The spirit of seventeenth century Protestant dissent burst into flame within the heart and mind of John Bunyan. He attended only grammar school, served in the parliamentary army at age sixteen, and returned to Bedfordshire to undergo religious crisis and conversion. Imprisoned after the Restoration of Charles II for refusing to obey the laws against religious dissent, he turned to his pen as the only available means of performing his divinely ordained stewardship. He wrote his most significant work, the vision of The Pilgrim’s Progress, while in jail, and the piece became a companion to the Scriptures among lower-class English Dissenters. His limited education came from two sources: John Foxe’s Commentarii rerum in ecclesia gestarum (1554; revised 1559; revised and translated as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 1563; also known as Actes and Monuments of the Christian Church), containing accounts of the martyrdom of sixteenth century English Protestants, and the Authorized Version of the Bible, the content and style of which Bunyan skillfully applied to his own prose.
Bunyan’s art grew out of his natural abilities of observation and analysis. He was a Puritan and a product of the Puritan movement, yet, as can be seen clearly from the autobiographical Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, he was chiefly interested in actual human experience, not in religious doctrine for its own sake. His allegorical characters—Mr. Timorous, Mr. Talkative, Mrs. Diffidence, Mr. By-ends, Lord Turn-about, Mr. Smooth-man, Mr. Facing-bothways—originated in everyday life. Similarly, the Valley of Humiliation, the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair, and Fair-speech can be found by all people everywhere, no matter what their cultures or religions. In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan universalized his Puritanism, depicting every earnest Christian’s search for salvation, every upright person’s attempt to achieve some degree of faith. He wrote to awaken conscience, to strengthen faith, and to win souls—the last being the true object of his evangelical mission. At the same time, he managed to write tracts and narratives worthy of recognition as literature—even, in certain instances, as masterpieces.