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 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,...
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