The English author and Baptist preacher John Bunyan (1628-1688) wrote "The Pilgrim's Progress" and some 60 other pious works. The sincere evangelical urgency of his religious thought and the vivid clarity of his prose have won wide admiration.
John Bunyan, born in Elstow near Bedford, was baptized on Nov. 30, 1628. His father, the brazier-tinker "Thomas Bonnion," derived from an old Bedfordshire family which had declined in fortune and status. Bunyan had a rudimentary education and at an early age became a tinker. From 1644 to 1647 he served with the parliamentary army during the Puritan Revolution, but he saw little or no fighting.
About 1649 Bunyan married a pious Anglican who introduced him to Arthur Dent's The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven. Under their combined influence Bunyan became an attentive churchgoer and delighted in Anglican ceremonial and bell ringing. But he soon recognized that he was desperately bound by sin and that only Christ could provide redemption. He turned for guidance to John Gifford; once a roistering Cavalier, Gifford had been rescued from debauchery by the Gospel and was pastor of the Congregational Church in Bedford. "Mr. Gifford's doctrine," wrote Bunyan, "was much for my stability." Like Joan of Arc and St. Theresa, Bunyan heard voices, and like William Blake, he had visions. He saw Jesus looking "through the tiles on the roof" and felt Satan pluck his clothes to stop him from praying.
Bunyan was no fornicator, drunkard, or thief; but so urgent was his religion, so passionate his nature, that any sin, however small, was an enormous burden. With Gifford's guidance he made a spiritual pilgrimage and in 1653 was baptized in the Ouse River. Two years later, induced by his Baptist coreligionists, he started "the mighty work of preaching the Gospel." Soon his pen became as active as his tongue, and in 1658-1659 he published Sighs from Hell and other tracts.
Triumph in Adversity
The restoration of monarchy and Anglicanism in 1660 meant that Bunyan could no longer preach freely as he had under the Puritan Commonwealth. In January 1661 he was jailed for "pertinaciously abstaining" from Anglican services and for holding "unlawful meetings." Because he was unwilling to promise silence, his 3-month sentence stretched to 12 years with a few respites. After his wife's death he had remarried, and he worked while in prison to support his second wife and children. He also preached to his fellow sufferers and wrote a variety of religious works, including Grace Abounding published in 1666—one of the world's most poignant spiritual autobiographies. During this period he also wrote most of Part I of The Pilgrim's Progress, but he hesitated to release it because of its fictional structure.
After the Declaration of Indulgence (1672), Bunyan was freed and licensed as a preacher. He built a Nonconformist congregation of 3,000 or 4,000 souls in Bedfordshire; he ministered assiduously to his flock and helped to found about 30 other congregations. But in 1673 the edict of toleration was repealed. When Bunyan was imprisoned for about 6 months in 1675, he again worked on his masterpiece, and Part I of The Pilgrim's Progress was published in 1678. It won immediate popularity, and before Bunyan's death there were 13 editions, with some additions. Since then it has been continuously in print and has been translated into well over a hundred languages.
Bunyan's own experience and the language of the Bible were the sources of The Pilgrim's Progress. Unlike Grace Abounding, this work reveals his spiritual development through allegory. The countryside through which the hero, Christian, progresses is a blend of the English countryside, the world of the Bible, and the land of dreams. Despite his assertion that "manner and matter too was all my own," Bunyan owed a good deal to oral tradition and wide reading—folk tales, books of emblems and characters, sermons, homilies in dialogue form, and traditional allegories.
Bunyan's last decade was fertile. Like The Pilgrim's Progress, The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680) made a significant advance toward the English novel. The Holy War (1682) is a dramatic, allegorical account of siege warfare against the town of Mansoul. Although, like all his works, it is based on Calvinist theology, Bunyan should not be considered a rigid determinist but should be viewed as a Christian humanist who assigned personal responsibility to his characters. Part II of The Pilgrim's Progress (1684) emphasizes human relationships and the sanctification of the world, especially through marriage and family life. Bunyan produced 14 more books before he died at the age of 60 on Aug. 31, 1688. He was buried in Bunhill Fields, where he lies near other great Nonconformists—William Blake, George Fox, and Daniel Defoe.
Despite the Protestant evangelical cast of his mind, Bunyan transcended Puritanism and remains relevant in an age of ecumenism. Nor was he a pessimistic prophet: if his Pilgrim knew the Hill of Difficulty and the Slough of Despair, he also enjoyed the Delectable Mountains and reached the Celestial City.
Further Reading on John Bunyan
Because there is no complete modern edition of Bunyan's works, students rely on The Works of John Bunyan, edited by George Offor (1853-1855). Roger Sharrock's edition of The Pilgrim's Progress (1960) is textually definitive. James F. Forrest's admirable edition of The Holy War (1968) emphasizes Bunyan's modern relevance. There are several excellent biographies of Bunyan. The fullest treatment is John Brown, John Bunyan: His Life, Times, and Work (1885; rev. ed. by Frank Mott Harrison, 1928). Roger Sharrock, John Bunyan (1954), is a brilliant brief survey. Henri Antoine Talon, John Bunyan: The Man and His Work (1948; trans. 1951), is a scholarly interpretation. Bunyan's personality is emphasized in George Bagshawe H. Harrison, John Bunyan (1928). Robert Hay Coats, John Bunyan (1927), is a popularized account. William York Tindall, John Bunyan (1934), places Bunyan in the tradition of "mechanick" preachers. Richard L. Greaves, John Bunyan (1969), focuses on Bunyan's theology. Bunyan's place in the history of fiction is explored in Dorothy Van Ghent, The English Novel: Form and Function (1953). There is a brief appreciation of Bunyan's style in George Bernard Shaw, Dramatic Opinions and Essays (1906).
Additional Biography Sources
Arnott, Anne, Valiant for truth: the story of John Bunyan, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1986, 1985.
Bunyan, John, The trial of John Bunyan & the persecution of the Puritans: selections from the writings of John Bunyan and Agnes Beaumont, London: Folio Society, 1978.
Griffith, Gwilym Oswald, John Bunyan, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1979.
Harding, Richard Winboult, John Bunyan, his life and times, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.
Venables, Edmund, Life of John Bunyan, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1977.
Williams, Charles, A bi-centenary memorial of John Bunyan, who died A. D. 1688, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.