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John Bunyan's court case

The Breedlove Papers
One of the most significant finds related to the legal history of England in the years immediately following the Commonwealth Period was the discovery among the papers of Thomas Breedlove, of nearly a thousand verbatim accounts of primarily minor trials conducted between 1660 and 1675.
Among the sheaves found were those recording the proceedings of His Majesty, King Charles II, against John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim's Progress, who spent 10 years in an English prison for his religious convictions.
PROCEEDINGS, being a true account of the trial of John Bunyan, Tinker, of Bedfordshire, His Lordship, Judge Wingate presiding at the Courthouse in Bedfordshire on October 3, in the Year of our Lord, 1660. The Accused is charged with willful and deliberate Violation of various and sundry Royal and Parliamentary Edicts. His Trial this Day, however, respects a single Charge:
namely, Violation of the Conventicle Act, first proposed by Her Most High and Mighty Majesty, our Late Beloved Queen Elizabeth, and reinstated by His Beneficent Highness, King Charles II. All Parties being in Place, and the Witnesses having been sworn, the trial proceeds.
Judge Wingate: Mr. Bunyan, you stand before this Court accused of persistent and willful transgression of the Conventicle Act, which prohibits all British subjects from absenting themselves from worship in the Church of England, and from conducting worship services apart from our Church. You come, presumably, with no legal training, and yet without counsel. I must warn you, sir, of the gravity of the charge, the harshness of the penalty, in the event of your conviction, and the foolhardiness of acting as your own counsel in so serious a matter. Are you cognizant of these facts, and do you understand the charge?
Bunyan: I am, and I do, M'lord.
Judge Wingate: In truth, I hope you do. Now, I hold in my hand the depositions of the witnesses against you. In each case, they have testified that, to their knowledge, you have never, in your adult life, attended services in the church of this parish. Each further testifies that he has observed you, on numerous occasions, conducting religious exercises in and near Bedford. These depositions have been read to you, have they not?
Bunyan: They have M'lord.
Judge Wingate: In that case, then, this Court would be profoundly interested in your response to them.
Bunyan: Thank you, M'lord. And may I say ,that I am grateful for the opportunity to respond. Firstly, the depositions speak the truth. I have never attended services in the Church of England, nor do I intend ever to do so. Secondly, it is no secret that I preach the word of God whenever, wherever, and to whomever He pleases to grant me opportunity to do so. Having said that, M'lord, there is a weightier issue that I am constrained to address, I have no choice but to acknowledge my awareness of the law which I am accused of transgressing. Likewise, I have no choice but to confess my guilt in my transgression of it. As true as these things are, I must affirm that I neither regret breaking the law, nor repent of having broken it. Further, I must warn you that I have no intention in future of conforming to it. It is, on its face, an unjust law, a law against which honorable men cannot shrink from protesting. In truth, M'lord, it violates an infinitely higher law - the right of every man to seek God in his own way, unhindered by any temporal power, That, M'lord, is my response.
Judge Wingate: This Court would remind you, sir, that we are not here to debate the merits of the law. We are here to determine if you are, in fact, guilty of violating it.
Bunyan: Perhaps, M'lord, that is why you are here, but it is most certainly not why I am here. I am here because you compel me to be here. All I ask is to be left alone to preach and to teach as God directs me. As, however, I must be here, I cannot fail to use these circumstances to speak against what I know to be an unjust and odious edict.
Judge Wingate: Let me understand you. You are arguing that every man has a right, given him by Almighty God, to seek the Deity in his own way, even if he chooses, without benefit of the English Church?
Bunyan: That is precisely what I am arguing M'lord. Or without benefit of any church.
Judge Wingate: Do you know what you are saying? What of Papists and Quakers? What of pagan Muhammadans? Have these the right to seek God in their own misguided way?
Bunyan: Even these M'lord.
Judge Wingate: May I ask if you are particularly sympathetic to the views of these or other such deviant religious societies?
Bunyan: I am not, M'lord.
Judge Wingate: Yet, you affirm a God given right to hold any alien religious doctrine that appeals to the warped minds of men?
Bunyan: I do, M'lord.
Judge Wingate: I find your views impossible of belief. And what of those who, if left to their own devices, would have no interest in things heavenly? Have they the right to be allowed to continue unmolested in their error?
Bunyan: It is my fervent belief that they do M'lord.
Judge Wingate: And on what basis, might I ask, can you make such a rash affirmation?
Bunyan: On the basis, M'lord, that a man's religious views - or lack of them - are matters between his conscience and his God, and are not the business of the Crown, the Parliament, or even, with all due respect, M'lord, of this Court. However much I may be in disagreement with another man's sincerely held religious beliefs, neither I nor any other may disallow his right to hold those beliefs. No man's rights in these affairs are secure if every other which you speak, M'lord, are symbols not of a right, but of a privilege. Implied therein is the principle that a mere man can extend or withhold them according to his whim. I speak not of privileges, but of rights. Privileges granted by men may be denied by men. Rights are granted by God, and can be legitimately denied by no man. I must therefore, refuse to comply.
Judge Wingate: Very well, Mr. Bunyan. Since you persist in your intractability, and since you reject this Court's honest effort at compromise, you leave us no choice but to commit you to Bedford jail for a period of six years. If you manage to survive, I should think that your experience will correct your thinking. If you fail to survive, that will be unfortunate. In any event, I strongly suspect that we have heard the last we shall ever hear from Mr. John Bunyan. Now, may we hear the next case.
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Last Updated October 31, 1999 by Douglas McKay