Authors: John Bunyan

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist, poet, and religious philosopher

November 30, 1628 (baptized)

Elstow, Bedfordshire, England

August 31, 1688

London, England


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. {$I[AN]9810001489} {$I[A]Bunyan, John} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Bunyan, John} {$I[geo]CHRISTIAN;Bunyan, John} {$I[tim]1628;Bunyan, John}

John Bunyan

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Long Fiction: Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, 1666 The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, Part I, 1678 The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, 1680 The Holy War, 1682 The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, the Second Part, 1684 The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come: The Third Part, 1693 Poetry: A Caution to Stir Up to Watch against Sin, 1664 A Book for Boys and Girls: Or, Country Rhymes for Children, 1686 Discourse of the Building, Nature, Excellency, and Government of the House of God, 1688 Nonfiction: Some Gospel Truths Opened, 1656 A Vindication . . . of Some Gospel Truths Opened, 1657 A Few Signs from Hell, 1658 The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded, 1659 Profitable Meditations Fitted to Man’s Different Condition, 1661 I Will Pray with the Spirit, 1663 Christian Behaviour; or, The Fruits of True Christianity, 1663 A Mapp Shewing the Order and Causes of Salvation and Damnation, 1664 One Thing Is Needful, 1665 The Holy City: Or, The New Jerusalem, 1665 Prison Meditations Directed to the Hearts of Suffering Saints and Reigning Sinners, 1665 The Resurrection of the Dead, and Eternall Judgement, 1665 A True and Impartial Narrative of Some Illegal and Arbitrary Proceedings, 1670 A Confession of My Faith and a Reason for My Practice, 1671 A New and Useful Concordance to the Holy Bible, 1672 A Defence of the Doctrine of Justification by Faith, 1672 Differences in Judgment about Water-Baptism, No Bar to Communion, 1673 Reprobation Asserted, 1674 A Few Sighs from Hell, Light for Them That Sit in the Darkness, 1675 The Strait Gate: Or, The Great Difficulty of Going to Heaven, 1676 Saved by Grace, 1676 Come and Welcome, to Jesus Christ, 1678 A Treatise of the Fear of God, 1679 A Case of Conscience Resolved, 1683 The Greatness of the Soul, and Unspeakableness of the Loss Thereof, 1683 A Holy Life, the Beauty of Christianity, 1684 Seasonable Counsel; or, Advice to Sufferers, 1684 Questions about the Nature and Perpetuity of the Seventh-Day Sabbath, 1685 Solomon’s Temple Spiritualized: Or, Gospel Light Fecht Out of the Temple at Jerusalem, 1688 The Jerusalem Sinner Saved, 1688 The Advocateship of Jesus Christ, 1688 The Barren Fig Tree, 1688 Good News for the Vilest of Men; or, A Help for Despairing Souls, 1688 The Water of Life, 1688 The Work of Jesus Christ, as an Advocate, 1688 The Acceptable Sacrifice; or, The Excellency of a Broken Heart , 1689 An Account of the Life and Actions of Mr. John Bunyan . . . from His Cradle to His Grave, etc., 1692 The Works of That Eminent Servant of Christ, Mr. John Bunyan, 1692 The Heavenly Footman, 1698 The Visions of John Bunyan, pb. date not identified Bibliography Batson, E. Beatrice. John Bunyan’s “Grace Abounding” and “The Pilgrim’s Progress”: An Overview of Literary Studies: 1960-1987. New York: Garland, 1988. Offers criticism and interpretation. Brown, John. John Bunyan, 1628-1688: His Life, Times, and Work. 3d. ed. Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf & Stock, 2007. This is the third edition of what is generally considered the definitive biography of Bunyan. Devotes two chapters to The Pilgrim’s Progress, including an assessment of its literary reputation. Contains several appendixes, including one listing editions, versions, illustrations, and imitations of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Collmer, Robert G., ed. Bunyan in Our Time. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1989. Collection of distinguished literary criticism and appraisals of Bunyan includes essays on his use of language, satire and its biblical sources, and The Pilgrim’s Progress as allegory. Of particular interest are the essays on Marxist perspectives on Bunyan and a comparison between Bunyan’s quest and C. S. Lewis’s quest in The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933). Davies, Michael. Graceful Reading: Theology and Narrative in the Works of John Bunyan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Interprets The Pilgrim’s Progress, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, and other works, assessing their narrative style within the context of postmodernism and Bunyan’s theology within the context of seventeenth century Calvinism. Harrison, G. B. John Bunyan: A Study in Personality. 1928. Reprint. New York: Archon Books, 1967. Short study examines the mind and personality of Bunyan as shown in his writings. Discusses his conversion, his imprisonment, and his roles as pastor and writer. The close analysis of minor works makes this an important critical source. Hill, Christopher. A Turbulent, Seditious, and Factious People: John Bunyan and His Church, 1628-1688. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Combination biography and social history places Bunyan within the context of revolutionary England and argues that even his religious and allegorical writings must be interpreted as reflections of seventeenth century political, social, and economic issues. Kelman, John. The Road: A Study of John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” 2 vols. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1912. Intended as commentary or textbook, to be read point by point with The Pilgrim’s Progress. Takes an evangelical approach to Bunyan and is filled with praise for his work. Gives close analysis of the text from a strongly Christian point of view. Mullett, Michael. John Bunyan in Context. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1997. Evaluation of Bunyan’s career contradicts previous biographies in depicting Bunyan as being less revolutionary and more opportunistic. Separate chapters analyze each of his major works. Includes bibliographical references and index. Newey, Vincent. “The Pilgrim’s Progress”: Critical and Historical Views. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 1980. Brings together critical essays on The Pilgrim’s Progress to provide fresh, detailed, and varied approaches to this work. Discusses the tension between allegory and naturalism and Bunyan’s handling of the language and values of the people. Indispensable to the serious scholar of this work. Sadler, Lynn Veach. John Bunyan. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Provides a useful introduction for beginning readers of Bunyan. Discusses his life, his religious milieu, and his works. Places Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners in the genre of “spiritual autobiography.” Most of the literary criticism focuses on The Pilgrim’s Progress, but The Life and Death of Mr. Badman and The Holy War are discussed as well. Includes a selected bibliography. Spargo, Tamsin. The Writing of John Bunyan. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1997. Engages in a detailed exploration of how Bunyan established his authority as an author. Includes notes and detailed bibliography. Recommended for advanced students and scholars.

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