What Did John Bunyan Believe About Head Covering?

[Series introduction: This post is part of a series that will examine what certain leaders in church history believed about head covering. Their arguments, choice of language and conclusions should not be misconstrued as an endorsement from us. The purpose of this series is to faithfully show what they believe about covering rather than only selectively quoting the parts we agree with.]

John Bunyan (1628-1688) was an English, Baptist, Puritan author and preacher. He is the author of more than 60 books but most famously known for his classic novel, “The Pilgrim’s Progress“. Bunyan’s writings share the same clear and direct style as his immensely popular sermons, which were known to draw crowds of around 3,000 individuals on Sunday.

In 1683 Bunyan published a tract entitled “A Case of Conscience Resolved” dealing with women who segregated themselves and were gathering together privately for worship (with no men present). He was asked for his opinion on this practice and to respond to a Mr. Keach who permitted and defended these womens meetings. In his tract John Bunyan expresses disagreement with the practice and lays out a case for why worship must be men and women together, with men taking the lead. Near the end of this tract John Bunyan refers to 1 Corinthians 11 several times and sheds light on his understanding of head covering. Here’s how he starts:
WOMEN! They are an ornament in the church of God on earth, as the ANGELS are in the church in heaven. Betwixt whom also there is some comparison, for they cover their faces in acts of worship (Isa 6:2; 1 Cor 11:10).*
Bunyan saw a parallel between the angels in Isaiah 6 and women in worship who both veil themselves in the presence of God. Continuing on he says:
But as the angels in heaven are not Christ, and so not admitted to the mercy-seat to speak to God, so neither are women on earth, [but] the man; who is to worship with open face before him, and to be the mouth in prayer for the rest. As the angels then cry, Holy, Holy, Holy, with faces covered in heaven: So let the women, cry, Holy, Holy, Holy, with their faces covered on earth: Yea, thus they should do, because of the angels. “For this cause ought the woman to have power,” that is a covering, “on her head, because of the angels” (1 Cor 11:10). Not only because the angels are present, but because women and angels, as to their worship, in their respective places, have a semblance. For the angels are inferior* to the great man Christ, who is in heaven; and the woman is inferior to the man, that truly worships God in the church on earth.*
Bunyan continues on with several comparisons between women and angels. Just as angels do not approach the mercy seat to speak to God, women do not speak in church meetings (1 Cor 14:33-35). Just as angels cover their faces in Heaven, women cover on earth. Just as angels are inferior* to God, women are inferior to men. He then appeals to 1 Cor 11:10 for support not only because angels are present in worship but also because they are like women. He continues:
Methinks, holy and beloved sisters, you should be content to wear this power, or badge of your inferiority, since the cause thereof arose at first from yourselves. It was the woman that at first the serpent made use of, and by whom he then overthrew the world: wherefore the women, to the world’s end, must wear tokens of her underlingship in all matters of worship.*
Bunyan exhorted women to cover “in all matters of worship” which he understands as when the church corporately meets together. He said this was to be done “to the world’s end” showing that he understood this practice to be ongoing and permanent.
To say nothing of that which she cannot shake off, to wit, her pains and sorrows in child-bearing, which God has riveted to her nature, there is her silence, and shame, and a covering for her face, in token of it, which she ought to be exercised with, whenever the church comes together to worship (Gen 3:16; 1 Tim 2:15; 1 Cor 11:13; 1 Tim 2:9).*
Just as the womens pain in child-bearing never ends, so also is she to worship in silence and with a covering forever “whenever the church comes together to worship”. Bunyan saw the covering as a “token of her shame” which he connects to Eve’s disobedience in Genesis. Bunyan also referenced head covering when talking about “extraordinary” women in the Bible who prophesied, taught or had authority*:
Though this I must say concerning them, they ought to, and did, notwithstanding so high a calling, still bear about with them the badge of their inferiority to them that were prophets indeed. And hence it is said, under pain of being guilty of disorder, that if they prayed in the church, or prophesied there, with their head uncovered, they then dishonoured their head (1 Cor 11:5). The prophetesses were below the prophets, and their covering for their heads was to be worn in token thereof…*
He notes that even though these women had extraordinary function, they still would have worn a covering in church. Finally he says as a good summary of his view:
The men are admitted in such worship, to stand with open face before God, a token of much admittance to liberty and boldness with God, a thing denied to the women (1 Cor 11:4,5).*
Summary of John Bunyans views:
Did he see the need for covering today?Yes
At what times does he believe women need to be covered?During corporate worship
What did he see the covering as?A token of the womans shame
  • Patrick

    As a male, I find much of this to be fairly outlandish. Women are inferior? They are to wear a badge of shame for their disobedience? Yet man, in spite of his disobedience is allowed “much admittance to liberty and boldness with God, a thing denied to the women” ? This seems unBiblical at the very best.

    • http://www.gospelebooks.net/ Jeremy Gardiner

      If by inferior he meant “less than” I’m with you. In the footnote I quoted a 1828 dictionary that had a few meanings (two of which didn’t carry that notion) and even that is 200 years removed from this writing. As I’m sure you know, words can change meaning quickly. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt on that matter.

      • Kimberly Neely

        I can give on that part, but appealing to Eve’s sin seems to be a stretch to me. I also have had teaching that compared the angels covering their faces in reverence to the woman’s covering, and that makes sense to me. But not the shame aspect of sin. We (women) are clean in God’s eyes because of Christ’s redemption, just as the men are. More easily deceived? I think so, although I think many women wouldn’t want to admit it, and in today’s Church the men are often misled as well since they don’t take their position as leaders as seriously as they did 200 years ago. (speaking generally of course)

        • http://www.gospelebooks.net/ Jeremy Gardiner

          I agree with you Kim about not appealing to Eve’s disobedience for covering. It’s an argument I wouldn’t make. Having said that I think it’s important to at least point out where he’s likely getting that from:

          I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. (1 Timothy 2:12-14 ESV)

          • Kimberly Neely

            Yes, I am aware of that passage, and agree with it. It complements the teaching on order presented in 1 Cor 11, but is a different command. I see the tendency in myself, and many women around me to be easily swayed by teachers without searching the scriptures as we all should. All the more important for men to be godly, well read in the scriptures, and teach the whole counsel of God, as Paul did. :)

  • Diana Johnston

    Great stuff! Thanks for sharing! Love to hear what historical Christian leaders had to say on the issue. John Bunyan is awesome – I’ve loved reading about his life and ministry in the past, and he has great stuff to say here too.

    As a woman, I see nothing insulting about this. We in the modern church have often been taught feminist interpretations of Scripture, but the Bible is unapologetically non-feminist.

    • Kimberly Neely

      I don’t really find it insulting, but I don’t see it as scriptural either. (the inferiority, and shame part) Paul appeals specifically to Godly order and submission. He says it’s a shame for a woman to be uncovered when praying or prophesying, but never says they should cover *because of shame. There is a difference. The deception of Eve is not mentioned in this passage, although it is referenced in the admonition for women not to teach or have authority over men in the assembly. If sin were the reason for covering (his inference) then men would have to cover too. Adam’s sin was no less.

      • Patrick

        If by inferior he means “less than” that is insulting and non-scriptural. But, I’m OK to say that inferior may have had a different meaning.

        The Bible certainly isn’t feminist, but it doesn’t support the degradation of women either. Jesus treated women with dignity and respect, and not as someone that had less worth than the males around him.

        I like the idea that women are to cover their heads as angels cover their faces in worship — but don’t get the shame aspect, as someone already alluded to. Shame and condemnation have been dealt with in the atoning sacrifice by Christ — and where as Eve was deceived, Adam was not — so the idea that Eve would face added shame while Adam is free before God doesn’t make sense to me.

  • David Pendleton

    “In 1683 Bunyan published a tract entitled ‘A Case of Conscience Resolved’ dealing with women who segregated themselves and were gathering together privately for worship (with no men present).”

    NO WAY! You mean to tell me that in 1683 women were actually gathering together privately for worship with no men present! Wow! That’s scandalous! I had no idea that kind of debauchery could be traced back to the 1600s. No wonder Paul Bunyan had to write his article. And there was another guy, Mr. Keach was his name, that actually DEFENDED these women’s meetings. Yikes! Mr. Keach was clearly some sort of heretic. Can you imagine defending such a thing? I’m so thankful Paul Bunyan did his part to try to put a stop to such outlandish and scandalous things as women gathering for worship with no men present. I know one thing, I certainly wouldn’t let my wife do something like that. What is this world coming to?

  • Vanessa Loy

    I am curious as to why you quote John Bunyan since he was in disobedience to the passage regarding men not having long hair. In any case, Jesus Christ should be our example, not the so-called “church fathers.”

    Secondly, there is certainly biblical precedent for female-only worship gatherings. Ministry to incarcerated women, for example. Or the woman-to-woman teaching in Titus 2.

    Thirdly, it sounds like Bunyan would have a problem with the Elect Lady of 2 John, who is clearly a woman in position of spiritual authority.

  • Mark

    The Lord Jesus looked to Father for all things ( john 8:28), this is the model of the relationship between man and woman in Christ(1cor 11:3). A head covering in the assembly should be as normal as baptism as it is put forth in scripture as a visible sign of obedience witnessed by angels.

    Scripture tells us that when a woman prays uncovered she dishonours her head, and puts forth neither all female nor all male church meetings as spiritually beneficial.