John Bunyan (Nov. 30, 1628–Aug. 31, 1688), was one of the most famous of the Puritan writers and preachers. He is best known for his book The Pilgrim’s Progress, which he wrote while in prison for the crime of preaching the Gospel without a license. This Christian allegory is, next to the Bible, one of the most printed books in the English language. This universal story that has touched millions is actually rather autobiographical, as we shall see.
John Bunyan grew up in somewhat poor conditions. He was born in Elstow, near Bedford, and even in his early years, he experienced visions and dreams that seemed to have come from God. In fact, given what in his autobiography Bunyan says about this time, it is clear that his spiritual life was already of an intense nature. He had very little schooling, and like many young men, he followed his father in the trade of a tinker, that is, an itinerant tinsmith who fixed pots and pans. Bunyan later served in the parliamentary army from 1644 to 1647 in the midst of the English Civil War. He married in 1649, and while we do not know his wife’s name, she was apparently a strong influence on Bunyan’s reading. After she died in 1655 he moved to Bedford, where in 1659 he married again.
In his autobiography, Grace Abounding, Bunyan speaks about the years after his second marriage and his experiences with struggling spiritually. He looked upon himself increasingly as a sinner, fearful of God; he wrote of his experiences, much as Christian does in The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Before moving to Bedford, Bunyan joined St. John’s Church and became much involved in the spiritual life there. He eventually became a deacon, and although he remained a tinker, his interest in preaching was taking over his life. He spoke with great fervor, and this got him into trouble, as a preacher was required to have a license. Bunyan’s personality was not reserved, and even though he was indicted for preaching without a license, no penalty was ever levied on him at this point. Bunyan’s writings began to be published in the late 1650s, and for the next thirty years he wrote prolifically. Many of his writings were taken from his extemporaneous sermons. These only increased his popularity as a preacher.
Most of the area authorities tolerated his incessant preaching. However, one day in 1660, a constable arrested him right in the middle of a sermon. Although there was really nothing to charge him with, the judge found an obscure law and used it as an excuse to put him in jail for preaching instead of “going to church.” His original sentence of three months was never fully authorized, and instead, Bunyan spent the next twelve years in jail! Many writings poured from his pen during this time, including his autobiography, Grace Abounding, as well as the beginnings of The Pilgrim’s Progress. In reality, Bunyan was not in jail for that entire time; he was allowed to go out and preach occasionally!
After Bunyan’s release in 1672, he became pastor of the church in Bedford and spent some years in prosperous circumstances. However, by 1675, the government had become less tolerant of preachers without licenses, and Bunyan was arrested again and put in jail for six months. It is likely that he finished The Pilgrim’s Progress at this time; in 1678 it was published.
After the publication of The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan became well known all over England. He then wrote several other allegories, including The Life and Death of Mr. Badman and The Holy War. During the last years of Bunyan’s life he exerted great influence as a much-in-demand speaker all across England. In theology he was a Puritan, and while he was not a scholar—except of the English Bible—, it was said that his preaching electrified his listeners with its fire and fervor. He also drew much influence from Martin Luther’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, which was said to be kept on the table next to his bed.
On a trip to London to help reconcile a father and a son, Bunyan caught a severe cold and died at Snow Hill on August 31, 1688. His grave lies in the cemetery at Bunhill Fields in London.