A Book in His Hand: Visiting the Grave of John Bunyan


Historians are rather curious people. They like to visit curious places. Like graveyards. Apparently, there’s something about tombstones.

When it comes to Great Britain, there are a number of places you can visit to pay your respects. Two in particular stand out. First, of course, is Westminster Abbey, the burial place of Kings . . . and Queens . . . and poets . . . and scientists . . . and statesmen . . . and, well, you get the picture.

But, the place I prefer is outdoors—and it’s free, too. This place is known as “Bunhill Fields.” It likely stands for “Bone Hill.” It was a burial ground as far back as 1,000, if not even earlier. From the 1660s on, it became the place for the nonconformists to be buried. These were the church leaders who would not conform to the Church of England. We know them as Puritans.

Many nonconformists are buried there. John Owen, the great Puritan theologian, is there. Isaac Watts, the hymnwriter. Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles is there. And there are others. The writer of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, is there. And so is the poet William Blake.

And there is one more worth mentioning. His remains lie but a few feet from John Owen, and he is the author of the second most popular book in the English language. This is John Bunyan, the man who gave us Pilgrim’s Progress.

John Bunyan's GraveBunyan died on August 31, 1688, while in London on a preaching trip. He was buried in Bunhill Fields. Much later, in 1862, a statue was installed over his grave. It is a man lying down with a book in his hand. Two carvings on the sides depict scenes from his book. In the one, Christian is weighed down by the heavy burden on his back. He’s hunched over, feeling the full weight of the burden. Bunyan describes him that way to represent his sin. On the other side the carved figure is standing upright. He’s free of the burden as he clings to the cross.

Bunhill Fields was on the outskirts of the city at the time of Bunyan’s death. But the city grew out and around the cemetery. A sidewalk runs through the middle of the cemetery and Londoners use it as a shortcut as they go about their business. A few apartment buildings and offices stretch into the sky around it. The streets lining it are full of busses, taxis, bikes. All busy, all on the move, all running here and there.

Last time I visited Bunhill Fields I sat for a while on the bench beside Bunyan’s grave and watched streams of people go by. I wondered if any of them ever pause to glance over at Bunyan’s grave, or if any take the time to see the carvings of the man so burdened and of the man set free. I wondered if they ever took a few steps out of their way to look at the statue adorning the top. Do any ever think: What is that book he’s holding? Do they know what the Bible contains?

You might remember that when Christian first set out on his journey, he was aware of his burden. But his friends and his family couldn’t understand why he was so upset, why he was so bound and determined to seek freedom from his burden. They couldn’t understand why he had a book in his hand, much less why Christian thought that book was of any importance or urgency.

And there Bunyan is today, still raising his prophetic voice, still reminding us that we do indeed have a burden on our back. That there is but one solution to freedom from this burden, and there is but one Book which has the answer.

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    Mary Penner posted:
    12:48 pm, August 28, 2013

    Very interesting, and encouraging.

    Reply

     
    Debbie Brandenburg posted:
    2:02 pm, August 28, 2013

    Really like this idea of 5-minutes of Church History. Thank you for putting these together.

    Reply

     
    Dave Skinner posted:
    9:04 pm, August 28, 2013

    Thanks for sharing this, Stephen. And thanks to God that these dead still speak.

    Reply

     
    Lana posted:
    12:37 pm, September 4, 2013

    Man, I missed that graveyard (though I did go to Westminster. Fantastic place).

    Reply

     
    Bruce posted:
    6:07 am, September 5, 2013

    I stood at John Bunyan’s grave on 8/31/2013, along with other Ligonier Ministries English Reformation Tour visitors. Dr. Steven Lawson shared some thoughts about Bunyan, lead us in prayer and the first verse of Amazing Grace. John Bunyan suffered greatly as he contended for the faith once delivered. We truly stand on the shoulders of giants.

    Reply

     
    talita nunes posted:
    3:46 pm, September 5, 2013

    Nice thoughts! =]
    But I must say… I believe that John Bunyan died in August 31, 1688, not in 1682 as you said. I would not forget this date because exactly 300 after that I was born ^^
    Or maybe my sources are wrong, are they?

    God bless you, brother!

    Reply

       
      Stephen Nichols posted:
      4:13 pm, September 5, 2013

      Dear Talita,

      Thank you for catching the mistake. Bunyan did indeed die in the year 1688, on August 31. So, you may keep that 300th anniversary of your birth on his death date intact!

      Thanks again,
      Steve

      Reply

     
    Nora Holden posted:
    8:47 pm, September 6, 2013

    Thank you so much Mr. Nichols! I was blessed listening to this message. I will be reading The
    Pilgrim’s Progress in children’s church soon.I was encouraged greatly…

    Reply

       
      Stephen Nichols posted:
      10:47 am, September 9, 2013

      My pleasure. Thank you for introducing the next generation to Bunyan.

      Reply

     
    New Podcast Worth Ch posted:
    4:50 pm, September 17, 2013

    […] story from the life of John Calvin that offers us encouragement during times of worry. In episode three, we’re taken to the grave of John Bunyan to hear the story of a man with a book in his hand. And […]

    Reply

     
    David Brainerd’ posted:
    10:39 am, December 18, 2013

    […] are strange people, and they like to visit strange places. And I think I mentioned to you that I like to visit cemeteries. Well in addition to cemeteries, historians also like to visit libraries. I know, sounds really […]

    Reply