John Bunyan (1628–1688)
Bunyan is often remembered as a larger-than-life literary figure who wrote the first English novel Pilgrim’s Progress. Much has been recently written on his allegorical works that have garnered the interest of scholars researching literature, history, and socio-political factors of seventeenth-century England. Yet, Bunyan saw himself as a largely uneducated and poor man who was called to minister to other ordinary folk and help them truly live out the basics of the Christian life in their daily lives by loving God and their neighbours.
Bunyan received a rudimentary education as a child, followed in his father’s trade as a brazier (or tinker), and was surrounded by other poor countrymen with upperclassmen looking down on them. As a young boy, he felt like stuck in sin, often swearing and engaging in other rebellious behaviour. As a young man he joined Cromwell’s New Model Army, and near-death experiences forced him to mature. Then, after reading two contemporary devotional manuals that belonged to his godly first wife, Bunyan’s conviction of sin began to weigh heavier and heavier on him, but he still felt unable to repent. It would take the care of several ordinary women to help him overcome this spiritual roadblock.When he overheard these women talking lovingly about the Lord, he joined their conversation. They then introduced him to their pastor in Bedford, John Gifford, who would help Bunyan repent and put his faith in Christ. Soon, Bunyan became a member and then a deacon, and after Gifford’s death, the church appointed Bunyan as a preacher both in their congregation and itinerantly. Masses of people travelled to hear his sermons, from unknown laypeople, to famous theologians and powerful governors. Upon being flagged as a popular dissenter, the authorities took special interest in him and soon imprisoned him for preaching without a licence from 1661 to 1672 and 1676 to 1677. Though he was not tortured, the conditions in jail were horrible and he was forced to generate an income with a limited amount of freedom, choosing to make and sell shoelaces to passersby. However, the worst part was being separated from his second wife and children. He describes,
The parting with my Wife and poor Children hath oft been to me in this place as the pulling the flesh from my bones; and that not onely because I am somewhat too fond of these great mercies, but also because I should have often brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries and wants that my poor family was like to meet with, should I be taken from them, especially my poor blind Child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides; O the thoughts of the hardship I thought my blind one might go under, would break my heart to pieces.
While cut off from his beloved family as well as his congregation, Bunyan attempted to minister to them through books, thus channelling his grief into the productive act of writing. In fact, some have suggested that Bunyan’s imprisonment brought out his natural literary impulse. After his release, he continued to devote his life to ministering to those around him, literally until his last breath in 1688. After riding to the town of Reading to reconcile an estranged father and son, Bunyan had to endure harsh weather in order to get to his lodging before preaching the next morning. Though Bunyan had succeeded in convincing the father to forgive his son, as well as delivering his sermon, he became sick and died surrounded by friends. In the conclusion to what would be his final sermon he preached,
“Doest thou see a Soul that has the Image of God in him? Love him, love him . . . serve one another, do good for one another; and if any wrong you, Pray to God to right you, and Love the Brotherhood.”
Known today as a brilliant (and perhaps quirky) author, Bunyan’s true genius was his singular devotion to serving God through loving his family and congregants, no matter where he was in his pilgrimage.
John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (ed. Roger Sharrock; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), 98.
John Bunyan, The Miscellaneous Works of John Bunyan, eds. Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976–1994), 12:93.
Where to Begin
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (the authoritative edition of Bunyan’s famous allegory of the Christian life)
Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan (Bunyan’s famous spiritual autobiography)
“The Pilgrim’s Principles: John Bunyan Revisited” by J. I. Packer in Pilgrims, Warriors, and Servants: Puritan Wisdom for Today’s Church (a down-to-earth guide to Bunyan, useful for readers who are struggling with primary sources)
The Oxford Handbook of John Bunyan edited by Michael Davies and W. R. Owens (the newest scholarly treatment of major topics and debates about Bunyan, probably available at most major university libraries and theological libraries)