John Bunyan (1628—1688) was an English tinker, a Nonconformist Puritan pastor, and the author of over 60 books, including what is without doubt the greatest allegory ever written, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
John Bunyan was born in Elstow, near Bedford, about 45 miles northwest of London, England. He received a rudimentary education and began practicing his father’s trade, tinkering (mending household utensils). Civil war broke out in 1642, and Bunyan joined Oliver Cromwell’s army from 1644 to 1647. In 1648 Bunyan married, and two years later he and his wife had a daughter, Mary, who was born blind.
Bunyan’s wife was a devout Christian, but Bunyan himself was not. He later described himself as “one that took much delight in all manner of vice” (Grace Abounding). Influenced by his wife, Bunyan began attending the Anglican church in Elstow, but he continued to struggle with the fact that his sin was overwhelming. He sought out spiritual guidance from John Gifford, a Congregationalist pastor, who pointed him to redemption in Christ. In 1653 Bunyan was baptized in the Ouse River and joined the Bedford Meeting House. Two years later, he was preaching the gospel.
John Bunyan began to write in 1656, starting with a pamphlet opposing the Quakers. In 1658 he wrote A Few Sighs from Hell, which criticized the professional clergy and the rich. That tract proved very popular. That same year, his wife died.
In 1659 Bunyan published The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded, an exposition of his theology. He also remarried; his second wife’s name was Elizabeth. Meanwhile, the politics in England were changing. The Protestant rebellion failed, and King Charles II returned to power. With Charles’ ascension to the throne came a loss of freedom for unlicensed preachers like Bunyan.
Under Charles II, the only ones allowed to preach in England were Anglican clergy, officially licensed by the state. John Bunyan was not Anglican, and he was not officially licensed. In 1660, ignoring the warnings of friends, Bunyan went to preach at a house church; he was arrested, tried, and jailed in the Bedford prison. The charge against him was that he had “devilishly and perniciously abstained from coming to church to hear divine service” and that he was “a common upholder of several unlawful meetings . . . to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom.”
After three months in jail, Bunyan was offered his freedom upon the condition that he give up preaching. He refused the offer and was kept in prison for the next twelve years. Bunyan faced his imprisonment with fortitude, knowing that he was suffering for the cause of Christ, but he sorrowed over the fact that he was not available to provide for his family. He did what he could by making and selling shoelaces in prison. Soon after Bunyan’s arrest, Elizabeth gave birth to a premature baby, who died shortly afterward.
In jail, Bunyan found plenty of time to write. He published several books and tracts from prison, and he worked on many more. In 1662 Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity, which required all churches to use the Book of Common Prayer in their services. Such a law was anathema to Bunyan, who believed that one’s prayers should be from the heart, not prescribed by a book. True to form, he published a booklet on the subject that same year. In 1668 Bunyan began writing The Pilgrim’s Progress, a vivid allegory of the spiritual journey of a believer from faith in Christ to his home in heaven.
In 1672 John Bunyan was released from jail. Of course, he immediately resumed preaching and carrying out his other responsibilities as the pastor of Bedford Meeting House. His preaching attracted much attention. The church grew, and people came from all over the region to hear him teach the Word. And he continued writing.
In 1675 John Bunyan was arrested and jailed again, this time only for about six months. His release was facilitated by the famed theologian John Owen, working in conjunction with some influential people in London. In 1678 The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 1, was published. It was an immediate bestseller, going through thirteen different printings in Bunyan’s lifetime.
In August 1688, Bunyan traveled on horseback to visit a family in need and to preach in London. He was caught in a rainstorm on the way and developed a fever. Bunyan died several days later; he was buried in the Nonconformist burial ground at Bunhill Fields.
Several of John Bunyan’s literary works have been hailed as masterpieces, and his contribution to the formation of the novel as a genre has been written about extensively. Authors such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Charlotte Brontë, C. S. Lewis, William Thackeray, and John Steinbeck all referenced Bunyan’s work in their own writings. The Pilgrim’s Progress was cited as a favorite by Charles Spurgeon, who read the book at least once a year; Theodore Roosevelt; and Benjamin Franklin. The book was named one of the 100 best novels of all time by The Guardian, it has been translated into over 200 languages, and it is the second best-selling book of all time (the first being the Bible). Bunyan’s insight into human nature, his commitment to biblical theology, and his abundant creativity have been instrumental in encouraging countless believers in their walk with God.
Here is a partial bibliography of John Bunyan’s works:
A Few Sighs from Hell (1658)
The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded (1659)
I Will Pray with the Spirit (1662)
Christian Behaviour (1663)
Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666)
Instruction for the Ignorant (1675)
The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 1 (1678)
Come, & Welcome, to Jesus Christ (1678)
The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680)
The Holy War (1682)
The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 2 (1684)
A Book for Boys and Girls: Or, Country Rhimes for Children (1686)
Good News for the Vilest of Men (1688)
The Heavenly Footman (published posthumously, 1698)