|Born:||28 November 1628|
|Genre:||Christian fiction (specifically allegory), sermons|
John Bunyan (28 November, 1628 - 31 August, 1688) was an English Christian writer and preacher, famous for writing The Pilgrim's Progress, arguably the most famous published Christian allegory. In the Church of England, he is remembered with a Lesser Festival on 30 August.
Bunyan was born at Harrowden (one mile southeast of Bedford, in the Parish of Elstow, England. He was baptized John Bunyan, on November 30, 1628 as recorded in the Elstow parish register. The family has a long history in England and the name has been found spelled over thirty-four different ways: Binyan, Buniun, Bonyon, Buignon, being the most common and Bunyan being the least, historically. Parish records show that William Boynon, a supposed ancestor of John Bunyan, was living in the hamlet of Harrowden in 1327, and the area has been known as "Farther Bunyan's", "Bunyan's Walk" and "Bunyan's End" from at least the sixteenth century. John Bunyan was born to Thomas Bunyan and Margaret Bently; she was also from Elstow and, like her husband, was born in 1603. They married on May 27, 1627 and in 1628 Margaret's sister, Rose Bently, married Thomas' half-brother Edward Bunyan. (Thomas had married his first wife in 1623 and like his father before him, would marry two more times within months of being widowed.) They were working-class people with Thomas earning a living as a tinker or brazier; one who mends kettles and pots. Bunyan wrote 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".
He had very little schooling (about 2-4 years). He was educated at his father's house with other poor country boys and what little education he received was to benefit his father and his own future trade. He followed his father in the Tarish Tinker's trade, which at the time had a reputation as being a lowly sort of occupation and was associated historically with the nomadic lifestyle of gypsies.
In 1644, at the age of sixteen, Bunyan lost his mother and two sisters, all who died within months of each other; and his father married for the third time. It may have been the arrival of his step-mother that precipitated his estrangement and subsequent enlistment in the parliamentary army. He served in the parliamentary army at Newport Pagnell garrison (1644-1647) as the civil war was nearing the end of the first stage. He was saved from death by a fellow soldier who volunteered to go into battle in his place and witnessed the young man's death with his own eyes.
After the civil war was won by Parliament of England, Bunyan returned to his former trade and eventually found a wife. In 1649, he married a young woman, Mary, whose only dowry appears to have been two books, Arthur Dent's Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven and Lewis Bayly's Practice of Piety, by which he was influenced towards a religious life. She was an orphan, her father leaving only those two books as her inheritance, and their life was modest to say the least. Bunyan writes that they were "as poor as poor might be", not even "a dish or spoon between them".
In his autobiographical book, Grace Abounding, Bunyan describes himself as having led an abandoned life in his youth, and as having been morally reprehensible as a result. However, there appears to be no evidence that he was outwardly worse than the average of his neighbours. Examples of sins to which he confesses in Grace Abounding are profanity, dancing and bell-ringing. The increasing awareness of his perceived 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". While playing a game, "cat", in the village square, 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?". He believed it was the voice of God chastising his indulgent ways, as Puritans held sacred the Sabbath day and permitted no sport. His spirituality was born from this experience and he struggled both with his sense of guilt and self-doubt and his belief in the Bible's promise of Christian damnation and salvation. As he struggled with his newfound faith, Bunyan became increasingly despondent and fell into mental as well as physical 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 which worshiped in St. John's Church. He increasingly identified himself with St. Paul, who had characterized himself as "the chief of sinners", and believed he was one of the spiritual elite, chosen by God. As a result of these experiences, he was received into the Baptist church in Bedford by immersion in the River Great Ouse in 1653. After his baptism into the Bedford Baptist Church, he began to follow the teachings of John Gifford. Throughout his associations with Gifford's Congregational Church in Bedford, Bunyan again claimed to have heard voices and have visions similar to St. Theresa's and William Blake's religious experiences. While still in Elstow, Mary gave birth to a blind daughter, also named Mary, and a second daughter, Elizabeth, shortly followed by two more children, John and Thomas. In 1655, after moving his family to Bedford, both Bunyan's wife and his mentor, John Gifford, died. He was immersed in grief and his health declined, though the same year he became a deacon of St. Paul's Church, Bedford and began preaching, with marked success from the start.
Bunyan fiercely disagreed with the teachings of the Quakers and took part in written debates during the years 1656-1657 with some of its leaders. First, Bunyan published Some Gospel Truths Opened in which he attacked Quaker beliefs. The Quaker Edward Burrough responded with The True Faith of the Gospel of Peace. Bunyan countered Burrough's pamphlet with A Vindication of Some Gospel Truths Opened, which Burrough answered with Truth (the Strongest of All) Witnessed Forth. Later, the Quaker leader George Fox entered the verbal fray by publishing a refutation of Bunyan's essay in his The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded. The Bedford Baptists were moderate in their views; they were considered more liberal on issues of church government than the Presbyterians and more conservative on church tenets than supposed antinomian sects, such as the Quakers. He attacked the Quakers for their reliance on their own "inner light" rather than the literal word of the Bible. The Puritans were diligent biographers of their own lives in relation to their faith and they sought clues religious meaning in their lives and literature. Bunyan writes to his reader's in the conclusion of the first part of The Pilgrim's Progress: Now reader, I have told my dream to thee,/ See if thou canst interpret it to me,/ Or to thyself or neighbour: but take heed/ Of misinterpreting; for that instead/ Of doing good, will but thyself abuse:/ By misinterpreting evil ensues.His affinity for the oral tradition and his voracious reading lead to his work being primarily influenced by sermons, homilies in dialog form, folk tales, books of emblems and allegories. "Most of the didactic works of Bunyan's era have vanished into oblivion. His allegory's power derives from the imaginative force with which he brings didactic themes to life and the wonderfully living prose in which he dramatizes the conflicts of the spirit".
As his popularity and notoriety grew, Bunyan increasingly became a target for slander and libel; he was decried as "a witch, a Jesuit, a highwayman" and was said to have mistresses and multiple wives. In 1658, he was arrested for preaching at Eaton Socon and in 1658, Bunyan was indicted for preaching without a license. He continued, however, and did not suffer imprisonment till November 1660, when he was taken to the county gaol in Silver Street, Bedford. Bunyan married his second wife, Elizabeth, by which he had two more children, Sarah and Joseph. In that same year, The Restoration of the monarchy by Charles II of England began Bunyan's persecution as the country 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." He no longer had the freedom to preach he enjoyed under the Puritan Commonwealth and he was arrested on November 12, 1660 while preaching privately in Lower Samsell by Harlington, Bedfordshire, south of Bedford.
There he was confined at first for three months, but on his refusing to conform or to desist from preaching, his confinement was extended for a period of nearly 12 years (with the exception of a few weeks in 1666). His prosecutor, Mr. Justice Wingate, was not inclined to incarcerate Bunyan, but his stark refusal of "If you release me today, I will preach tomorrow" left Wingate with no choice. In January of 1661 he was incarcerated for the crimes of "pertinaciously abstaining" from attending mandatory Anglican church services and preaching at "unlawful meetings". It was during this time that he conceived of 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 wife, Elizabeth, tried in vain to secure her husband's release, but his steadfast opposition to the laws and his determination to preach to his awaiting congregation prevented his liberation. His incarceration was punctuated with periods relative freedom by which lax gaolers allowed Bunyan to attend church meetings and minister to his congregation.
In 1666, he was briefly released for a few weeks before he was arrested again for preaching and he was sent back to the Bedford gaol for another six years. During this time he wove shoelaces and preached to an imprisoned congregation of about sixty parishioners to support his family. In his possession were two books, John Foxe's Book of Martyrs and the Bible, a violin he made out of tin, a flute he made from a chair leg and an unlimited supply of pen and paper. Both music and writing were integral to his Puritan faith. He was released in January 1672, when Charles II issued the Declaration of Religious Indulgence. In that month he became pastor of St. Paul's Church. On May 9, 1672, Bunyan was the recipient of one of the first licenses to preach under the new law. He built a new meeting-house and formed a nonconformist sect from his surviving parishioners and increased his congregation to as many as four thousand Christians in Bedfordshire. He established over thirty new congregations and was given the affectionate title of "Bishop Bunyan" by his parishioners.
In March 1675, he was again imprisoned for preaching (as Charles II withdrew the Declaration of Religious Indulgence), this time in the Bedford town jail on the stone bridge over the Ouse. (The original warrant, discovered in 1887, is published in facsimile by Rush and Warwick, London.) It was the Quakers, ironically, that helped secure Bunyan's release. When the King asked for a list of names to pardon, they gave Bunyan's name as well as those of their members. In six months, he was free and, as a result of his popularity, he was not again arrested. During this time, Bunyan was said to have dressed like a wagoner, whip in hand, when he visited his various parishes to avoid provoking another incarceration. When King James II of England asked Bunyan to oversee the royal interest in Bedford in 1687, he declined the influential post because James refused to lift the tests and laws that served to persecute the nonconformists. In 1688, he served as chaplain to the lord mayor of London, Sir John Shorter but Bunyan died before James II's abdication and the beginning of the Glorious Revolution.
As he was riding to London from Reading to resolve a disagreement between a father and a 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 Bridge on 31 August 1688. His grave lies in the cemetery at Bunhill Fields in London. Many Puritans, to whom worship of tombs or relics was considered most sinful, made it their dying wish that their coffins be placed as close to Bunyan's as possible. In 1862 a recumbent statue was created to adorn his grave. He lies among other historic nonconformists, George Fox, William Blake and Daniel Defoe.
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.
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 pedobaptists to fellowship and finally became pedobaptist (Congregationalist).
The Pilgrim's Progress is, on some accounts, the most widely read book in the English language and has been translated into more languages than any book except the Bible. The charm of the work, which gives it wide appeal, 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, 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 straight 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's writings are more believable than Daniel Defoe's, regardless of Defoe's realistic portrayals of the human world. Bunyan is not only telling a story and constructing a plot, he is creating a divine composition, in which everything refers to itself. While Defoe may succeed in realistically describing others, Bunyan creates a figurative representation; a complex and somewhat distorted mirror image of ourselves.
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".