The Slough of Despond is one of John Bunyan's masterpieces. In his description of the slough, Bunyan touches his highest water-mark for humour, and pathos, and power, and beauty of language. If we did not have the English Bible in our own hands we would have to ask, as Lord Jeffrey asked Lord Macaulay, where the brazier of Bedford got his inimitable style. Bunyan confesses to us that he got all his Latin from the prescription papers of his doctors, and we know that he got all his perfect English from his English Bible. And then he got his humour and his pathos out of his own deep and tender heart. The God of all grace gave a great gift to the English-speaking world and to the Church of Christ in all lands when He created and converted John Bunyan, and put it into his head and his heart to compose The Pilgrim's Progress. His heart-affecting page on the slough has been wetted with the tears of thousands of its readers, and their tears have been mingled with smiles as they read their own sin and misery, and the never-to-be-forgotten time and place where their sin and misery first found them out, all told so recognisably, so pathetically, and so amusingly almost to laughableness in the passage upon the slough. We see the ocean of scum and filth pouring down into the slough through the subterranean sewers of the City of Destruction and of the Town of Stupidity, which lies four degrees beyond the City of Destruction, and from many other of the houses and haunts of men. We see His Majesty's sappers and miners at their wits' end how to cope with the deluges of pollution that pour into this slough that they have been ordained to drain and dry up. For ages and ages the royal surveyors have been laying out all their skill on this slough. More cartloads than you could count of the best material for filling up a slough have been shot into it, and yet you would never know that so much as a single labourer had emptied his barrow here. True, excellent stepping-stones have been laid across the slough by skilful engineers, but they are always so slippery with the scum and slime of the slough, that it is only now and then that a traveller can keep his feet upon them. Altogether, our author's picture of the Slough of Despond is such a picture that no one who has seen it can ever forget it. But better than reading the best description of the slough is to see certain well-known pilgrims trying to cross it. Mr. Fearing at the Slough of Despond was a tale often told at the tavern suppers of that country. Never pilgrim attempted the perilous journey with such a chicken-heart in his bosom as this Mr. Fearing. He lay above a month on the bank of the slough, and would not even attempt the steps. Some kind Pilgrims, though they had enough to do to keep the steps themselves, offered him a hand; but no. And after they were safely over it made them almost weep to hear the man still roaring in his horror at the other side. Some bade him go home if he would not take the steps, but he said that he would rather make his grave in the slough than go back one hairsbreadth. Till, one sunshiny morning,--no one knew how, and he never knew how himself--the steps were so high and dry, and the scum and slime were so low, that this hare-hearted man made a venture, and so got over. But, then, as an unkind friend of his said, this pitiful pilgrim had a slough of despond in his own mind which he carried always and everywhere about with him, and made him the proverb of despondency that he was and is. Only, that sunshiny morning he got over both the slough inside of him and outside of him, and was heard by Help and his family singing this song on the hither side of the slough: 'He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.'
Our pilgrim did not have such a good crossing as Mr. Fearing. Whether it was that the discharge from the city was deeper and fouler, or that the day was darker, or what, we are not told, but both Christian and Pliable were in a moment out of sight in the slough. They both wallowed, says their plain-spoken historian, in the slough, only the one of the two who had the burden on his back at every wallow went deeper into the mire; when his neighbour, who had no such burden, instead of coming to his assistance, got out of the slough at the same side as he had entered it, and made with all his might for his own house. But the man called Christian made what way he could, and still tumbled on to the side of the slough that was farthest from his own house, till a man called Help gave him his hand and set him upon sound ground. Christiana, again, and Mercy and the boys found the slough in a far worse condition than it had ever been found before. And the reason was not that the country that drained into the slough was worse, but that those who had the mending of the slough and the keeping in repair of the steps had so bungled their work that they had marred the way instead of mending it. At the same time, by the tact and good sense of Mercy, the whole party got over, Mercy remarking to the mother of the boys, that if she had as good ground to hope for a loving reception at the gate as Christiana had, no slough of despond would discourage her, she said. To which the older woman made the characteristic reply: 'You know your sore and I know mine, and we shall both have enough evil to face before we come to our journey's end.'
Now, I do not for a moment suppose that there is any one here who can need to be told what the Slough of Despond in reality is. Indeed, its very name sufficiently declares it. But if any one should still be at a loss to understand this terrible experience of all the pilgrims, the explanation offered by the good man who gave Christian his hand may here be repeated. 'This miry slough,' he said, 'is such a place as cannot be mended. This slough is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction of sin doth continually run, and therefore it is called by the name of Despond, for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition there ariseth in his soul many fears and doubts and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place, and this is the reason of the badness of the ground.' That is the parable, with its interpretation; but there is a passage in Grace Abounding which is no parable, and which may even better than this so pictorial slough describe some men's condition here. 'My original and inward pollution,' says Bunyan himself in his autobiography, 'that, that was my plague and my affliction; that, I say, at a dreadful rate was always putting itself forth within me; that I had the guilt of to amazement; by reason of that I was more loathsome in my own eyes than a toad; and I thought I was so in God's eyes also. Sin and corruption would bubble up out of my heart as naturally as water bubbles up out of a fountain. I thought now that every one had a better heart than I had. I could have changed heart with anybody. I thought none but the devil himself could equalise me for inward wickedness and pollution of mind. I fell, therefore, at the sight of my own vileness, deeply into despair, for I concluded that this condition in which I was in could not stand with a life of grace. Sure, thought I, I am forsaken of God; sure I am given up to the devil, and to a reprobate mind.'
'Let no man, then, count me a fable maker, Nor made my name and credit a partaker Of their derision: what is here in view, Of mine own knowledge I dare say is true.'
Sometimes, as with Christian at the slough, a man's way in life is all slashed up into sudden ditches and pitfalls out of the sins of his youth. His sins, by God's grace, find him out, and under their arrest and overthrow he begins to seek his way to a better life and a better world; and then both the burden and the slough have their explanation and fulfilment in his own life every day. But it is even more dreadful than a slough in a man's way to have a slough in his mind, as both Bunyan himself and Mr. Fearing, his exquisite creation, had. After the awful-enough slough, filled with the guilt and fear of actual sin, had been bridged and crossed and left behind, a still worse slough of inward corruption and pollution rose up in John Bunyan's soul and threatened to engulf him altogether. So terrible to Bunyan was this experience, that he has not thought it possible to make a parable of it, and so put it into the Pilgrim; he has kept it rather for the plain, direct, unpictured, personal testimony of the Grace Abounding. I do not know another passage anywhere to compare with the eighty-fourth paragraph of Grace Abounding for hope and encouragement to a great inward sinner under a great inward sanctification. I commend that powerful passage to the appropriation of any man here who may have stuck fast in the Slough of Despond to-day, and who could not on that account come to the Lord's Table. Let him still struggle out at the side of the slough farthest from his own house, and to-night, who can tell, Help may come and give that man his hand. When the Slough of Despond is drained, and its bottom laid bare, what a find of all kinds of precious treasures shall be laid bare! Will you be able to lay claim to any of it when the long-lost treasure-trove is distributed by command of the King to its rightful owners?
'What are you doing there?' the man whose name was Help demanded of Christian, as he still wallowed and plunged to the hither side of the slough, 'and why did you not look for the steps?' And so saying he set Christian's feet upon sound ground again, and showed him the nearest way to the gate. Help is one of the King's officers who are planted all along the way to the Celestial City, in order to assist and counsel all pilgrims. Evangelist was one of those officers; this Help is another; Goodwill will be another, unless, indeed, he is more than a mere officer; Interpreter will be another, and Greatheart, and so on. All these are preachers and pastors and evangelists who correspond to all those names and all their offices. Only some unhappy preachers are better at pushing poor pilgrims into the slough, and pushing them down to the bottom of it, than they are at helping a sinking pilgrim out; while some other more happy preachers and pastors have their manses built at the hither side of the slough and do nothing else all their days but help pilgrims out of their slough and direct them to the gate. And then there are multitudes of so-called ministers who eat the King's bread who can neither push a proud sinner into the slough nor help a prostrate sinner out of it; no, nor point him the way when he has himself wallowed out. And then, there are men called ministers, too, who also eat the King's bread, whose voice you never hear in connection with such matters, unless it be to revile both the pilgrims and their helpers, and all who run with fear and trembling up the heavenly road. But our pilgrim was happy enough to meet with a minister to whom he could look back all his remaining pilgrimage and say: 'He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise to our God.'
Now, as might have been expected, there is a great deal said about all kinds of help in the Bible. After the help of God, of which the Bible and especially the more experimental Psalms are full, this fine name is then applied to many Scriptural persons, and on many Scriptural occasions. The first woman whom God Almighty made bore from her Maker to her husband this noble name. Her Father, so to speak, gave her away under this noble name. And of all the sweet and noble names that a woman bears, there is none so rich, so sweet, so lasting, and so fruitful as just her first Divine name of a helpmeet. And how favoured of God is that man to be accounted whose life still continues to draw meet help out of his wife's fulness of help, till all her and his days together he is able to say, I have of God a helpmeet indeed! For in how many sloughs do many men lie till this daughter of Help gives them her hand, and out of how many more sloughs are they all their days by her delivered and kept! Sweet, maidenly, and most sensible Mercy was a great help to widow Christiana at the slough, and to her and her sons all the way up to the river--a very present help in many a need to her future mother-in-law and her pilgrim sons. Let every young man seek his future wife of God, and let him seek her of her Divine Father under that fine, homely, divine name. For God, who knoweth what we have need of before we ask Him, likes nothing better than to make a helpmeet for those who so ask Him, and still to bring the woman to the man under that so spouse-like name.
'What next I bring shall please thee, be assured, Thy likeness, thy fit help, thy other self, Thy wish exactly to thy heart's desire.'
And then when the apostle is making an enumeration of the various offices and agencies in the New Testament church of his day, after apostles and teachers and gifts of healing, he says, 'helps,'--assistants, that is, succourers, especially of the sick and the aged and the poor. And we do not read that either election or ordination was needed to make any given member of the apostolic church a helper. But we do read of helpers being found by the apostle among all classes and conditions of that rich and living church; both sexes, all ages, and all descriptions of church members bore this fine apostolic name. 'Salute Urbane, our helper in Christ . . . Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my helpers in Christ.' And both Paul and John and all the apostles were forward to confess in their epistles how much they owed of their apostolic success, as well as of their personal comfort and joy, to the helpers, both men and women, their Lord had blessed them with.
Now, the most part of us here to-night have been at the Lord's Table to-day. We kept our feet firm on the steps as we skirted or crossed the slough that self-examination always fills and defiles for us before every new communion. And before our Lord let us rise from His Table this morning. He again said to us: 'Ye call Me Master and Lord, and ye say well, for so I am. If I then have given you My hand, and have helped you, ye ought also to help one another.' Who, then, any more will withhold such help as it is in his power to give to a sinking brother? And you do not need to go far afield seeking the slough of desponding, despairing, drowning men. This whole world is full of such sloughs. There is scarce sound ground enough in this world on which to build a slough-watcher's tower. And after it is built, the very tower itself is soon stained and blinded with the scudding slime. Where are your eyes, and full of what? Do you not see sloughs full of sinking men at your very door; ay, and inside of your best built and best kept house? Your very next neighbour; nay, your own flesh and blood, if they have nothing else of Greatheart's most troublesome pilgrim about them, have at least this, that they carry about a slough with them in their own mind and in their own heart. Have you only henceforth a heart and a hand to help, and see if hundreds of sinking hearts do not cry out your name, and hundreds of slimy hands grasp at your stretched-out arm. Sloughs of all kinds of vice, open and secret; sloughs of poverty, sloughs of youthful ignorance, temptation, and transgression; sloughs of inward gloom, family disquiet and dispute; lonely grief; all manner of sloughs, deep and miry, where no man would suspect them. And how good, how like Christ Himself, and how well-pleasing to Him to lay down steps for such sliding feet, and to lift out another and another human soul upon sound and solid ground. 'Know ye what I have done to you? For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.'
* LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH