Last reviewed: June 2018
English novelist, poet, and religious philosopher
November 30, 1628 (baptized)
Elstow, Bedfordshire, England
August 31, 1688
Both the career and the writings of John Bunyan (BUHN-yuhn) are full of interest for the student of the seventeenth century, for his career illustrates the difficulties faced by a convinced Baptist in a society that, after the restoration of Charles II, took a poor view of Puritan views in general. His writings speak clearly of the convictions that enabled Bunyan and others to endure social intolerance and oppression, and at least one of his works—The Pilgrim’s Progress—is more than a personal and sociological record: It is a work that many generations of readers have regarded as a wonderfully allegorized account of each individual’s spiritual experience. John Bunyan
Bunyan was one of the least learned and socially humblest of men to attain enduring literary fame. He was born in Elstow, in rural Bedfordshire, to Thomas Bunyan and Margaret Bentley. His father was a tinker, a hereditary trade to which, in due time, Bunyan himself was apprenticed. Baptized on November 30, 1628, he was brought up in an atmosphere of strict Puritanism which imposed checks on his youthful behavior and caused him to develop a profound sense of sin. Bunyan believed, in later years, that his youthful high spirits were displays of vice.
At sixteen, he joined the Parliamentary army in the Civil War and took part in the victorious campaigns of 1645. In 1646, he married a poor, pious woman whose only dowry was two religious books. Her name has been lost to history, but when she died in 1658, she left behind four children, including a blind daughter, Mary. His wife’s piety and study of the two books added to his habit of searching his soul for sin. Happily, in 1653, he joined a Baptist society and regained his equilibrium. He soon became a preacher and drew large crowds of laboring people, causing the Royalists to look on him with such suspicion that after the Restoration in 1660 and the passage of laws that forbade meetings hostile to the Established Church, Bunyan was brought to trial for refusing to give up his preaching. During his confinement, Bunyan’s family, headed by his second wife, Elizabeth, was penniless and often starving, and Bunyan suffered further pangs of guilt. Yet he declined opportunities to renounce his religious belief and remained in prison for twelve years, enjoying only short intervals of freedom. This confinement was at least to the advantage of posterity, for in prison he had ample leisure to read the Bible and John Foxe’s The Book of Martyrs (1563)—his only source of historical knowledge—to write attacks on various religious groups and to give religious instruction to fellow prisoners. Indeed, much of the first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress was written in the Bedford gaol (the crowded county jail, not the little house on the bridge often cited as his prison). After its publication in 1678, Bunyan’s life ran more smoothly. His book and his sufferings made him “the hero of the Baptists,” and he preached to vast groups in London and throughout the country. He was even, in the last year of his life, chaplain to the Lord Mayor of London. As a result of a fever caught while visiting a quarreling father and son in the countryside, Bunyan died in London on August 31, 1688. He was buried at Bunhill Fields.
Bunyan’s literary production was abundant and dominated by the preoccupations of faith and religious controversy. Titles of his minor writings read like evangelistic tracts. Even the titles give one a sense of the preoccupations of Bunyan’s time: Some Gospel Truths Opened, A Few Signs from Hell, Light for Them That Sit in the Darkness, and A Caution to Stir Up to Watch Against Sin.
Better known are Bunyan’s longer works, such as The Holy War, the principal character of which is Mansoul and the action of which is, as in Bunyan’s greatest book, allegorical and shows humankind beset by the powers of evil and victorious only by the strength of godly resistance and divine grace. On a less exalted level is The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, which is an interesting record of contemporary manners and lower-middle-class life. The most famous of his works is The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegorical account of two journeys taken to the Celestial City, first the journey of the solitary hero, Christian, and then the journey of his family—a journey less grim than Christian’s and one genially supervised by Mr. Greatheart. Bunyan’s allegory, in both the events and the abstractly named characters, is a dramatic projection of his central religious conviction: that humankind is saved by God’s mercy and not by mortal deeds and mortal obedience to the ancient laws of Moses and current civil law. Obedience to God is still crucial for retaining salvation. Symbolic narrow gates and overhanging mountains and dusty rooms all quickly reveal themselves as some aspect of Bunyan’s brooding upon the meaning of the Holy Scriptures, and there is no character, from Mr. Worldly Wiseman to the Interpreter, who does not also suggest some aspect of the eternal drama of sin, repentance, grace, and (sometimes) backsliding and eternal damnation.
Criticism of Bunyan naturally points to his highly representative qualities; many aspects of seventeenth century life are elucidated by a reading of his works. His books show, further, that he is master of one book, the Bible; particularly in The Pilgrim’s Progress, he fuses into a successful unity the language and landscape of the Scriptures and the scenes, the landscapes, and the humble diction of his own native English countryside. If the book is less fascinating now than it once was, modern readers should remember that they have lost the habit of allegorical thinking; it is a habit that Bunyan found in the Scriptures and one, moreover, which had been normal in the Middle Ages. With Bunyan, what counts is not the surface reality, but Truth, both spiritual and eternal.