John Bunyan (1628-1688) was an English Puritan writer and preacher, famous for writing The Pilgrim’s Progress. Though he was a Reformed Baptist, in the Church of England he is remembered with a Lesser Festival on 30 August, and on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on August 29.
In 1628, John Bunyan was born to Thomas Bunyan and Margaret Bentley at Bunyan’s End, in the parish of Elstow, Bedfordshire, England. Bunyan’s End was located approximately halfway between the hamlet of Harrowden (one mile southeast of Bedford) and Elstow’s High Street.
He is recorded in the Elstow parish register as having been baptised John Bunyan, on 30 November 1628.
On May 23, 1649, Thomas married his first wife, Margaret Bentley. Like Thomas, she was from Elstow and she 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 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.”
John was probably educated at his father’s house, possibly with other poor country boys, but in his writings he refers to his days in school. So he must also have spent some time at a 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. This 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 stepbrother, 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 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 his sense of guilt, self-doubt and his belief in the Bible’s promise of damnation and salvation.
In 1649, when he was about 21, he moved into a cottage on the western side of the northern end of Elstow’s High Street. 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.) 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”, and believed he was one of the spiritual elite, chosen by God.
As a result of these experiences, John Bunyan was baptised and received into St John’s 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 Burton was appointed minister at St John’s 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. He continued preaching, however, and did not suffer imprisonment until November 1660, when he was taken to the county jail in Silver Street, Bedford. In that same year, Bunyan married his second wife, 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 by Harlington, 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 the county gaol in Bedford 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 Bunyan to change his mind. The clerk said that all the authorities wanted was for Bunyan to undertake not to preach at private gatherings. John argued that God’s law obliged him to preach at any and every opportunity. 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 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 jail 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 jailers 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 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. In the same month as his release, John Bunyan became pastor of St John’s Church. On 9 May, Bunyan was the recipient of one of the first licences to preach under the new law. He formed a nonconformist sect from his surviving parishioners and established a church in a barn in Mill Street, Bedford—the present day site of the Bunyan Meeting Free Church.
By his preaching, Bunyan became popular in Bedfordshire and several surrounding counties, such as Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire, to name a few. 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 – not, as formerly thought,in the Bedford town jail on the stone river bridge but once again in the county jail. (The original warrant, discovered in 1887, is published in facsimile by Rush and Warwick, London.)
It was the Quakers which 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 although,for a time, Bunyan was said to have dressed like a waggoner, whip in hand, when he visited his various parishes – so as to avoid another arrest.
When, in 1687, the King James II of England 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. [More via Wikipedia]
The (Complete) Works of John Bunyan:
- Of the Trinity and a Christian – pdf, 5 pp.
- Of the Law and a Christian – pdf, 5 pp.
- Bunyan’s Last Sermon – pdf, 10 pp.
- Bunyan’s Dying Sayings – pdf, 12 pp.
- Memoirs of John Bunyan. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. [pdf via Chapel Library] -popular-
- Relation of His Imprisonment, and Efforts of His Wife to Obtain His Release. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Continuation of Bunyan’s Life. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Bunyan’s Dying Sayings. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Bunyan’s Prison Meditations. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Jerusalem Sinner Saved. [pdf via Chapel Library] -popular-
- The Greatness of the Soul. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Work of Jesus Christ as an Advocate. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Christ – A Complete Saviour. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Come and Welcome, to Jesus Christ. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Justification by an Imputed Righteousness. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Saved by Grace. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Strait Gate. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Light for Them that Sit in Darkness. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Fear of God. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Israel’s Hope Encouraged. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- A Discourse Touching Prayer. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Saint’s Privilege and Profit. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Acceptable Sacrifice. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Paul’s Departure and Crown. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Desire of the Righteous Granted. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Saint’s Knowledge of Christ’s Love. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Antichrist and his Ruin. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Resurrection of the Dead, and Eternal Judgment. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Some Gospel Truths Opened. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- A Vindication of Gospel Truths Opened. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- A Discourse Upon the Pharisee and Publican. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- A Defence of the Doctrine of Justification by Faith in Jesus Christ. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Reprobation Asserted. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Five Questions About the Nature and Perpetuity of the Seventh-day Sabbath. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Trinity and a Christian. [pdf via Chapel Library] (same file as “The Law and a Christian”)
- The Law and a Christian. [pdf via Chapel Library] (same file as “The Trinity and a Christian”)
- Scriptural Poems. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- An Exposition on the First Ten Chapters of Genesis. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- A Holy Life—The Beauty of Christianity. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Christian Behaviour. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- A Caution to Stir up to Watch Against Sin. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Nature, Excellency, and Government of the House of God. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- A Confession of My Faith. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Differences in Judgment about Water Baptism – No Bar to Communion. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Peaceable Principles and True. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- A Case of Conscience Resolved. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Instructions for the Ignorant. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Seasonable Counsel (or, Advice to Sufferers). [pdf via Chapel Library]
- An Exhortation to Peace and Unity. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Bunyan’s Last Sermon. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Pilgrim’s Progress. [pdf via Chapel Library] -popular-
- The Pilgrim’s Progress (Part 2). [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Holy War. [pdf via Chapel Library] -popular-
- A Map Showing the Order and Causes of Salvation and Damnation. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Heavenly Footman. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Holy City – or the New Jerusalem. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- Solomon’s Temple Spiritualized. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The House of the Forest of Lebanon. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Water of Life. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Barren Fig-tree. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Life and Death of Mr. Badman. [pdf via Chapel Library] -popular-
- Some Sighs from Hell. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- One Thing Is Needful. [pdf via Chapel Library] (same file as “Ebal and Gerizzim”)
- Ebal and Gerizzim. [pdf via Chapel Library] (same file as “One Thing Is Needful”)
- A Book for Boys and Girls. [pdf via Chapel Library]
- The Struggler. [pdf via Chapel Library]