Who was John Bunyan?
John Bunyan (1628 –1688) was an English Christian writer and preacher, who is well known for his book The Pilgrim's Progress. Though he became a non-conformist and member of an Independent church, and although he has been described both as a Baptist and as a Congregationalist, he himself preferred to be described simply as a Christian. He is remembered in the Church of England with a Lesser Festival on August 30, and on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (US) on August 29. Some other Churches of the Anglican Communion, such as the Anglican Church of Australia, honour him on the day of his death (August 31) together with St Aidan of Lindisfarn
John Bunyan was born in 1628 to Thomas and Margaret Bunyan in Bunyan's End in the parish of Elstow, Bedfordshire, England. The Bunyan family (the name spelt in various ways) had lived on their land for centuries, originally a larger area, much of it gradually sold over the years. John Brown's biography gives details of his ancestry. The family's name was originally the Old French Buignon, and is first noted in 1199 at neaby Wilsamsted (Wilstead), the first member or members coming to England as Norman feudal retainers. The name has also been found in Calais. He is recorded in the Elstow parish register as having been baptised John Bunyan, on 30 November 1628.
On 23 May 1627, Thomas married his second wife, Margaret Bentley. Like Thomas, she was from Elstow and was also born in 1603. In 1628, Margaret's sister, Rose Bentley, married Thomas' half-brother Edward Bunyan. They were ordinary villagers, with Thomas earning a living as a chapman, but he may also have been a brazier - one who made and/or mended kettles and pots. Bunyan wrote with some exaggeration of his modest origins, "My descent was of a low and inconsiderable generation, my father's house being of that rank that is meanest and most despised of all the families of the land".
In his writings, John refers to his days in school - this may have been schooling at his father's house, possibly with other poor country boys, but it is possible that he meant that he attended a formal school, possibly the one in Houghton Conquest. Some think that Bunyan may have attended Bedford Grammar School, but some records show that only pupils living in the Borough of Bedford were eligible for a place there. Either way, his later writings demonstrate a high degree of English literacy.
Like his father, John chose a job 'on the road' by adopting the trade of tinker, which was a semi-skilled occupation. Few people could afford to purchase new pots when old ones became holed, so they were mended time and time again. The arrival of a tinker was therefore often a welcome sight although the semi-nomadic nature of their life led to tinkers being regarded by some in the same poor light as gypsies.
1644 was an eventful year for the Bunyan family: in June, John lost his mother and, in July, his sister Margaret died. Following this, his father married (for the third time) to Anne Pinney (or Purney) and a half-brother, Charles, was born. It may have been the arrival of his stepmother that, following his 16th birthday, led John to leave the family home and enlist in the Parliamentary army. From 1644 to 1647 John served at Newport Pagnell garrison. The English Civil War was then nearing the end of the first stage. John was probably saved from death one day when a fellow soldier volunteered to go into battle in his place and was killed while walking sentry duty.
After the civil war was won by the Parliamentarians, Bunyan returned to his former trade. In his autobiography, Grace Abounding, Bunyan wrote that he had led an abandoned life in his youth and was morally reprehensible as a result. However, there appears to be no outward evidence that he was any worse than his neighbours.
Examples of sins to which he confessed to are profanity, dancing, and bell-ringing. The increasing awareness of his (in his view) un-Biblical life led him to contemplate acts of impiety and profanity; in particular, he was harassed by a curiosity in regard to the "unpardonable sin" and a prepossession that he had already committed it. He was known as an adept linguist as far as profanity was concerned; even the most proficient swearers were known to remark that Bunyan was "the ungodliest fellow for swearing they ever heard".
He continually heard voices urging him to "sell Christ" and was tortured by fearful visions. While playing a game of Tip-cat on Elstow village green, Bunyan claimed to have heard a voice that asked: "Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven or have thy sins and go to hell?" Because Puritans held the Sabbath day sacred and permitted no sport, John believed that this had been the voice of God, chastising his indulgent ways. John's spirituality was born from this experience and he began to struggle with guilt, self-doubt and his belief in the Bible's promise of damnation and salvation.
In 1649, when he was about 21, he moved from 'Bunyan's End' into a cottage on the western side of the northern end of Elstow's High Street (the cottage shown above). In 1650 he married a young woman, an orphan whose father had left her only two books as her inheritance. The two books were Arthur Dent's Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven and Lewis Bayly's Practice of Piety, and the content of these two books appears to have strongly influenced John towards a religious life.
John's wife's name is not recorded, but the Bunyan's first, blind, daughter (born in 1650), was called Mary, and it is possible that she was named after her mother. The Bunyans' life was modest, to say the least. Bunyan wrote that they were "as poor as poor might be", not even "a dish or spoon between them".
As John struggled with his new-found Christian faith, he became increasingly despondent and fell into mental turmoil. During this time of conflict, Bunyan began a four year long discussion and spiritual journey with a few poor women of Bedford who belonged to a nonconformist sect that worshipped in St. John's Church. He also increasingly identified himself with St. Paul, who had characterised himself as "the chief of sinners."
As a result of these experiences, John Bunyan was received into the Independent church and he began to follow the teachings of its pastor, John Gifford. A second daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1654, and in 1655 Bunyan moved his family to St Cuthberts Street, Bedford. That same year John Gifford died and John started preaching. John's son Thomas was born in 1656, his first book "Some Gospel Truths" was published and John Bunyan became a member of the church; in 1657 he became a deacon. His son John was born and his second book "Vindication" was published.
As his popularity and notoriety grew, Bunyan increasingly became a target for slander and libel; he was described as "a witch, a Jesuit, a highwayman" and was said to have mistresses and multiple wives. In 1658, aged 30, he was arrested for preaching at Eaton Socon and indicted for preaching without a licence. That same year his wife died leaving him with 4 children, one of which was blind.
He continued preaching, however, and did not suffer imprisonment until November 1660, when he was taken to the County gaol in Silver Street, Bedford. In that same year, Bunyan married again, Elizabeth, by whom he had two more children, Sarah and Joseph. The Restoration of the monarchy by Charles II of England began Bunyan's persecution as England returned to Anglicanism. Meeting-houses were quickly closed and all citizens were required to attend their Anglican parish church.
It became punishable by law to "conduct divine service except in accordance with the ritual of the church, or for one not in Episcopal orders to address a congregation." Thus, John Bunyan no longer had that freedom to preach which he had enjoyed under the Puritan Commonwealth. He was arrested on 12 November 1660, whilst preaching privately in Lower Samsell In Westoning Westoning, Bedfordshire, 10 miles south of Bedford. John was brought before the magistrate John Wingate at Harlington House and refused to desist from preaching. Wingate sent him to Bedford County Gaol, to consider his situation. After a month, Bunyan reports (in his own account of his imprisonment) that Wingate's clerk visited him, seeking to get him to change his mind.
The clerk said that all the authorities wanted was for Bunyan to undertake not to preach at private gatherings, as it was suspected that these non-conformist meetings were in fact being used by people plotting against the king. In answer to the clerk, John argued that God's law obliged him to preach at any and every opportunity, and refused to consider the suggested compromise.
In January 1661, Bunyan was brought before the quarter sessions in the Chapel of Herne, Bedford. His prosecutor, Mr. Justice Wingate, despite Bunyan's clear breaches of the Religion Act of 1592, was not inclined to incarcerate Bunyan. But John's stark statement "If you release me today, I will preach tomorrow" left the magistrates - Sir John Kelynge of Southill, Sir Henry Chester of Lidlington, Sir George Blundell of Cardington, Sir Wllm Beecher of Howbury and Thomas Snagg of Milbrook - with no choice but to imprison him. So Bunyan was incarcerated for 3 months for the crimes of "pertinaciously abstaining" from attending mandatory Anglican church services and preaching at "unlawful meetings".
Strenuous efforts were made by Bunyan's wife to get his case re-heard at the spring assizes but Bunyan's continued assertions that he would, if freed, preach to his awaiting congregation meant that the magistrates would not consider any new hearing. Similar efforts were made in the following year but, again, to no avail. In early 1664, an Act of Parliament the Conventicles Act made it illegal to hold religious meetings of five or more people outside of the auspices of the Church of England.
It was during his time in Bedford County Gaol that John Bunyan conceived his allegorical novel: The Pilgrim's Progress. (Many scholars however believe that he commenced this work during the second and shorter imprisonment of 1675, referred to below.) Bunyan's incarceration was punctuated with periods of relative freedom - lax gaolers allowing him out to attend church meetings and to minister to his congregation.
In 1666, John was briefly released for a few weeks before being re-arrested for preaching and sent back to Bedford's County gaol, where he remained for a further six years. During that time, he wove shoelaces to support his family and preached to his fellow prisoners - a congregation of about sixty. In his possession were two books, John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, the Bible, a violin he had made out of tin, a flute he'd made from a chair leg and a supply of pen and paper. Both music and writing were integral to John's Puritan faith. John Bunyan was released in January 1672, when Charles II issued the Declaration of Religious Indulgence.
1672 to 1688
In the same month as his release, John Bunyan became pastor of the Independent church. On 9 May, Bunyan was the recipient of one of the first licences to preach under the new law. He was licensed as an Independent. A barn in Mill Street, Bedford was purchased by the church and set up as a Meeting House for the church on the site that is the present-day location of the Bunyan Meeting House that is affiliated with both the Congregational and Baptist Churches.
By his preaching, Bunyan became popular in Bedfordshire and several surrounding counties, including Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire. His own congregation at the independent church in Bedford grew strongly at this time, and many village chapels for miles around Bedford owed their roots to John Bunyan's influence. He would even speak to large crowds and congregations as far away as London and, as his fame and popularity as a preacher increased, he became affectionately known as 'Bishop Bunyan'.
In March 1675, following Charles II's withdrawal of the Declaration of Religious Indulgence, John was again imprisoned for preaching. This was not, as formerly thought, in the Bedford town jail on the stone river bridge, but once again in the county gaol. (The original warrant, discovered in 1887, is published in facsimile by Rush and Warwick, London).
It was the Quakers who most probably helped secure Bunyan's release. When the King asked for a list of names to pardon, the Society gave Bunyan's name along with those of their own members. Within six months, John was free and, as a result of his popularity, was never arrested again. He was, however, said to have dressed for a time like a waggoner, whip in hand, when he visited his various congregations, so as to avoid another arrest. When, in 1687, James II asked Bunyan to oversee the royal interest in Bedford, John declined this influential post because James refused to lift the tests and laws which served to persecute nonconformists.
In 1688, John served as chaplain to the Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Shorter. As John Bunyan was riding from Reading, Berkshire to London, to resolve a disagreement between a father and son, he caught a cold and developed a fever. He died at the house of his friend John Strudwick, a grocer and chandler on Snow Hill in Holborn, on 31 August 1688. In 1862 a recumbent statue was created to adorn his grave. He lies among other historic nonconformists, George Fox, William Blake and Daniel Defoe.
In 1874, a bronze statue of John Bunyan, sculpted by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, was erected in Bedford. This stands at the south-western corner of St Peter's Green, facing down Bedford's High Street. The site was chosen by Boehm for its significance as a crossroads. Bunyan is depicted expounding the Bible, to an invisible congregation, with a broken fetter representing his imprisonment by his left foot.
There are three scenes from "The Pilgrim's Progress" on the stone plinth: Christian at the wicket gate; his fight with Apollyon; and losing his burden at the foot of the cross of Jesus. The statue was unveiled by Lady Augusta Stanley, wife of the Dean of Westminster, on Wednesday 10 June 1874. There is another statue of him in Kingsway in London, and there are memorial windows in various churches including Elstow Abbey and Bunyan Meeting in Bedford.
The Pilgrim's Progress
Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim's Progress in two parts, the first of which was published in London in 1678 and the second in 1684. He began the work in his first period of imprisonment, and probably finished it during the second. The earliest edition in which the two parts combined in one volume came in 1728. A third part falsely attributed to Bunyan appeared in 1693, and was reprinted as late as 1852. Its full title is The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come.
The Pilgrim's Progress is arguably one of the most widely known allegories ever written, and has been extensively translated. Protestant missionaries commonly translated it as the first thing after the Bible.
Two other successful works of Bunyan's are less well-known: The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680), an imaginary biography, and The Holy War (1682), an allegory. A third book which reveals Bunyan's inner life and his preparation for his appointed work is Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666). It is a classic example of a spiritual autobiography, and thus is focused on his own spiritual journey; his motive in writing it was plainly to exalt the Christian concept of grace and to comfort those passing through experiences like his own.
The above works have appeared in numerous editions. There are several noteworthy collections of editions of The Pilgrim's Progress, e.g., in the British Museum and in the New York Public Library, collected by the late James Lenox. Bunyan became a popular preacher as well as a prolific author, though most of his works consist of expanded sermons. Though a Baptist preacher, in theology he was a Puritan. The portrait his friend Robert White drew, which has often been reproduced, shows the attractiveness of his true character. He was tall, had reddish hair, prominent nose, a rather large mouth, and sparkling eyes.
He was no scholar, except of the English Bible, but he knew scripture thoroughly. He was also influenced by Martin Luther's Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, in the translation of 1575. Some time before his final release from prison Bunyan became involved in a controversy with Kiffin, Danvers, Deune, Paul, and others. In 1673 he published his Differences in Judgement about Water-Baptism no Bar to Communion, in which he took the ground that "the Church of Christ hath not warrant to keep out of the communion the Christian that is discovered to be a visible saint of the word, the Christian that walketh according to his own light with God."
While he owned "water baptism to be God's ordinance," he refused to make "an idol of it," as he thought those did who made the lack of it a ground for disfellowshipping those recognised as genuine Christians. Kiffin and Paul published a response in Serious Reflections (London, 1673), in which they argued in favour of the restriction of the Lord's Supper to baptised believers, and received the approval of Henry Danvers in his Treatise of Baptism (London, 1673 or 1674). The controversy resulted in the Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists leaving the question of communion with the unbaptised open. Bunyan's church admitted paedobaptists to fellowship and finally became paedobaptist (Congregationalist).
At one time, The Pilgrim's Progress was considered the most widely read and translated book in the English language apart from the Bible. The charm of the work, which gives it wide appeal among old and young, learned and ignorant, readers of all possible schools of thought and theology, lies in the interest of a story in which the intense imagination of the writer makes characters, incidents, and scenes alike live in the imagination of his readers as things actually known and remembered by themselves, in its touches of tenderness and quaint humour, its bursts of heart-moving eloquence, and its pure, nervous, idiomatic English. Macaulay has said, "Every reader knows the straight and narrow path as well as he knows a road on which he has been backwards and forwards a hundred times," and he adds that "In England during the latter half of the seventeenth century there were only two minds which possessed the imaginative faculty in a very eminent degree. One of these minds produced the Paradise Lost, the other The Pilgrim's Progress."
The images Bunyan uses in Pilgrim's Progress are but reflections of images from his own world; the strait gate is a version of the wicket gate at Elstow church, the Slough of Despond is a reflection of Squitch Fen, a wet and mossy area near his cottage in Harrowden, the Delectable Mountains are an image of the Chiltern Hills surrounding Bedfordshire. Even his characters, like the Evangelist as influenced by John Gifford, are reflections of real people.
This pilgrimage was not only real for Bunyan as he lived it, but his portrait evoked this reality for his readers. Rudyard Kipling once referred to Bunyan as "the father of the novel, salvation's first Defoe." Bunyan wrote about 60 books and tracts, of which The Holy War ranks next to The Pilgrim's Progress in popularity. A passage from Part Two of The Pilgrim's Progress beginning "Who would true Valour see" has been used in the hymn "To be a Pilgrim".
The Scottish philosopher David Hume used Bunyan to illustrate the idea of a "standard of taste" in aesthetic matters: 'Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between Ogilby and Milton, or Bunyan and Addison, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as Teneriffe, or a pond as extensive as the ocean.'
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