John Bunyan 1628-1688
English allegorist, autobiographer, prose writer, homilist, and poet.
The following entry presents recent criticism on Bunyan.
John Bunyan is recognized as a master of allegorical prose, whose art is often compared to that of such authors as John Milton and Edmund Spenser. Although he wrote nearly fifty works, Bunyan is chiefly remembered for The Pilgrim's Progress (1678), a record in allegorical form of the author's religious awakening and growth. While based heavily on Bunyan's Puritan beliefs, The Pilgrim's Progress has attracted both religious and secular audiences. It has been translated into numerous languages and has enjoyed worldwide readership.
What is known of Bunyan's early life is fragmentary, and is primarily derived from his autobiographical Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), which focuses on his spiritual development rather than his physical circumstances. He was born in Elstow, a town in rural Bedfordshire, England, in 1628. He was baptized in the Anglican Church, was taught to read and write at a local parish school, and was apprenticed to the tinker's trade practiced in his family. According to Grace Abounding, as a child Bunyan suffered dreams and visions of hell. At the age of sixteen he was conscripted into the Parliamentary army, from which he was discharged after three years. In 1648 he married a woman whose piety reawakened his lapsed religious conscience. While playing games one Sunday—an activity considered Sabbath-breaking by some faiths—Bunyan had a religious experience in which he heard a voice “from Heaven” accusing him of sinfulness. This incident has been viewed by many, including Bunyan himself, as instrumental in his religious conversion. In 1653 he joined the Bedford Baptists, a moderate Puritan sect. He committed himself to serving the Baptist community of Bedford, becoming actively involved in the religious life of the community, speaking at meetings, and publishing his first work, Some Gospel-Truths Opened according to the Scriptures, in 1656. He later began preaching, adopting the fiery speaking style which he reproduced in A Few Sighs from Hell, published in 1658. After Charles II assumed the throne in 1660, members of religious sects without official sanction were in danger of arrest. Bunyan refused to compromise his faith and was imprisoned, remaining in jail for twelve years. The conditions of his incarceration were variable, however, and he was at times allowed to travel and to preach. In 1872 he was appointed pastor of the Bedford congregation, and later that year he was officially pardoned. During the period of his imprisonment Bunyan produced Grace Abounding and began writing The Pilgrim's Progress. The immediate acclaim the latter work received when it was published in 1678 precipitated a second edition and encouraged Bunyan to write The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680). He continued his literary pursuits, publishing several works, including the second part of The Pilgrim's Progress (1684), and, after the death of Charles II in 1685, openly resuming his preaching duties. In the last year of his life he was appointed chaplain to the Lord Mayor of London. Bunyan died of an illness resulting from exposure to inclement weather while performing his pastoral duties in 1688.
Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners is Bunyan's recounting of his spiritual awakening, conversion, and development. While this work is ostensibly an autobiography, Bunyan's intense focus on the inner, psychological and spiritual self rather than the outward person, and his technique of generalizing his own experience preclude the emergence of a clear portrait of the author as an individual. Such personal details as are offered—always for the purpose of illustrating religious experience—are presented with an affecting simplicity and clarity. Structured as a series of temptations that precipitate spiritual crises in Bunyan, Grace Abounding is a moving account of doubt and inner anguish and is often seen as establishing the framework for The Pilgrim's Progress, which treats many of the same issues in fictional form. The Pilgrim's Progress recounts the story of the hero, Christian, in the form of a dream experienced by the narrator. Christian sets out from the City of Destruction in search of salvation, leaving behind his wife and children, who refuse to join him. On his journey he encounters personified vices, such as Ignorance and the Giant Despair, who attempt to hinder his progress, and virtues, such as Help and Faithful, who assist him. Specific incidents in The Pilgrim's Progress were borrowed from both the Scriptures and numerous secular works. They are presented in no particular sequence but represent an array of challenges and obstacles to be met and overcome in order to achieve salvation. The Holy War (1682), while not as celebrated as Bunyan's renowned allegory, is equally representative of the author's spiritual concerns. Like The Pilgrim's Progress, The Holy War is an allegorical depiction of spiritual struggle, but rather than employing the metaphor of a journey, it describes the human soul as a bastion besieged by evil forces.
The Pilgrim's Progress is, by consensus, Bunyan's masterpiece, a work that has moved beyond the acclaim of the author's contemporaries and the censure of its many detractors to achieve the status of a canonical work of Western literature. Recent commentary on The Pilgrim's Progress has included comparisons with other works of allegorical prose, gender studies that explore Bunyan's attitudes toward women, and linguistic analyses that attempt to illustrate the writer's use of metaphorical and symbolic language. While critical interest in The Pilgrim's Progress remains undiminished, scholars are increasingly studying Bunyan's other works, especially Grace Abounding and The Holy War. Grace Abounding is widely considered the finest example of Puritan spiritual autobiography, a genre rooted in the testimony new members would give before admittance to a Puritan congregation. Modern scholars have examined its relation to other spiritual memoirs as well as to The Pilgrim's Progress. They have also sought to investigate the picture of Bunyan that arises from this work, in which outer life is treated as merely a vehicle for presenting interior states and the personal is subsumed in the general. The Holy War has been admired for its allegorical psychomachia, or battle for the soul, and its metaphorical view of the human soul as a community.