John Bunyan: Missionary Artist?

Roger W. Lowther

February 1, 2019Tokyo, Japan

“I saw a man clothed with rags...
a book in his hand and a great burden upon his back.”

-Pilgrim's Progress, Opening

Was John Bunyan a missionary artist?

During the day, John Bunyan was an artisan, a tinker, who worked with metal. At night, he was a preacher, a missionary who spoke outside of church buildings to people not hearing the gospel. Since it was illegal to preach outside the Church of England at that time, this nighttime activity ended him up in prison for twelve years.

While in prison, he wrote his famous work Pilgrim's Progress. (What else would an artist do in prison but make something?) It was written to tell the gospel creatively...artistically. For this, he was severely criticized. In response to critics, he wrote the following.

"You can write using metaphors and stand firm on what is meant. Weren't God's laws, His gospel laws, in olden times presented using types, shadows, and metaphors? Yet any clear-thinking man would be unwilling to find fault with them, unless he wants to come against the highest wisdom! No, instead he stoops to pick up such valuable things and seeks to understand them. He looks for the value and meaning in things like the pins and loops of the tabernacle construction and how they are a type of the uniting ministry of God's word, or the symbolism of heavenly things represented by calves and sheep, heifers, rams, birds and herbs, and the blood of lambs. God speaks to us in this way, and the one who understands is blessed to find light and grace in it."

Despite the criticism, Bunyan's missional heart drove him forward. He wanted people to hear the gospel, and he had gifts as a storyteller to make that possible. We too, as artists working around the world, can be encouraged by him in our efforts to find new and creative ways to tell the gospel through our craft.

“Could I possess the tinker's abilities, please your majesty,
I would gladly relinquish all my learning.”

-Puritan theologian John Owen to King Charles II about John Bunyan