August 28, 2013

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

Stephen Nichols
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, poets and scientists, 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.

Bunyan 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.