The Refreshment of Unlikely Friendship: Why John Owen Needed John Bunyan

The Puritan theologian John Owen (1616–1683) is widely known for his teaching on sin and temptation. He had a knack for making keen observations not only about human sinfulness but about human frailty. “We are but dust,” Owen states, “and God knows we are but dust.” As a result, God in his providence makes general allowances “which are fitted and suited to our refreshment and relief in our pilgrimage.”

These divine accommodations include tangible provisions such as “houses, lands, [and] possessions,” as well as intangible blessings such as “the comfort of relations and friends.” While our greatest need is Christ, “we do greatly stand in need of these things” (Works of John Owen, 21:340). For Owen, one source of refreshment that he enjoyed on his pilgrimage was a friendship with the Baptist minister and allegorist John Bunyan.

Unlikely Friendship

Friendship is an important although overlooked ingredient for reformation. We sometimes think of figures like Luther and Calvin working as lone Reformers and forget about the supporting cast members who complemented and even extended their ministries. Next to Luther was Melanchthon. Surrounding Calvin were Farel, Viret, and Beza. These Reformers in the Wings, as the late David Steinmetz called them, underscore the vital role that friendships play in the settings where Christians live, work, and worship. In the aftermath of the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England in 1660, for example, the unlikely friendship between Owen and Bunyan resulted in the publication of one of the most important literary achievements of the modern world.

“Friendship is an important although overlooked ingredient for reformation.”

The ancient philosopher Cicero famously described friendship as “nothing other than agreement with goodwill and affection between two people about all things divine and human” (How to Be a Friend, 39). By all accounts, Owen and Bunyan shared much goodwill and affection toward each other, even if at first glance they had little in common. Owen was learned and well-connected. Bunyan was bright and gifted but uneducated, poor, and insignificant. With such starkly different backgrounds, their relationship has long captured the imagination of biographers, scholars, and general readers. Two well-known episodes illustrate their relationship and also teach us something about the value and limits of friendship.

Tinker’s Preaching

Bunyan was a popular preacher, perhaps due in part to accounts of his preaching to fellow prisoners in the Bedford jail. After his release from prison, Bunyan’s reputation grew as he frequently traveled to London and the surrounding areas to preach, with as many as three thousand eager dissenters gathering to hear him. Evidently, on one occasion, no less than twelve hundred people met as early as 7:00 on a “dark winter’s morning” to sit under his preaching (Joseph Ivimey, Life of Mr. John Bunyan, 295).

From time to time, “among his auditors” in London “was his friend and admirer, Dr. John Owen.” On hearing the news that Owen appreciated Bunyan’s preaching, King Charles II allegedly asked Owen “how he who had so much learning could hear a tinker preach.” To which Owen apparently replied, “May it please your majesty, had I the tinker’s abilities for preaching, I would most gladly relinquish all my learning” (Ivimey, A History of the Baptists, 2:41).

The historian Allen Guelzo, in a Christianity Today article on Owen, wonders whether this episode is “apocryphal or not,” but is quick to affirm that “this small story . . . reveals a good deal of [Owen’s] Christian character.” The earliest reference I’ve found to this episode comes from the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the appeal of this story stems from the admiration that Owen, the former Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, is said to have had for the preaching gifts of Bunyan the tinker, an uneducated mender of metals. James Moffatt, for example, insists that “the tale is obviously authentic” and describes Owen’s “noble envy” of Bunyan’s ability “to speak effectively . . . to the common people” (The Golden Booklet of John Owen, 77).

Regardless of the origin of the quote, it expresses a maxim that I often share with my students: as Christians, we should delight in the gifts that God gives other people. Bunyan would agree. At one point in their relationship, Owen backed out of a commitment he made to write a preface for one of Bunyan’s works. Undeterred, Bunyan saw a silver lining. “Perhaps it was more for the glory of God that truth should go naked into the world, than as seconded by so mighty an armour-bearer as he” (Works of John Bunyan, 2:649). Even when Owen failed his friend, Bunyan saw in Owen someone he admired.

Birth of a Classic

The second episode is more well-attested and comes from when Bunyan was imprisoned for twelve years for illegal preaching as a nonconformist minister. The story is told by John Asty, one of Owen’s earliest biographers.

A friend of Bunyan’s approached Owen to petition Bishop Thomas Barlow, Owen’s former tutor at Oxford, for Bunyan’s release. Owen had a long history with Barlow and perhaps thought he could prevail upon his old tutor. His hopes, however, were first met with disappointment. Barlow “failed” Owen, even though Owen “expected the service of [Barlow’s] professed friendship.” Times were tense. And Barlow was unwilling to act unless Owen also secured the approval of the Lord Chancellor, Heneage Finch. Although Barlow assured Owen that he would “strain a point to serve him,” he appears to have made Owen work harder than he perhaps anticipated for Bunyan’s freedom, a point only complicated by the fact that Owen was also busy securing a license to marry his second wife, Dorothy D’Oyley. At last, however, the deed was done, and “the poor man [Bunyan] was released” on June 21, 1677.

The full details of Owen’s intervention on behalf of Bunyan are difficult to piece together, but the delays Owen and others experienced to get their friend released proved beneficial for Bunyan. He used his time in prison to the fullest. Once Bunyan was finally released, we know that he approached Owen’s publisher Nathaniel Ponder with a manuscript that he wrote while in prison, with evidence suggesting that Owen introduced the two.

“The comfort of friends is one of the great sources of refreshment that God gives us.”

The manuscript was none other than The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Owen’s publisher would hereafter be dubbed as “Bunyan Ponder.” The result was the production of a book that changed the world. Owen is likely among the cast of characters that Bunyan references in his “Apology” who encouraged him to print The Pilgrim’s Progress. Ultimately, however, Bunyan’s masterpiece is a testimony to how persecution, disappointment, and failure often create the conditions for literary excellence and personal faithfulness.

Refreshment of Friends

The relationship between Owen and Bunyan was marked by mutual admiration, personal favors, unrealized expectations, and even ministry connections between their respective congregations in Leadenhall and Bedford. Their lives remind us as Christians that we all “stand in need” of friendship. We stand in need of each other’s gifts, even when they are far different from our own, and we stand in need of each other’s help and encouragement, especially in the most trying times.

As Owen would say, perhaps even thinking of Bunyan, the comfort of friends is one of the great sources of “refreshment” that God gives us as we make our pilgrimage from this world to that which is to come.

Leave a Reply