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.
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.
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...
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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 owner gave the land to the congregation, and it is the site of the present Bunyan Meeting.
As a result of Parliament’s pressuring Charles II to annul the Declaration of Indulgence, Bunyan was imprisoned again, this time in the Bedford town jail, located on the bridge over the Ouse River. There he began writing The Pilgrim’s Progress, according to John Brown, his most influential biographer, and he completed it following his release in 1676. Part 1 was published in 1678, the twenty-fourth of Bunyan’s sixty publications, and it was republished eleven times during his lifetime alone. The Pilgrim’s Progress is a natural sequel to Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan generalized the personal experiences he had related in the earlier work. In both works, the inner world of the spirit is real; the outer world, insubstantial.
Both works were drawn from the same popular culture which supported works by less graceful and now forgotten artisan preachers. Allegory and pilgrimage were familiar to English readers, and many of Bunyan’s characters and adventurers had their models in medieval romances. Some scenes in Christian’s pilgrimage were drawn realistically from seventeenth century life, particularly that of rural Bedfordshire. The story in The Pilgrim’s Progress, what Bunyan called the “outside” of his dream, appealed to and reflected the interests and outlooks of Restoration readers from the middle and lower ranks of society, where the Puritan impulse after 1660 was strongest. In the effect of its drama, its storytelling charm, and its allegorical vision, The Pilgrim’s Progress qualifies Bunyan as a founder of the English novel. The power of the work, however, derives from its moral conception as an ideal of life, what Bunyan referred to as the “inner side” of his dream. The second part of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the account of the pilgrimage of Christian’s wife and children, was completed in 1684, published in 1685, and reprinted six times by 1693. A response to the popularity of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the sequel can stand alone and reflects the more relaxed tone of Bunyan’s mature ministry. Beginning in 1676, he obtained licenses for preachers and preaching places under his supervision and directed circuits from Bedford. He frequently preached to huge crowds in London and in 1688 was serving as chaplain to the lord mayor of London, Sir John Shorter.
Meanwhile, Bunyan had published, in 1680, The Life and Death of Mr. Badman and, in 1682, The Holy War. Concern for the powerless and oppressed was registered in many of Bunyan’s writings, but particularly in The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, in which Bunyan spoke more as a compassionate champion of the oppressed than as a discontented workman. The Holy War treated allegorically the fall and redemption of mankind and the struggle for humanity’s soul. Its millenarian imagery reflected Bunyan’s familiarity with the aspirations of the Fifth Monarchy Men. When James II sought to build an alliance between Nonconformists and the court, some of Bunyan’s congregation accepted seats on the remodeled corporation of Bedford, but Bunyan held aloof. Sir Charles Firth has explained this reticence as a fear of Catholicism, but William York Tindall has interpreted Bunyan’s apparent aloofness from politics as distrust and distaste for monarchy, an attitude profoundly political.
Bunyan never saw the denouement of toleration for Nonconformists, dying some two months before the landing of William of Orange. Almost sixty, he had been ill in the spring and had caught cold riding in a heavy rain on a pastoral mission. He died at the home of a friend, John Strudwick, a grocer and chandler near Holborn Bridge in London, and was buried in Bunhill Fields cemetery. Most of his unpublished material was printed at the direction of his friend Charles Doe, a London comb-maker, in 1692 and 1698. Elizabeth Bunyan died in 1691. They had two children, Sarah and Joseph. Bunyan had four children by his first wife: Mary, John, Thomas, and Elizabeth.
A contemporary described Bunyan as tall, strong-boned, and ruddy, with sparkling eyes, reddish hair, a high forehead, and a large mouth with a mustache. A pencil drawing of Bunyan by Robert White is in the Cracherode Collection of the British Museum.
John Bunyan’s main significance is as a writer, and his most important creation is The Pilgrim’s Progress. The initial popularity of the work accounts for much of its influence. As a precursor of the English novel, it was outstanding for its literary and narrative merit, and by the time the novel evolved in the eighteenth century, The Pilgrim’s Progress had become an established part of the literary and cultural environment of writers such as Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and Laurence Sterne. There were 160 editions of The Pilgrim’s Progress by 1792.
Outside the ranks of Nonconformity, however, Bunyan was dismissed by his contemporaries as a tradesman-preacher whose literary popularity bespoke only the ignorance of his coreligionists. In historical perspective, this disdain and the class divisions it reflects give Bunyan’s works special interest for the social historian. Not only his beliefs and values but also his literary characterizations, descriptions, and even his vocabulary are valued as the surviving expressions of seventeenth century common people who otherwise have been largely unrepresented in the historical records. Literary critics were slow to appreciate Bunyan or to see anything in his writings except his fervent faith and its inspirational effects. Jonathan Swift and Ben Jonson were the first secular writers to praise The Pilgrim’s Progress; not until the 1830’s, with Robert Southey’s edition of the work and a subsequent essay by Thomas Babington Macaulay, was there general critical acceptance of Bunyan as a writer. In 1880, Bunyan was entered into the English Men of Letters series in a biography by James Anthony Froude. By that time, The Pilgrim’s Progress had been published in more than seventy languages. As a statement of religious faith, The Pilgrim’s Progress for centuries has symbolized the simple but profound human desire to live to one’s fullest capacity.
Brown, John. John Bunyan: His Life, Times, and Work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1888. Reissued with addenda, edited by Frank Mott Harrison, London: 1928. The most detailed biography, by the minister of Bunyan Meeting, Bedford, whose thorough research has not yet been surpassed.
Bunyan, John. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and the Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come. Edited by Roger Sharrock. London: Oxford University Press, 1966. Accessible, well-edited, and usefully indexed.
Dutton, A. Richard. “Interesting but Tough: Reading The Pilgrim’s Progress. Studies in English Literature 18 (Summer, 1978): 439-456. Emphasizing a belief in predestination as the motive force behind Bunyan’s allegory, Dutton interprets it as an exclusivist product of a persecuted minority struggling to survive.
Firth, Sir Charles. “John Bunyan.” In Essays Historical and Literary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938. Grounding Bunyan solidly in his social, political, and intellectual environment, Firth shows that medieval romances, familiar to Bunyan and his readers, were sources of many of the characters and circumstances in The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Greaves, Richard L. “Organizational Response of Nonconformity to Repression and Indulgence: The Case of Bedfordshire.” Church History 44 (December, 1975): 472-484. Describes the successful network of teachers and preachers organized to withstand persecution in the 1670’s.
Harrison, Frank Mott. A Bibliography of the Works of John Bunyan. Supplement to the Bibliographical Society’s “Transactions,” No. 6. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932. The standard reference source for Bunyan’s works in their myriad editions.
Miller, Perry. “John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.” In Classics of Religious Devotion. Boston, 1950. The religious nature of the work is here explained by an astute analyst of Puritanism.
Tindall, William York. John Bunyan: Mechanick Preacher. New York: Russell and Russell, 1934. Explores the popular culture which produced Bunyan and numerous lay preachers and emphasizes class consciousness, particularly that of the Baptists.
White, Barrington R. The English Baptists of the Seventeenth Century. London: Baptist Historical Society, 1983. Explores the changing relationship between Baptists and the state from 1640 to 1689 and emphasizes associations among congregations.
Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. John Bunyan. New York: Macmillan, 1961. Solidly based on secondary historical and literary studies, this is a balanced and highly readable introduction.