John Bunyan (30 November 1628 – 31 August 1688) was an English writer and Baptist preacher best remembered as the author of the religious allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. In addition to The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan wrote nearly sixty titles, many of them expanded sermons.
Bunyan came from the village of Elstow, near Bedford. He had some schooling and at the age of sixteen joined the Parliamentary army during the first stage of the English Civil War. After three years in the army he returned to Elstow and took up the trade of tinker, which he had learned from his father.
He became interested in religion after his marriage, attending first the parish church and then joining the Bedford Meeting, a nonconformist group in Bedford, and becoming a preacher.
After the restoration of the monarch, when the freedom of nonconformists was curtailed, Bunyan was arrested and spent the next twelve years in jail as he refused to undertake to give up preaching.
During this time he wrote a spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, and began work on his most famous book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which was not published until some years after his release.
Bunyan’s later years, in spite of another shorter term of imprisonment, were spent in relative comfort as a popular author and preacher, and pastor of the Bedford Meeting. He died aged 59 after falling ill on a journey to London and is buried in Bunhill Fields. The Pilgrim’s Progress became one of the most published books in the English language; 1,300 editions having been printed by 1938, 250 years after the author’s death.
He is remembered in the Church of England with a Lesser Festival on 30 August, and on the liturgical calendar of the United States Episcopal Church on 29 August. Some other churches of the Anglican Communion, such as the Anglican Church of Australia, honour him on the day of his death (31 August).
John Bunyan was born in 1628 to Thomas and Margaret Bunyan at Bunyan’s End in the parish of Elstow, Bedfordshire. Bunyan’s End is located about half-way between the hamlet of Harrowden (one mile south-east of Bedford) and Elstow High Street. Bunyan’s date of birth is not known, but he was baptised on 30 November 1628, the baptismal entry in the parish register reading “John the sonne of Thomas Bunnion Jun., the 30 November”.
The name Bunyan was spelt in many different ways (there are 34 variants in Bedfordshire Record Office) and had its origins in the Norman-French name Buignon. There had been Bunyans in north Bedfordshire since at least 1199.
Bunyan’s father was a brazier or tinker who travelled around the area mending pots and pans, and his grandfather had been a chapman or small trader.
The Bunyans also owned land in Elstow, so Bunyan’s origins were not quite as humble as he suggested in his autobiographical work Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners when he wrote that his father’s house was “of that rank that is meanest and most despised in the country”.
As a child Bunyan learnt his father’s trade of tinker and was given some rudimentary schooling. In Grace Abounding Bunyan recorded few details of his upbringing, but he did note how he picked up the habit of swearing (from his father), suffered from nightmares, and read the popular stories of the day in cheap chap-books. In the summer of 1644 Bunyan lost both his mother and his sister Margaret.
That autumn, shortly before or after his sixteenth birthday, Bunyan enlisted in the Parliamentary army when an edict demanded 225 recruits from the town of Bedford. There are few details available about his military service, which took place during the first stage of the English Civil War.
A muster roll for the garrison of Newport Pagnell shows him as private “John Bunnian”. In Grace Abounding, he recounted an incident from this time, as evidence of the grace of God:
“When I was a Souldier I, with others were drawn out to go to such a place to besiege it; But when I was just ready to go, one of the company desired to go in my room, to which, when I had consented, he took my place; and coming to the siege, as he stood Sentinel, he was shot into the head with a Musket bullet and died.”
Bunyan’s army service provided him with a knowledge of military language which he then used in his book The Holy War, and also exposed him to the ideas of the various religious sects and radical groups he came across in Newport Pagnell.
The garrison town also gave him opportunities to indulge in the sort of behaviour he would later confess to in Grace Abounding: “So that until I came to the state of Marriage, I was the very ringleader of all the Youth that kept me company, in all manner of vice and ungodliness”.
Bunyan spent nearly three years in the army, leaving in 1647 to return to Elstow and his trade as a tinker. His father had remarried and had more children and Bunyan moved from Bunyan’s End to a cottage in Elstow High Street.
Within two years of leaving the army, Bunyan married. The name of his wife and the exact date of his marriage are not known, but Bunyan did recall that his wife, a pious young woman, brought with her into the marriage two books that she had inherited from her father: Arthur Dent’s Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and Lewis Bayly’s Practice of Piety.
He also recalled that, apart from these two books, the newly-weds possessed little: “not having so much household-stuff as a Dish or a Spoon betwixt us both”.
The couple’s first daughter, Mary, was born in 1650, and it soon became apparent that she was blind. They would have three more children, Elizabeth, Thomas and John.
By his own account, Bunyan had as a youth enjoyed bell-ringing, dancing and playing games including on Sunday, the Sabbath, which was forbidden by the Puritan regime. One Sunday the vicar of Elstow preached a sermon against Sabbath breaking, and Bunyan took this sermon to heart.
That afternoon, as he was playing tip-cat (a game in which a small piece of wood is hit with a bat) on Elstow village green, he heard a voice from the heavens “Wilt thou leave thy sins, and go to Heaven? Or have thy sins, and go to Hell?” The next few years were a time of intense spiritual conflict for Bunyan as he struggled with his doubts and fears over religion and guilt over what he saw as his state of sin.
During this time Bunyan, whilst on his travels as a tinker, happened to be in Bedford and pass a group of women who were talking about spiritual matters on their doorstep.
The women were in fact some of the founding members of the Bedford Free Church or Meeting and Bunyan, who had been attending the parish church of Elstow, was so impressed by their talk that he joined their church. At that time the nonconformist group was meeting in St John’s church in Bedford under the leadership of former Royalist army officer John Gifford.
At the instigation of other members of the congregation Bunyan began to preach, both in the church and to groups of people in the surrounding countryside. In 1656, having by this time moved his family to St Cuthbert’s Street in Bedford, he published his first book, Gospel Truths Opened, which was inspired by a dispute with Quakers.
In 1658 Bunyan’s wife died, leaving him with four small children, one of them blind. A year later he married an eighteen-year-old woman called Elizabeth.
In 1862 a recumbent statue was created to adorn Bunyan’s grave, and restored in 1922.
In 1874, a bronze statue of John Bunyan, sculpted by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, was erected in Bedford. This stands at the south-western corner of St Peter’s Green, facing down Bedford’s High Street.
The site was chosen by Boehm for its significance as a crossroads. Bunyan is depicted expounding the Bible, to an invisible congregation, with a broken fetter representing his imprisonment by his left foot.
There are three scenes from “The Pilgrim’s Progress” on the stone plinth: Christian at the wicket gate; his fight with Apollyon; and losing his burden at the foot of the cross of Jesus. The statue was unveiled by Lady Augusta Stanley, wife of the Dean of Westminster, on Wednesday 10 June 1874.
In 1876 the Duke of Bedford gave bronze doors by Frederick Thrupp depicting scenes from The Pilgrim’s Progress to the Bunyan Meeting (the former Bedford Meeting which had been renamed in Bunyan’s honour).
There is another statue of him in Kingsway, London, and there are memorial windows in Westminster Abbey, Southwark Cathedral and various churches, including Elstow Abbey (the parish church of Elstow) and the Bunyan Meeting Free Church in Bedford.
Bunyan is remembered in the Church of England with a Lesser Festival on 30 August, and on the liturgical calendar of the United States Episcopal Church on 29 August. Some other churches of the Anglican Communion, such as the Anglican Church of Australia, honour him on the day of his death (31 August).