John Bunyan Biography
John Bunyan (1628-1688), an evangelical Baptist preacher, would have been forgotten long ago if he had not written The Pilgrim's Progress, which brought him fame and some fortune as a man of letters. The exact date of his birth is not known. But on November 22, 1628, no doubt as an infant only a few days old, he was christened in the Church of England chapel at Elstow, an old and tiny hamlet in Bedfordshire, which lies in south-central England, then a quiet and rather isolated countryside of broad cultivated fields and gently rolling wooded hills.
The Bunyans, an old family in the neighborhood, probably of Norman descent, lived about a mile from Elstow, down a country lane known as Bunyan's End because the family's cottage was the last habitation on the dead-end lane. Adjoining the old, thatch-roofed cottage, occupied by Bunyans for generations, was a workshop housing a forge, for the elder Bunyan was a tinker by trade, a maker and mender of pots and pans and other such utensils. Though requiring some skill, the tinker's trade was not highly regarded, largely for social reasons, the chief being that most tinkering at the time was done by bands of wandering gypsies, who were not socially acceptable. Competition with them was demeaning. Besides, the gypsies by taking whatever they could get for doing a job drove down the price of wares and services.
Bunyan later made out that he had been born and brought up in the poorest and most abject circumstances. But that was an exaggeration, a way of dramatizing his rise to eminence from humble beginnings. His father's tinkering provided the family with a small but adequate living, supplemented as it was by produce from a small farm — vegetables from the kitchen garden; fruit and berries from an orchard; eggs and fowl from the chicken yard; milk, butter, and cheese from a cow or two in the barn; ham, bacon, chops, fat-back, and lard from a few porkers in the piggery. In season, there were fish to be caught in the River Ouse and tributary streams and, occasionally, the family enjoyed venison, hares, or game birds from hunting in neighboring fields and woods. Nor did the Bunyans have any rent to pay for their farm. They were freeholders, owning their property, which had been in the family for generations.
As young Bunyan grew older, he learned the tinker's trade, helping his father in the workshop and going with him as he pushed his small wooden two-wheeled cart around the countryside to peddle his wares and services. Frequently, they pushed a few miles beyond Elstow to Bedford, the county seat, or shire town. Though it was only a village of less than a thousand people, Bedford was the metropolis of the area, the marketplace where farmers brought in their produce to sell and then went buying necessaries, perhaps even a few fripperies in the shops, no doubt after having enjoyed an ale or two in a tavern. The sights, sounds, and excitements of Bedford, small and unsophisticated as the village was, impressed the country youth from Bunyan's End.
As he went about as an itinerant peddler, first with his father and then by himself, Bunyan met and talked with people of many kinds, sharply observed the countryside and its ways — observations that he stored in his memory and found very useful when he came to write. He could call upon his memory for graphic details of scene, character, and conversation.
Somewhere in the rather lonely countryside, young Bunyan got some schooling. Not much, but at least he learned to read and write. This he always accounted one of his greatest blessings. At a time when schooling of any kind was usually beyond the reach of the poor, when most Englishmen were illiterate, the ability to read and write was indeed a blessing and opened a whole new world to Bunyan.
As a young man, he was addicted to reading what he came to regard as light literature, liking ballads, "a news-book," and adventure stories handed down from the Middle Ages. He liked particularly the story about St. George and the Dragon, and another about the simply incredible exploits of the legendary St.
Bevis of Southampton in slaying monsters, fiends, devils, and assorted villains by the hundreds, always managing a hairbreadth escape from apparently hopeless situations. These and other popular medieval romances, with plenty of blood and thunder, provided exciting and heady reading for youngsters, and for the older, too. In their day they served what today is served by our so-called comic books starring such heroes as Superman, Batman, and other incredibles.
Bunyan grew up in a time of trouble, of bitter and bloody conflict, of civil war, with Parliament arrayed against King Charles I for his highhanded unconstitutional rule, with the religious Dissenters (Independents, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and others) arrayed against the official tax-supported church, the Church of England. By law, everybody had to belong to that church and take communion in it at least three times a year. All other forms of worship were prohibited; many thousands of people — Bunyan would later become one of them — were jailed or given even worse punishment for defying the law.
In 1642, when Bunyan was fourteen years old, fighting broke out in the Great Rebellion, or the Puritan Revolution as it is also known. Parliamentary armies commanded by Oliver Cromwell and others were soon chasing the king's forces around the kingdom, smashing them with great slaughter at the Battle of Marston Moor, where, said Cromwell, "God made them as stubble before our swords." The following year, in 1645, came the execution of Archbishop William Laud (who was "anti-Christ" to the Puritans) and the overthrow of the entire Church of England establishment with its special privileges and restrictive practices. Later, King Charles I was beheaded for "treason." When the House of Lords objected to these proceedings, that house was abolished, and the House do Commons proclaimed England a Commonwealth, with Oliver Cromwell, a staunch Puritan, ruling as Protector. From 1645 on, the Puritan spirit, shared by Bunyan and all the Dissenters, governed and dominated England for fifteen years.
In 1644, as a youth of sixteen, Bunyan had volunteered for, or had been conscripted into, the Parliamentary army and was assigned to a garrison at Newport Pagnell, some fifteen miles from home. He was never in combat during the war. After three years in the army, he was discharged, returned home, resumed his trade as a tinker, and soon married.
Not much — not even her name — is known about his wife except that she came from "a godly family," was piously inclined, and brought as her complete dowry a Bible and two religious books. The young couple took a small cottage and set up housekeeping with not so much "as a dish or a spoon betwixt us both," said Bunyan later. No doubt he was speaking metaphorically, but certainly they were very poor. It was a heavy blow and a continuing sorrow to them that Mary, the first of their four children, was born blind. After the death of his wife about ten years later, Bunyan remarried. The only thing we know about his second bride is that her name was Elizabeth, but as Bunyan always gratefully acknowledged, she proved to be a great comfort and source of strength to him during the long years he lay in prison.
But, so far, this biographical sketch has dealt only with the "outward man," a term Bunyan often used. A sketch of the "inward man" reveals more about the author, his nature, his problems, and how he came by a tortuous and torturing route to the main line of his life. At the age of ten or thereabouts, as he himself tells us in Grace Abounding, an autobiographical work, Bunyan became seriously worried about the state of his soul. When playing with youngsters on the Elstow village green, he would suddenly stop in the middle of the game to wonder whether he was sinning in so enjoying himself. Should he not have his mind on more serious things, such as saving his soul? Yes, he decided.
He gave up playing games; he stopped swearing. He had always greatly liked pulling the ropes that rang the bells in the steeple of the Elstow church. He gave up that, but bell-ringing still had such attractions for him that he would go with young friends and watch them pulling the ropes that set the belfry sounding. He was uneasy about this, however. Fearing a bell might be dropped on him for being involved in sin, he would crouch under a large beam for protection. But as a falling bell might break the beam and crush him, he decided to watch and listen from the steeple door. But he soon came there no more: "How if the steeple itself should fall?"
As Bunyan grew into adolescence, he fell into spells of extreme depression, as many adolescents do. He was obsessed with doubts, fears, and nameless anxieties. Certain that he was a great sinner, he was weighed down by an overwhelming sense of guilt. Earlier, he had often had terrifying nightmares in which he was being stalked by horrible monsters and by Satan himself pinching his flesh and jabbing at him with his pitchfork. Young Bunyan would wake up screaming in utter terror.
Now, under the pressure of increasingly severe emotional and psychic strain, his mind and senses became somewhat disordered. He began to have hallucinations. He would see the face of Christ in the sky and "the wrath of God in the very clouds," and hear voices calling to him from above: "Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to Heaven, or have thy sins and to Hell?"
Bunyan wanted to go to Heaven, of course, but he did not know the way and kept asking himself, "What shall I do? What shall I do!" — a desperate exclamation he later put in the mouth of Christian when he came to write Pilgrim's Progress. He was haunted by John Calvin's doctrine of predestination which underlay the beliefs of most non-conformist creeds. By that doctrine, most people were doomed from birth to end in Hell, no matter what they did on earth. Relatively few were predestined to be the "chosen," to be of the Elect who would go to Heaven to enjoy eternal life and all the glories there. This raised a most perplexing and disturbing problem — how to know whether one was doomed or of the Elect? In his distraught condition, Bunyan all but persuaded himself that he was of the doomed even though he was "in a flame to find the way to heaven and glory."
From 1647, when he came home from the army at the age of nineteen and married, Bunyan lived some six years in extreme inner torment. This period ended when he came under the influence of an accomplished nonconformist minister, the Reverend John Gifford, who had gathered together a small Baptist congregation in Bedford. Patiently, the pastor talked with Bunyan, explained the awful mysteries of the Faith, dispelled his doubts and fears, and assured him that he was doubtless of the Elect. After years of anguish, Bunyan was now at peace with himself — and with God, he hoped.
Along the way, he had been helped by chancing to come upon an old battered copy of Commentary on the Galatians by Martin Luther, "that stubborn monk" who had precipitated the Reformation in 1517 by nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg castle church in bold defiance of the pope, then both the spiritual and temporal overlord of western Christendom. Bunyan had long been wanting to read "some ancient godly man's experience," and Luther's Commentary was a godsend. "Excepting the Holy Bible," he said, "I do prefer this book . . . before all the books that ever I have seen as most fit for a wounded conscience."
In 1653, renouncing the Church of England in which he had been baptized, Bunyan joined Gifford's congregation and was re-baptized in the waters of the River Ouse, which flows through Bedford. The congregation welcomed Bunyan, not yet twenty-five, as a most promising young member. He was soon preaching — at first privately, then publicly — for Bunyan discovered to his surprise, and to the inspiration of his listeners, that he had a command of words and style, that his mind sparked with vivid imagery, that he had a very moving eloquence because everything he said came so plainly from the heart.
With his conversion, Bunyan moved his family from the Elstow cottage to one in Bedford. He continued his tinker's trade, but found time to preach to religious groups in outlying places when invited, which was often, for his name was soon known all over Bedfordshire. He also found time to begin writing. His published works at this period, all in the form of pamphlets, included "A Few Sighs from Hell" and "Some Truths Opened," tracts that were probably expansions of sermons he had preached.
For seven years all went well, until 1660, when the Puritan regime collapsed, the monarchy was restored, King Charles II returned from exile to ascend the throne occupied by his father and grandfather, the Church of England was reestablished, and everything possible was undertaken to eliminate or at least drastically reduce the influence of the Puritan nonconformist spirit that had dominated England for almost two decades, ever since the early 1640's.
While in exile, hoping to gain the support of the less radical Nonconformists, Charles had issued the Declaration of Breda to the effect that during his reign, if and when he was restored to the throne, no man would be molested because of his religious beliefs so long as he did not disturb the peace. The king was not a bigot, as his father and grandfather had been. Indeed, "the Merry Monarch" was interested in religion only as a means of keeping civil order. But the king was forced to break his pledge under the pressure of his Cavalier supporters in Parliament. Nonconformists had taken the lead in one great revolution, and they might attempt another, it was feared. They should be suppressed. A law passed in the reign of Elizabeth I was dug up, a new Act of Uniformity was passed, prohibiting the holding of nonconformist religious meetings and requiring all to belong to the Church of England and attend its services at least three times a year.
Nonconformists of all creeds apprehensively watched the storm gathering, and Bunyan was advised that, as the most prominent nonconformist preacher in Bedfordshire and likely to be the first struck there, it might be well if he suspended preaching and kept out of sight for a time. Saying that he would not run away because that would set a bad example, Bunyan went on preaching till late in 1660, when he was seized while addressing a meeting in a farmhouse not far from Bedford.
Brought to trial in the county court at Bedford, Bunyan was charged with "devilishly and perniciously abstaining from coming to Church to hear Divine services, for being a common upholder of several unlawful meetings and conventicles, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom." Bunyan did not deny that he had been holding religious meetings, or that he had abstained from attending Church of England services. Several of the magistrates, rather sympathetic toward Bunyan, offered him a way out: He would not be prosecuted if he would promise "to call the people no more together," and go home and stay quiet. That would be against his conscience, replied Bunyan, and he was thereupon convicted and hauled away, at the age of thirty-two, to be locked up in the Bedford county jail for twelve years. His wife and others made repeated attempts to obtain his release, but to no avail.
The Bedford jail was like all English jails of the day, and long after — a stink hole, foul and filthy almost beyond belief. The stench in the prisons was so nauseating and overpowering that those coming to visit doused their handkerchiefs with turpentine and held them tight against the nose. There were no sanitation facilities except the most primitive. The only source of water was the hand pump in the prison yard. The food was meager, monotonous, unwholesome. Men and women prisoners were herded together, without privacy of any kind. All slept on straw, usually without a bedstead to keep it off the hard floor. Bedford prison had no fireplace so that it was freezing in winter. In summer, it was steaming hot because it had only a few small windows to let in a little light and air. Prisons were frequently swept by dread jail fever, which often carried off half the inmates. A long jail sentence at the time amounted, as often as not, to a death sentence. That Bunyan survived his long prison ordeal testifies to the health and strength of both his body and spirit — and to his good luck, too, though Bunyan ascribed his survival to the direct intervention of God.
The first turning-point in Bunyan's life had come when he became friends with the Reverend Gifford and joined the Bedford meeting. The second came with his imprisonment, which turned out to be the most creative period of his life. With the prisoners herded together, living in two large but overcrowded rooms, Bunyan could not hope for any seclusion. People were around him day and night. But he managed to live a quiet, fruitful inner life by withdrawing within himself to be alone with his feelings, thoughts, fancies. Or he could turn to reading the Bible both for solace and to improve his mastery of Holy Scripture.
Many of his fellow prisoners were Nonconformists, suffering, as he was, for their religious beliefs. At their invitation, Bunyan was soon preaching to this group, not only on Sundays but on weekdays as well. It is ironic that the jailer allowed inside the prison services that were not allowed outside, and for participating in which the prisoners had been jailed. Bunyan preached extemporaneously, never from a prepared script and seldom from notes. He would take a text from the Bible and "fly off," with it to the admiration and content of his listeners. When he thought one of his sermons was superior or particularly timely, Bunyan would set it down on paper before he forgot what he had said. A number of these sermons he enlarged and had published under such titles as "Christian Behavior"; "I Will Pray with the Spirit"; and "A Mapp of Salvation and Damnation."
Bunyan also had longer and more ambitious works in hand during these years of confinement, finding plenty of leisure to think and write. It was an enforced leisure, to be sure, but it was nevertheless leisure such as he had never experienced when he was out in the world with its daily cares. The prison routine freed his mind "to study Christ," said Bunyan, who more than once rather happily described himself as "the Lord's free prisoner," having the time to do the things he most wanted to do without interruption. During his prison years, Bunyan completed several books and saw them published: Prison Meditations; The Holy City; and Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. The last was a graphic and, at times, most extravagant account of Bunyan's physical, mental, and spiritual anguish before he saw the Light and was converted. Bunyan also conceived the idea of Pilgrim's Progress and began writing on it. But it was not completed by the time he was released from prison in 1672.
Bunyan and thousands of other prisoners throughout the kingdom owed their release to a proclamation by Charles II annulling all penal statutes against Nonconformists, and against Roman Catholics as well. Not that the king had become more favorably disposed toward Nonconformists, merely that he was using them to further his secret design of returning England to the Church of Rome, from which it had broken a century and a half before. Such a return would have been anathema to all Dissenters. But they knew nothing about the king's deep design. All they knew was that the penal laws against them had been annulled, and they were happy. Bunyan was so pleased that he published a tract in high praise of the king.
Returning home, not much the worse for wear after almost twelve years in a noisome prison, delighted to be once again with his family and friends, Bunyan did not resume his tinker's trade, for his Baptist brethren of the Bedford meeting had called him "to the pastoral office or eldership." Bunyan would spend the rest of his days as a pastor, conscientiously fulfilling the duties of his office, preaching and writing. His renown as a preacher, aided by his growing reputation as a writer, had now spread far and wide. Bunyan was invited to address congregations in neighboring counties, even being invited to London to preach to large congregations there.
For the Dissenters, things again took a turn for the worse. The Act of Indulgence annulling penal laws against them had been in force only three years when it was abruptly rescinded by the king, who ordered that the Act of Uniformity should again be strictly enforced. Bunyan was among the first to be tried under the new order. Convicted of having conducted religious meetings and services "in other manner than according to the Liturgie or Practice of the Church of England," he found himself back in Bedford county jail.
This time, his stay was short, lasting about six months, during which he completed the book he had started during his first imprisonment — The Pilgrim's Progress, a masterpiece of its kind that has kept Bunyan's name known to this day. Published in London in 1678, the book was surprisingly successful, and to no one's surprise more than Bunyan's. Two editions were sold out the first year; an enlarged version was published the next year. By the time of Bunyan's death a decade later, eight editions had appeared, and the book had been translated into French and Dutch.
In his powerfully written simple tale for simple people, Bunyan had struck a gold vein which he continued to develop. With many readers asking for a sequel, Bunyan decided to extend Pilgrim's Progress by adding Part II. This pictured the adventures and adversities encountered by the Pilgrim's wife Christiana and their children as they set out to follow in Christian's footsteps on his pilgrimage to the Celestial City. Published in 1684, Part II is a far inferior work, covering much of the same ground as Part I with few significant variations or additions. In these Notes, the two parts have been dealt with as separate units, each being complete in itself; one part can be read and studied with only slight reference to the other.
Bunyan had been keeping his pen going, on other things, turning out a number of religious tracts and completing three more books: The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680); The Holy War (1682); and A Holy Life (1684). He also published some moralistic verse addressed to the young: A Book for Boys and Girls, or Country Rhimes for Children and Divine Emblems for Youth, or Temporal Things Spiritualized. The verse was ragged, to say the least, but the subjects dealt with were treated interestingly in a far from solemn manner.
At the time the second part of Pilgrim's Progress was published, Bunyan was fifty-six, but still hale and hearty. His prison years had not sapped his health or vigor. As he had been doing for years, he zealously continued to tend the needs of brethren in his ever-growing parish and in neighboring parishes. The end came suddenly and unexpectedly as a result of a goodwill mission. One of Bunyan's young neighbors was at odds with his father. As they were seriously estranged, the young neighbor asked Bunyan for help in trying to effect a reconciliation. Able at such things and always sympathetic toward those in difficulty, Bunyan agreed and in the summer of 1688 saddled up and rode some twenty miles to the town of Reading, where the father lived.
Having paved the way for a reconciliation, Bunyan rode on to London, about forty miles away, to visit his many Baptist friends there. It was a dismal day for traveling, with a heavy rain pouring down, and he arrived in London, chilled and soaked to the skin. Along the way he had caught cold, was feverish and feeling ill. But sick as he was, Bunyan rose from bed the next Sunday and preached a sermon, as he had been expected to do, at the Baptist meetinghouse in Boar's Head Yard, off Petticoat Lane, in Whitechapel. This was Bunyan's last sermon. His illness became progressively worse; his cold developed into pneumonia, from which he died on August 31, 1688, three months short of his sixtieth birthday. His London friends buried him with simple ceremony in what was then known as Bunhill in the Fields, now Bunhill Fields, the "Camp Santo" of the Nonconformists.
Bunyan lived to see some sixty of his writings in print. With the growth of his influence as pastor and preacher, he had become known as "Bishop" Bunyan, though the Baptists had no bishops and abhorred that office and all it stood for. Bunyan always listed pride as one of the worst of sins, but he must have felt a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment as he looked back to those days when he was a semi-literate tinker's apprentice at Elstow. But the course of Bunyan's life would have been of no interest to future generations, scores of biographies would never have been written about him, if it were not for The Pilgrim's Progress. He is not forgotten because of that single flash of genius.