John Bunyan Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
ph_0111201523-Bunyan.jpg John Bunyan Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Drawing on the popular culture of England’s socially most turbulent period, Bunyan preserved in much of his writing the idiom and images of the less articulate levels of society. As a religious allegory, his The Pilgrim’s Progress appeals beyond creed to the vision of a life transcending the ordinary.

Early Life

John Bunyan was the eldest child of Thomas Bunyan, Jr., and Margaret Bentley Bunyan of Bunyan’s End, between Harrowden and Elstow in Bedfordshire, where the Bunyans had been landowners since the twelfth century. From his father, the young Bunyan learned the trade of a brazier, tinker, or whitesmith (one who mends and sells various small household utensils), and he learned to read and write in a local school. When Bunyan was fifteen, his mother and sister died and his father remarried, a circumstance to which biographers have credited his subsequent rebellious behavior, which Bunyan later regretted and indeed may have exaggerated.

Parliamentarians dominated Civil War Bedfordshire, and Bunyan was drafted when he reached the militia age of sixteen years. He served for two and one-half years in a regiment which formed part of the garrison of Newport Pagnell.

Life’s Work

Bunyan married in 1648 or 1649 and took on the outward forms of religious practice. His wife, whose name has not survived, possessed two books: Lewis Bayley’s The Practice of Piety (1612) and Arthur Dent’s The Plaine Man’s Pathway to Heaven (1601). Although far less important to Bunyan than the King James version of the Bible, these books interested him when his religious searching began. In his spiritual autobiography, Bunyan related the origin of his awakening to what he called “inner” faith, as opposed to outward practices: While working in Bedford, he overheard a few poor women enjoying the sun and talking about religion. Feeling that they were discussing something he had not experienced, Bunyan conversed with them, and they invited him to attend their Nonconformist congregation, which met in St. John’s Church, Bedford.

Their Particular Open Communion Baptist congregation apparently had been organized by its first minister, John Gifford, a physician who had served in the Royalist army. In 1653 the Bedford town council, acting under Oliver Cromwell’s Broad Church policies, presented Gifford to the living of St. John’s Church. By that time, the minister had seen Bunyan through three or four years of alternating doubt and ecstasy. Better educated than Bunyan, Gifford was for Bunyan a source of books as well as conversations and sermons. Bunyan later declared that, except for the Bible, the book that had had the greatest influence on him had been Martin Luther’s In epistolam sancti Pauli ad Galatas commentarius (1519; Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, 1575). He joined Gifford’s congregation in 1653 or shortly thereafter and moved his family from Elstow to Bedford about 1655. Soon both Bunyan’s wife and his minister died, and Bunyan himself had tuberculosis.

By this time Bunyan had been chosen a deacon, and he began preaching, privately at first and then publicly following ordination in 1657. He continued to travel as a brazier but combined his secular work with preaching, occasionally in parish churches and frequently on village greens and in barns and woods. During the repression of Nonconformity which accompanied the Restoration, Bunyan was first warned and then arrested and indicted under the Elizabethan conventicle act. The charge was conducting a conventicle and not conforming to the worship of the Church of England. After the arrest, Bunyan refused to allow bonds to be made against his renewed preaching. He maintained that the laws against conventicles were aimed only at persons who used religious meetings as a disguise for sedition and so did not apply to him, an unsuccessful defense frequently made by Nonconformists. He was indicted in Quarter Sessions in January, 1661, and was lodged in the Bedford county jail for the following twelve years, with occasional releases after 1668. He learned to make laces and sold them for his family’s support. His second wife, Elizabeth, whom he had married in 1659, managed the family and made numerous petitions for his release, even appearing before the House of Lords.

In prison Bunyan produced much of the writing for which he is remembered. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners was published in 1666, and it went through five more editions in Bunyan’s lifetime. It was typical of the Puritan spiritual autobiographies of the second half of the sixteenth century, in which a preacher described his conversion, calling, ministry, and persecutions and sought to convert and guide others. Bunyan’s treatment surpasses others in its literary grace and sense of drama. It is the chief source for the meager information about Bunyan’s early life.

Bunyan was pardoned under the authority of Charles II’s 1672 Declaration of Indulgence. Prior to his pardon he had been called as pastor to his congregation in Bedford and had received a royal license to preach in May, 1672. The building and grounds of St. John’s Church having been returned to the ownership of the Church of England, Bunyan’s congregation met at a barn in an orchard belonging to one of its members. Within three years of Bunyan’s release,...

(The entire section is 2227 words.)

John Bunyan Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Both the career and the writings of John Bunyan (BUHN-yuhn) are full of interest for the student of the seventeenth century, for his career illustrates the difficulties faced by a convinced Baptist in a society that, after the restoration of Charles II, took a poor view of Puritan views in general. His writings speak clearly of the convictions that enabled Bunyan and others to endure social intolerance and oppression, and at least one of his works—The Pilgrim’s Progress—is more than a personal and sociological record: It is a work that many generations of readers have regarded as a wonderfully allegorized account of each individual’s spiritual experience.

Bunyan was one of the least learned and socially humblest of men to attain enduring literary fame. He was born in Elstow, in rural Bedfordshire, to Thomas Bunyan and Margaret Bentley. His father was a tinker, a hereditary trade to which, in due time, Bunyan himself was apprenticed. Baptized on November 30, 1628, he was brought up in an atmosphere of strict Puritanism which imposed checks on his youthful behavior and caused him to develop a profound sense of sin. Bunyan believed, in later years, that his youthful high spirits were displays of vice.

At sixteen, he joined the Parliamentary army in the Civil War and took part in the victorious campaigns of 1645. In 1646, he married a poor, pious woman whose only dowry was two religious books. Her name has been lost to history, but when she died in 1658, she left behind four children, including a blind daughter, Mary. His wife’s piety and study of the two books added to his habit of searching his soul for sin. Happily, in 1653, he joined a Baptist society and regained his equilibrium. He soon became a preacher and drew large crowds of laboring people, causing the Royalists to look on him with such suspicion that after the Restoration in 1660 and the passage of laws that forbade meetings hostile to the Established Church, Bunyan was brought to trial for refusing to give up his preaching. During his confinement, Bunyan’s family, headed by his second wife, Elizabeth, was penniless and often starving, and Bunyan suffered further pangs of guilt. Yet he declined opportunities to renounce his religious belief and remained in prison for twelve years, enjoying only short intervals of freedom. This confinement was at least to the advantage of posterity, for in prison he had ample leisure to...

(The entire section is 990 words.)

John Bunyan Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

John Bunyan was born in the village of Elstow, in Bedfordshire (one mile south of Bedford), England, in November, 1628. The parish register of Elstow records his baptism on November 30. His father, Thomas Bunyan, a native of Elstow, married three times between January, 1623, and August, 1644; John Bunyan was the first child of his father’s second marriage—on May 23, 1627, to Margaret Bentley, also of Elstow. The boy’s father was a “whitesmith,” a maker and mender of pots and kettles, although by the time the son adopted the same vocation, the job reference had changed to “tinker.” Young Bunyan attended a nearby grammar school (either the one at Bedford or another at Elstow), where he learned to read and write—but...

(The entire section is 719 words.)

John Bunyan Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Bunyan (BUHN-yuhn), the son of Thomas Bunyan and his second wife, Margaret Bentley, was baptized on November 30, 1628, in the village of Elstow, near Bedford, England. Although his ancestors had been English yeoman farmers and small landowners in Bedfordshire, his father was a whitesmith or metal craftsman, suggesting that the family fortunes had declined over generations. Bunyan himself was apprenticed at his father’s craft, though the designation changed to tinker, or mender of metal implements, and for many years he earned his living through his skill. The Bunyans were not destitute, nor were they forced to become itinerant craftsmen, for both Bunyan and his father owned a forge and workshop in Elstow. In his confessional...

(The entire section is 801 words.)

John Bunyan Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Bunyan’s writings brought him fame as a master allegorist and exponent of the plain style. While his works are informed with a powerfully consistent mythic vision, his arresting theme of individual salvation remains their most striking feature, a theme developed through strain and angst. His individualism, denying all but arbitrary grace, places the entire burden of salvation on the individual human. Even while realizing that most people would not play their part in the great drama successfully, he sought to illustrate how the individual’s journey through life might best be made.

(The entire section is 94 words.)

John Bunyan Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

John Bunyan was born at Elstow near Bedford, England, in November 1628. His father was a tinker, and Bunyan followed in his father's trade....

(The entire section is 340 words.)