See biography by O. E. Winslow (1961); studies by H. A. Talon (1951), W. Y. Tindall (1934, repr. 1964), D. E. Smith (1966), R. Sharrock (rev. ed. 1968), V. Newey, ed. (1980), and E. B. Batson (1984).
John Bunyan, pencil drawing on vellum by Robert White; in the British Museum, London.
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John Bunyan (28 November 1628 – 31 August 1688), a Christian writer and preacher, was born at Harrowden (one mile south-east of Bedford), in the Parish of Elstow, England. He wrote 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 had very little schooling (about 2-4 years). He followed his father in the Tarish Tinker's trade, and he served in the parliamentary army at Newport Pagnell (1644 - 1647); in 1649 he married a pious 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. He lived in Elstow till 1655 (when his wife died) and then moved to Bedford. He married again in 1659.
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 un-Biblical life led him to contemplate acts of impiety and profanity, and to a vivid realisation of the dangers these involved. In particular he was harassed by a curiosity in regard to the "unpardonable sin," and a prepossession that he had already committed it. As a result of these experiences, he was received into the Baptist church in Bedford by immersion in the River Great Ouse in 1653. In 1655 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.
In 1658 Bunyan was indicted for preaching without a licence. He continued, however, and did not suffer imprisonment till November 1660, when he was taken to the county gaol in Silver Street, 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). 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.) 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. In March 1675, he was again imprisoned for preaching (because 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). In six months he was free and as a result of his popularity he was not again arrested.
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 had begun 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, and are accessible to all. 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 disfellowshiping 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 tongues 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 that 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." Bunyan wrote about 60 books and tracts, of which The Holy War ranks next to The Pilgrim's Progress in popularity, while Grace Abounding is one of the most interesting pieces of biography in existence.
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".