of Christian, and her four sons journey through familiar places from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City led by their faithful guide, Mr. Great-heart. Likely, as Richard Greaves maintains, this is the model of the seventeenth-century dissenting pastor "who provides leadership, protection, edification, and above all the voice of experience. He knows what to expect, offers counsel on how to deal with it, and functions as a heroic protector."[16] Regarding Bunyan's ministry to children, we can say that through Great-heart he leads women and children on pilgrimage in the second part of Pilgrim's Progress.

A fantasy quest unfolds in which Bunyan by way of Great-heart plays the child with children while inculcating spiritual truth as the pilgrims slay with swords Giants Grim, Maul, Slay-good, and Despair; face a hideous, seven-headed monster and demolish a castle. There are powerful images at the Interpreter's house, such as that of the muck-raker caught up in this world, the spider that exposes the venomous nature of sinners, the sheep as a saint coming silently to the slaughterhouse, and the sinner drinking down iniquity like a robin gobbling up poisonous spiders. There are proverbs such as, "One leak will sink a Ship, and one Sin will destroy a Sinner." At the House Beautiful are earthy yet spiritual lessons about such objects as medicine, clouds, rainbows, pelicans, fire, and roosters. At the house of Gaius are riddles or "nuts" whose "shells" need to be cracked to get to the inside "Meat." One was, "A man there was, tho some did count him mad, The more he cast away, the more he had," which was to signify, "He that bestows his Goods upon the Poor, Shall have as much again, and ten times more." Christiana's son Samuel had such a great time here that he whispered to his mother, "this is a very good mans House, let us stay here a good while."[17]

Catechesis is also stressed as the character Prudence questions the boys to "see how Christiana had brought up her Children" in such areas as the Trinity, creation, redemption, heaven, hell, the eternality of God, the Scriptures, and the resurrection of the dead. Prudence later exhorts the boys to learn as much as they could from their mother, from others, the book of creation, and especially the Bible. Here Bunyan emphasizes the need for parents and the church to instruct children in the ways of the Lord.[18]

By the end of the allegory the four boys are all married and while awaiting their time to cross over the river of death to the Celestial City, they live "for the Increase of the Church in that Place where they were for a time." Here at the finish, the children of Christian and Christiana stand before us as successful pilgrims, calling us back to the preface of the allegory where Bunyan expresses his desire that he might "perswade some that go astray, To turn their Foot and Heart to the right way."[19]

A Book for Boys and Girls (1686)

Of all his writings, the Book for Boys and Girls, or Country Rhimes for Children most directly addresses children, yet Bunyan sees its benefit for children "of all Sorts and Degrees." For example, he speaks of adults who act like children: "Our Bearded men, do act like Beardless Boys; Our Women please themselves with childish Toys." He himself testifies, "My very Beard I cast behind the Bush" as he gets on the level of a child for the purpose of spiritually "catching Girls and Boys."[20]

The book contains a mixture of emblems and propositional truth set in verse as it draws object lessons from simple subjects of creation as "temporal things spiritualized." The longest and perhaps most memorable is "The Sinner and the Spider" (XVII), which follows the dialogue of a man and a spider, who as a "filthy" creature shows himself nobler than the sinner without a Savior. Other poems include animals, such as "Of the Mole in the Ground" (XIX), manifesting the folly of worldliness through a "Poor silly" dirt-digging mole; "Of the fatted Swine" (XXIV), pointing to future judgment by way of "full-fed Hoggs prepared for the knife"; and "Upon the Frog" (XXXVI), which likens the hypocrite to a damp, cold, wide-mouthed, large-bellied frog "Croaking in the Gardens, tho unpleasantly."[21] Some of the poems deal with children directly, such as "Upon the Disobedient Child" (LXVI), showing the grief of children who were once parents' "delights" but rebel to "delight in Paths that lead to Hell."[22] Bunyan's poems highlight the power of emblems to convey spiritual truth. One that even children today will grasp is the "Meditation upon an Egg" (III), showing that children of believers have no guarantee of salvation: "The Egg's no Chick by falling from the Hen; Nor a man a Christian, till he's born agen"[23]

Lessons for the Church Today—"That which hits the man"

I will feebly attempt to be like Bunyan in shooting two arrows of truth on target. After all, as he notes in his preface to A Book for Boys and Girls, "Tis that which hits the man, doth him amaze."[24] First, pastors must learn the value of exercising fatherly care towards the entire church, which includes the children. With our heavenly Father as our model, pastors are spiritual fathers in the household or family of God. In this sense, we have a responsibility to bring up all the children of the church especially as we regard them as covenant children. We spiritually beget, care for, protect, direct, govern, and correct them on behalf of God according to his Word. Just as these children should not be afraid to come to their earthly father, they should feel comfortable with us as we receive them as spiritual fathers. This does not mean we become surrogate dads to other children or release the parents of the church from their responsibilities, but it does encourage the fatherly care manifested by such individuals as the apostles Paul (e.g., Gal. 4:19, Eph. 6:1-4; 1 Thess. 2:11), and John (e.g., 1 John 1:1, 18, 28; 3 John 4) and Jesus Christ (e.g., John 13:33). We rightly take issue with Bunyan's convictions against covenant children, but we do well to follow his fatherly example.

Second, pastors do well to cast their beards "behind the bush" in order to "play the child with children." Two areas where we fail in this regard are in the pulpit and outside the same on the Lord's Day. Many preachers make little or no effort to address children in their sermons. Even in churches where covenantal status is emphasized, our sermons often miss the applicatory mark or simply fly above the cognitive heads of children. Then, when we step outside the pulpit, we often spend no time with those children who already have little to no idea about what we were "going on about." Yes, their parents have the responsibility to fill in the blanks, but often the pastor is so unlike Jesus who welcomed the seemingly insignificant children (Matt. 19:13-14). Perhaps you struggle with the very attitude of hindrance that Jesus rebuked. Is it possible that you have better things to do than to be bothered by the little kids in your church? Pastors, do you pay attention to children and get down on their level to interact and even play with them?

Third, realize that every minister is called to be a pastor of youth. Children may be "saints small in age" or even living examples of Mr. Badman, but the pastor must bring the truth to bear upon their lives.[25] This may mean giving serious consideration to how you can apply your sermon to children, making time to pull aside that troubled teen, addressing the subject of parenting for the welfare of not only the parents but also the children, reviving the lost art of catechizing in your church, crying out to God in prayer for the children, learning to tell stories to kids and perhaps even writing one yourself, getting personally involved in youth events and camps (at least showing an interest in them), or learning to view yourself as a Great-heart or heroic protector of young pilgrims.

The Scriptures set forth the necessity for a pastor to rule his house well that he might provide the same care for all in the "household of God" (1 Tim. 3:4-5). Within the OPC, one area where we can improve is for pastors to take an interest in youth-related activities on the level of the congregation and presbytery. Again, I am not advocating a program-oriented approach but a concentrated effort to be involved in the lives of our youth that every pastor may be about "catching Girls and Boys."


[1] John Bunyan, The Saints' Privilege and Profit (1692), in The Works of John Bunyan, ed. George Offor, 3 vols. (1854; reprint, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 1:674. Hereafter cited as Works. This treatise is also found in volume 13, ed. W.R. Owen, in The Miscellaneous Works of John Bunyan, 13 vols, ed. Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976-94). Hereafter cited as MW. The Offor edition remains the most accessible and affordable collection of Bunyan's works and all three volumes can be accessed online at http://www.johnbunyan.org. The Oxford collection stands as the definitive edition of Bunyan's works. Where it is possible, I will cite both editions. The extensive italicization in the original text has been eliminated. Some antique spelling and capitalization has been retained.

[2] John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, ed. Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 1-4; and Works, 1:4-5.

[3] See Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ (1678), in MW 8:294; and Works 1:262

[4] See The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded (1659) in MW 2:172; and Works 1:555.

[5] See The Desire of the Righteous Granted (1692), in Works 1:744.

[6] These two examples come, respectively, from The Acceptable Sacrifice (1689) in MW 12:52; and Works 1:707; and Seasonable Counsel: Or, Advice to Sufferers (1684) in MW 10:7; and Works 2:693.

[7] See Bunyan's "Epistle to the Reader," in Christian Behaviour in MW 3: 9-10 and the discussion of J. Sears McGee on the same in Introduction to MW 3: xix-xxxii.

[8] MW 3:37-40; and Works 2:562-64.

[9] MW 8:7; and Works 2:675-76.

[10] MW 8:17-19, 21-26; and Works 2:679-80, 681-83.

[11] See John Bunyan, "The Author to the Reader," in The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, Presented to the World in a Familiar Dialogue Between Mr. Wiseman, and Mr. Attentive, eds. James F. Forrest and Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 1; and Works 3:690.

[12] Badman, 17, 24; and Works 3:596, 600.

[13] Badman, 63; and Works 3:617.

[14] Badman, 63, 75; and Works 3:617, 623.

[15] Badman, 77, 78; and Works 3:623-24.

[16] Greaves, Glimpses of Glory: John Bunyan and English Dissent (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 500-501.

[17] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress from this World to That which is to Come, Parts I and II, ed. James Blanton Wharey; 2d ed., revised by Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), 167, 194, 203, 231-32, 263, 264. Hereafter cited as PP.

[18] PP, 224-25.

[19] PP, 311.

[20] MW 6:190-91; and Works 3:747.

[21] MW 6:197, 204, 208, 214-22, 227.

[22] MW 6:197, 223-24, 264.

[23] MW 6:202.

[24] MW 6:192; and Works 3:748.

[25] In speaking of young believers, Bunyan uses the phrase, "saints small in age" in Seasonable Counsel: Or, Advice to Sufferers (1684), in MW 10:42; and Works 2:710.

Robert J. McKelvey is the pastor of Westminster OPC in Windber, Pennsylvania, and lectures in Historical Theology at the John Wycliffe Theological College in Johannesburg, South Africa, in cooperation with North-West University in South Africa. Ordained Servant Online, March 2011.

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Ordained Servant: March 2011

Youth Ministry

Also in this issue

Souls in Transition

Crowd Control: Managing Electronic Distraction: A Review Article

The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel

The Shepherd Leader

Love III

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