On the 1st of June 1648 a very bitter fight was fought at Maidstone, in Kent, between the Parliamentary forces under Fairfax and the Royalists. Till Cromwell rose to all his military and administrative greatness, Fairfax was generalissimo of the Puritan army, and that able soldier never executed a more brilliant exploit than he did that memorable night at Maidstone. In one night the Royalist insurrection was stamped out and extinguished in its own blood. Hundreds of dead bodies filled the streets of the town, hundreds of the enemy were taken prisoners, while hundreds more, who were hiding in the hop-fields and forests around the town, fell into Fairfax's hands next morning.
Among the prisoners so taken was a Royalist major who had had a deep hand in the Maidstone insurrection, named John Gifford, a man who was destined in the time to come to run a remarkable career. Only, to-day, the day after the battle, he has no prospect before him but the gallows. On the night before his execution, by the courtesy of Fairfax, Gifford's sister was permitted to visit her brother in his prison. The soldiers were overcome with weariness and sleep after the engagement, and Gifford's sister so managed it that her brother got past the sentries and escaped out of the town. He lay hid for some days in the ditches and thickets around the town till he was able to escape to London, and thence to the shelter of some friends of his at Bedford. Gifford had studied medicine before he entered the army, and as soon as he thought it safe he began to practise his old art in the town of Bedford. Gifford had been a dissolute man as a soldier, and he became, if possible, a still more scandalously dissolute man as a civilian. Gifford's life in Bedford was a public disgrace, and his hatred and persecution of the Puritans in that town made his very name an infamy and a fear. He reduced himself to beggary with gambling and drink, but, when near suicide, he came under the power of the truth, till we see him clothed with rags and with a great burden on his back, crying out, 'What must I do to be saved?' 'But at last'--I quote from the session records of his future church at Bedford--'God did so plentifully discover to him the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ, that all his life after he lost not the light of God's countenance, no, not for an hour, save only about two days before he died.' Gifford's conversion had been so conspicuous and notorious that both town and country soon heard of it: and instead of being ashamed of it, and seeking to hide it, Gifford at once, and openly, threw in his lot with the extremest Puritans in the Puritan town of Bedford. Nor could Gifford's talents be hid; till from one thing to another, we find the former Royalist and dissolute Cavalier actually the parish minister of Bedford in Cromwell's so evangelical but otherwise so elastic establishment.
At this point we open John Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, and we read this classical passage:--'Upon a day the good providence of God did cast me to Bedford to work in my calling: and in one of the streets of that town I came where there were three or four poor women sitting at the door in the sun and talking about the things of God. But I may say I heard, but I understood not, for they were far above and out of my reach . . . About this time I began to break my mind to those poor people in Bedford, and to tell them of my condition, which, when they had heard, they told Mr. Gifford of me, who himself also took occasion to talk with me, and was willing to be well persuaded of me though I think on too little grounds. But he invited me to his house, where I should hear him confer with others about the dealings of God with their souls, from all which I still received more conviction, and from that time began to see something of the vanity and inner wretchedness of my own heart, for as yet I knew no great matter therein . . . At that time also I sat under the ministry of holy Mr. Gifford, whose doctrine, by the grace of God, was much for my stability.' And so on in that inimitable narrative.
The first minister whose words were truly blessed of God for our awakening and conversion has always a place of his own in our hearts. We all have some minister, some revivalist, some faithful friend, or some good book in a warm place in our heart. It may be a great city preacher; it may be a humble American or Irish revivalist; it may be The Pilgrim's Progress, or The Cardiphonia, or the Serious Call--whoever or whatever it was that first arrested and awakened and turned us into the way of life, they all our days stand in a place by themselves in our grateful heart. And John Gifford has been immortalised by John Bunyan, both in his Grace Abounding and in his Pilgrim's Progress. In his Grace Abounding, as we have just seen, and in The Pilgrim, Gifford has his portrait painted in holy oil on the wall of the Interpreter's house, and again in eloquent pen and ink in the person of Evangelist.
John Gifford had himself made a narrow escape out of the City of Destruction, and John Bunyan had, by Gifford's assistance, made the same escape also. The scene, therefore, both within that city and outside the gate of it, was so fixed in Bunyan's mind and memory that no part of his memorable book is more memorably put than just its opening page. Bunyan himself is the man in rags, and Gifford is the evangelist who comes to console and to conduct him. Bunyan's portraits are all taken from the life. Brilliant and well-furnished as Bunyan's imagination was, Bedford was still better furnished with all kinds of men and women, and with all kinds of saints and sinners. And thus, instead of drawing upon his imagination in writing his books, Bunyan drew from life. And thus it is that we see first John Gifford, and then John Bunyan himself at the gate of the city; and then, over the page, Gifford becomes the evangelist who is sent by the four poor women to speak to the awakened tinker.
'Wherefore dost thou so cry?' asks Evangelist. 'Because,' replied the man, 'I am condemned to die.' 'But why are you so unwilling to die, since this life is so full of evils?' And I suppose we must all hear Evangelist putting the same pungent question to ourselves every day, at whatever point of the celestial journey we at present are. Yes; why are we all so unwilling to die? Why do we number our days to put off our death to the last possible period? Why do we so refuse to think of the only thing we are sure soon to come to? We are absolutely sure of nothing else in the future but death. We may not see to-morrow, but we shall certainly see the day of our death. And yet we have all our plans laid for to-morrow, and only one here and one there has any plan laid for the day of his death. And can it be for the same reason that made the man in rags unwilling to die? Is it because of the burden on our back? Is it because we are not fit to go to judgment? And yet the trumpet may sound summoning us hence before the midnight clock strikes. If this be thy condition, why standest thou still? Dost thou see yonder shining light? Keep that light in thine eye. Go up straight to it, knock at the gate, and it shall be told thee there what thou shalt do next. Burdened sinner, son of man in rags and terror: What has burdened thee so? What has torn thy garments into such shameful rags? What is it in thy burden that makes it so heavy? And how long has it lain so heavy upon thee? 'I cannot run,' said the man, 'because of the burden on my back.' And it has been noticed of you that you do not laugh, or run, or dress, or dance, or walk, or eat, or drink as once you did. All men see that there is some burden on your back; some sore burden on your heart and your mind. Do you see yonder wicket gate? Do you see yonder shining light? There is no light in all the horizon for you but yonder light over the gate. Keep it in your eye; make straight, and make at once for it, and He who keeps the gate and keeps the light burning over it, He will tell you what to do with your burden. He told John Gifford, and He told John Bunyan, till both their burdens rolled off their backs, and they saw them no more. What would you not give to-night to be released like them? Do you not see yonder shining light?
Having set Christian fairly on the way to the wicket gate, Evangelist leaves him in order to seek out and assist some other seeker. But yesterday he had set Faithful's face to the celestial city, and he is off now to look for another pilgrim. We know some of Christian's adventures and episodes after Evangelist left him, but we do not take up these at present. We pass on to the next time that Evangelist finds Christian, and he finds him in a sorry plight. He has listened to bad advice. He has gone off the right road, he has lost sight of the gate, and all the thunders and lightnings of Sinai are rolling and flashing out against him. What doest thou here of all men in the world? asked Evangelist, with a severe and dreadful countenance. Did I not direct thee to His gate, and why art thou here? Christian told him that a fair-spoken man had met him, and had persuaded him to take an easier and shorter way of getting rid of his burden. Read the whole place for yourselves. The end of it was that Evangelist set Christian right again, and gave him two counsels which would be his salvation if he attended to them: Strive to enter in at the strait gate, and, Take up thy cross daily. He would need more counsel afterwards than that; but, meantime, that was enough. Let Christian follow that, and he would before long be rid of his burden.
In the introductory lecture Bishop Butler has been commended and praised as a moralist, and certainly not one word beyond his deserts; but an evangelical preacher cannot send any man with the burden of a bad past upon him to Butler for advice and direction about that. While lecturing on and praising the sound philosophical and ethical spirit of the great bishop, Dr. Chalmers complains that he so much lacks the sal evangelicum, the strength and the health and the sweetness of the doctrines of grace. Legality and Civility and Morality are all good and necessary in their own places; but he is a cheat who would send a guilt-burdened and sick-at-heart sinner to any or all of them. The wicket gate first, and then He who keeps that gate will tell us what to do, and where next to go; but any other way out of the City of Destruction but by the wicket gate is sure to land us where it landed Evangelist's quaking and sweating charge. When Bishop Butler lay on his deathbed he called for his chaplain, and said, 'Though I have endeavoured to avoid sin, and to please God to the utmost of my power, yet from the consciousness of my perpetual infirmities I am still afraid to die.' 'My lord,' said his happily evangelical chaplain, 'have you forgotten that Jesus Christ is a Saviour?' 'True,' said the dying philosopher, 'but how shall I know that He is a Saviour for me?' 'My lord, it is written, "Him that cometh to Me, I will in no wise cast out."' 'True,' said Butler, 'and I am surprised that though I have read that Scripture a thousand times, I never felt its virtue till this moment, and now I die in peace.'
The third and the last time on which the pilgrims meet with their old friend and helper, Evangelist, is when they are just at the gates of the town of Vanity. They have come through many wonderful experiences since last they saw and spoke with him. They have had the gate opened to them by Goodwill. They have been received and entertained in the Interpreter's House, and in the House Beautiful. The burden has fallen off their backs at the cross, and they have had their rags removed and have received change of raiment. They have climbed the Hill Difficulty, and they have fought their way through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. More than the half of their adventures and sufferings are past; but they are not yet out of gunshot of the devil, and the bones of many a promising pilgrim lie whitening the way between this and the city. Many of our young communicants have made a fair and a promising start for salvation. They have got over the initial difficulties that lay in their way to the Lord's table, and we have entered their names with honest pride in our communion roll. But a year or two passes over, and the critical season arrives when our young communicant 'comes out,' as the word is. Up till now she has been a child, a little maid, a Bible-class student, a young communicant, a Sabbath-school teacher. But she is now a young lady, and she comes out into the world. We soon see that she has so come out, as we begin to miss her from places and from employments her presence used to brighten; and, very unwillingly, we overhear men and women with her name on their lips in a way that makes us fear for her soul, till many, oh, in a single ministry, how many, who promised well at the gate and ran safely past many snares, at last sell all--body and soul and Saviour--in Vanity Fair.
Well, Evangelist remains Evangelist still. Only, without losing any of his sweetness and freeness and fulness of promise, he adds to that some solemn warnings and counsels suitable now, as never before, to these two pilgrims. If one may say so, he would add now such moral treatises as Butler's Sermons and Serious Call to such evangelical books as Grace Abounding and A Jerusalem Sinner Saved.
To-morrow the two pilgrims will come out of the wilderness and will be plunged into a city where they will be offered all kinds of merchandise,--houses, lands, places, honours, preferments, titles, pleasures, delights, wives, children, bodies, souls, and what not. An altogether new world from anything they have yet come through, and a world where many who once began well have gone no further. Such counsels as these, then, Evangelist gave Christian and Faithful as they left the lonely wilderness behind them and came out towards the gate of the seductive city--'Let the Kingdom of Heaven be always before your eyes, and believe steadfastly concerning things that are invisible.' Visible, tangible, sweet, and desirable things will immediately be offered to them, and unless they have a faith in their hearts that is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen, it will soon be all over with them and their pilgrimage. 'Let no man take your crown,' he said also, as he foresaw at how many booths and counters, houses, lands, places, preferments, wives, husbands, and what not, would be offered them and pressed upon them in exchange for their heavenly crown. 'Above all, look well to your own hearts,' he said. Canon Venables laments over the teaching that Bunyan received from John Gifford. 'Its principle,' he says, 'was constant introspection and scrupulous weighing of every word and deed, and even of every thought, instead of leading the mind off from self to the Saviour.' The canon seems to think that it was specially unfortunate for Bunyan to be told to keep his heart and to weigh well every thought of it; but I must point out to you that Evangelist puts as above all other things the most important for the pilgrims the looking well to their own hearts; and our plain-spoken author has used a very severe word about any minister who should whisper anything to any pilgrim that could be construed or misunderstood into putting Christ in the place of thought and word and deed, and the scrupulous weighing of every one of them. 'Let nothing that is on this side the other world get within you; and above all, look well to your own hearts, and to the lusts thereof.'
'Set your faces like a flint,' Evangelist proceeds. How little like all that you hear in the counsels of the pulpit to young women coming out and to young men entering into business life. I am convinced that if we ministers were more direct and plain-spoken to such persons at such times; if we, like Bunyan, told them plainly what kind of a world it is they are coming out to buy and sell in, and what its merchandise and its prices are; if our people would let us so preach to their sons and daughters, I feel sure far fewer young communicants would make shipwreck, and far fewer grey heads would go down with sorrow to the grave. 'Be not afraid,' said Robert Hall in his charge to a young minister, 'of devoting whole sermons to particular parts of moral conduct and religious duty. It is impossible to give right views of them unless you dissect characters and describe particular virtues and vices. The works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit must be distinctly pointed out. To preach against sin in general without descending to particulars may lead many to complain of the evil of their hearts, while at the same time they are awfully inattentive to the evil of their conduct.' Take Evangelist's noble counsels at the gate of Vanity Fair, and then take John Bunyan's masterly description of the Fair itself, with all that is bought and sold in it, and you will have a lesson in evangelical preaching that the evangelical pulpit needed in Bunyan's day, in Robert Hall's day, and not less in our own.
'My sons, you have heard the truth of the gospel, that you must through many tribulations enter the Kingdom of God. When, therefore, you are come to the Fair and shall find fulfilled what I have here related, then remember your friend; quit yourselves like men, and commit the keeping of your souls to your God in well-doing as unto a faithful Creator.'
* LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH