John Bunyan Bunyan, John - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Some Gospel-Truths Opened according to the Scriptures (prose) 1656

A Few Sighs from Hell; or, The Groans of a Damned Soul (sermon) 1658

Christian Behavior; or, The Fruits of True Christianity (prose) 1658

The Holy City; or, The New Jerusalem (prose) 1665

Prison Meditations (prose) 1665

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners; or, A Brief and Faithful Relation of the Exceeding Mercy of God in Christ to His Poor Servant John Bunyan (autobiography) 1666

A Christian Dialogue (dialogue) 1672

The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream Wherein Is Discovered, the Manner of His Setting out, His Dangerous Journey, and Safe Arrival at the Desired Country. (allegory) 1678

The Life and Death of Mr. Badman Presented to the World in a Familiar Dialogue between Mr. Wiseman, and Mr. Attentive (dialogue) 1680

The Holy War Made by Shaddai upon Diabous for the Regaining of the Metropolis of the World; or, The Losing and Taking Again of the Town of Mansoul (allegory) 1682

The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come: The Second Part, Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream Wherein Is Set Forth the Manner of the Setting out of Christian's Wife and Children, Their Dangerous Journey, and Safe Arrival at the Desired Country. (allegory) 1684

Seasonable Counsel; or, Advice to Sufferers (prose) 1684

The Advocateship of Jesus Christ Clearly Explained and Largely Improved [also published as The Work of Jesus Christ as an Advocate, 1688] (sermon) 1688

The Heavenly Footman (prose) 1698

The Entire Works of John Bunyan. 4 vols. (allegories, meditations, tracts, sermons, dialogues, autobiography, and poetry) 1859-60

Anne H. Hawkins (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hawkins, Anne H. “John Bunyan: The Conflictive Paradigm.” In Archetypes of Conversion: The Autobiographies of Augustine, Bunyan, and Merton, pp. 73-99. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Hawkins analyzes the differences between the methods of conversion espoused by Augustine and Bunyan.]


The “universals” of religious experience that I have been describing as archetypes and discussing in psychological terms were recognized by writers of the seventeenth century in the metaphors and language of religion. The assumption that...

(The entire section is 14128 words.)

Brainerd P. Stranahan (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Stranahan, Brainerd P. “Bunyan's Satire and Its Biblical Sources.” In Bunyan in Our Time, edited by Robert G. Collmer, pp. 35-60. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Stranhan examines Bunyan's use of satire in The Pilgrim's Progress, contending that characters, scenes, and language in Bunyan's work were heavily influenced by Scripture.]

Recently Brean S. Hammond has argued, “In an elastic sense of the term, most of The Pilgrim's Progress is satirical; indeed satire of a kind is the staple diet of the prose.”1 His essay calls attention to a neglected aspect of John Bunyan's most celebrated...

(The entire section is 11557 words.)

Kathleen M. Swaim (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Swaim, Kathleen M. “Mercy and the Feminine Heroic in the Second Part of Pilgrim's Progress.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 30, No. 3 (Summer 1990): 387-409.

[In the following essay, Swaim examines Bunyan's handling of his male and female characters in Parts I and II of Pilgrim's Progress, arguing that, despite their differences, the two texts represent two parts of a unified whole.]

In 1684 John Bunyan published the second part of Pilgrim's Progress, a sequel in which the wife and children of Christian, the hero of Part I (1678), undertake their successful imitation of the pilgrimage of their husband and father. The sequel is...

(The entire section is 8970 words.)

George MacLennan (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: MacLennan, George. “Bunyan and Trosse: The Pathology of Puritanism.” In Lucid Interval: Subjective Writing and Madness in History, pp. 55-77. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, MacLennan examines the use of the autobiography by Puritan writers, using Bunyan and George Trosse as examples, focusing on their of revealing Puritan spiritual beliefs and concerns as revealed through life's journey.]


The seventeenth century, the heyday of English Puritanism, saw a profusion of autobiographical writings of the ‘progress of the soul’ type. Puritan spiritual autobiographies were not only more numerous...

(The entire section is 10743 words.)

Richard Greaves (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Greaves, Richard. “Conscience, Liberty, and the Spirit: Bunyan and Nonconformity.” In John Bunyan and English Nonconformity, pp. 51-70. London: The Hambledon Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Greaves examines Bunyan's decision to pursue the path of nonconformity following the Restoration, noting that an important consideration in making this choice was his determination to continue preaching.]

‘I was caught in my present practice and cast into Prison’, and thus commenced ‘a long and tedious Imprisonment, that thereby I might be frighted from my Service for Christ, and the World terrified, and made afraid to hear me Preach’.1 Bunyan's...

(The entire section is 8372 words.)

Kathleen M. Swaim (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Swaim, Kathleen M. “The Allegorical Way.” In Pilgrim's Progress, Puritan Progress: Discourses and Contexts, pp. 18-41. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Swaim examines aspects of allegory and how Bunyan uses the genre for his purpose in Pilgrim's Progress.]

Bunyan so intensely presents the Christian life, so urgently wishes to communicate actuality to the reader, is such a psychological realist and didactic in so evangelical a fashion, that the convention of mediaeval allegory is given new shape and new pressure, losing its point by point applicability, shifting rapidly, passing from figurative...

(The entire section is 10807 words.)

John R. Knott (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Knott, John R. “‘A Suffering People’: Bunyan and the Language of Martyrdom.” In Puritanism: Transatlantic Perspectives on a Seventeenth-Century Anglo-American Faith, edited by Francis J. Bremer, pp. 88-123. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1993.

[In the following essay, Knott discusses the role of martyrdom in Bunyan's works as well as his belief that the persecution faced by Christians was a battle for truth that was part of God's plan.]

A visitor to John Bunyan in the County Gaol of Bedford, where he was imprisoned from 1660 to 1672, reported that his library consisted of two books, the Bible and the “Book of Martyrs.”1 Foxe's...

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Tamsin Spargo (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Spargo, Tamsin. “‘I being taken from you in presence’: Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and claims to authority.” In The Writing of John Bunyan, pp. 43-67. Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate, 1997.

[In the following essay, Spargo examines Grace Abounding as one of the first texts to explore the subject of liberal humanism, noting that it has often been studied as a founding example of the struggle to define the meaning of authority, authorship, and modern subjectivity.]


Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners occupies a unique position within the traditionally agreed canon of texts by...

(The entire section is 13051 words.)

John R. Knott (essay date 2000)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Knott, John R. “Bunyan and the Cry of Blood.” In Awakening Words: John Bunyan and the Language of Community, pp. 51-67. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Knott examines the violent judgments meted out to sinners in Pilgrim's Progress, theorizing that the severe consequences met by characters in turn reflects the severity of Calvinist thought absorbed by Bunyan.]

My point of departure is an episode from the second part of The Pilgrim's Progress [PP] that I have always found disconcerting: Mercy's encounter with three men that she sees “hanged up in irons” by the side of the way. Great-heart responds...

(The entire section is 7611 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Forrest, James F. and Richard L. Greaves. John Bunyan: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co, 1982, 417 p.

Annotated bibliography of primary and secondary works.

Harrison, Frank Mott. A Bibliography of the Works of John Bunyan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932, 79 p.

A complete bibliography of Bunyan's works, including posthumous works and works attributed to Bunyan.


Brown, John. John Bunyan: His Life, Times, and Work. 1885. Reprint. London: The Hulbert Publishing Company, 1928, 488 p.

An overview of...

(The entire section is 812 words.)