[John Bunyan] was born in the village of Elstow, near Bedford, in 1628. His father was a poor tinker; but he managed to place his son at the village school, where he learned to read and write. When quite young, he was thrown among the vulgar and profane, and soon, as he himself informs us in his Grace Abounding, became the ringleader in all manner of lying, vice, and ungodliness. Yet, at the early age of ten or twelve years, an inward monitor warned him of the consequences of sin: "I was often much cast down and afflicted; yea, I was often then so overcome with despair of life and heaven, that I should often wish either that there had been no hell, or that I had been a devil, supposing that they were only tormentors; that if it must needs be that I went thither, I might be rather a tormentor than tormented myself." Here we see the germ of that powerful imagination, excited by the first workings of conscience, which Bunyan subsequently personified by the man with a heavy burden on his back, crying, "What shall I do?" As he became older, his conscience hardened, and he found more peace. The desire of heaven and fear of hell left him; he mingled in wicked company; he was wild, boisterous, reckless. Yet it would be unfair to consider his subsequent denunciations of his life at this early period as proof that he was indeed the worst youth in his neighbourhood, or of his age. In proportion as Bunyan became humbled by the grace of God, he magnified his early crimes; and he must be ignorant of true Christian feeling while under conviction for sin, to suppose that Bunyan's confessions in the Grace Abounding are to be taken literally as a comparison of himself with others. He was no drunkard, nor did his worst acts at that time bring him under cognisance of the magistrate.
When seventeen, Bunyan entered the parliamentary army. When he was about marching to the siege of Leicester, one of the company volunteered to go in his stead. Bunyan consented. The man was shot as he stood sentinel; and long after, Banyan delighted to dwell upon this interposition of Providence in his behalf. Soon after he left the army; and at the early age of nineteen, he married. The financial condition of the tinker at this time may be inferred from his assertion, that they had not a dish or a spoon between them. Yet the marriage was undoubtedly a blessing. His wife's dowry was two religious books; these Bunyan sometimes read to her, and the impression upon his feelings was favourable. He became regular in his attendance at church, and learned to adore the "high place, priest, clerk, and vestment;" but he did not abandon the practice of swearing, until reproved by a woman, herself bad, who protested that his oaths, which made her tremble, were capable of spoiling all the youth in the town. Bunyan was put to shame, and swore no more. About the same time, he was influenced by a poor, but pious man, to read the Bible, the result of which was an outward conversion, which astonished all who knew him. It was only outward. "I thought," he says, "no man in England could serve God better than I."
From this self-righteous delusion, Bunyan was awakened by overhearing a conversation, on the power of real religion, among some poor women, who belonged to a Baptist denomination at Bedford. He also formed acquaintance with John Gifford, whose conversation was "sweet and pleasant to him." He now became alarmed as to his condition; he earnestly besought God for a new heart; he read the Bible with "new eyes;" and at last he was led to abandon his outward religion and cast himself upon the mercy of God. But he had long and terrible conflicts to pass through. For more than a year, he was "tossed between the devil and his own ignorance," harassed with doubts about Scripture, conjectures concerning practical religion, and horrible phantoms of his imagination. An interview with the village pastor brought no relief; and for a long period Bunyan was subject to those fearful temptations, which made him believe that he saw both worlds revealed before him—one of which, the beautiful one, he was never to enjoy, while to the other he was rushing headlong. Just as he was beginning to emerge from this condition, an old translation of Luther's Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians fell into his hands. In this he found his religious experience so "largely and profoundly handled." that it seemed as though the book had been "written out of his own heart." He ever prized it next to the Bible, and for a while his spirit received consolation. Then came a dark and terrible temptation. During a whole year, he was haunted with a desire to sell Christ—"to exchange him for the things of this life—for any thing." It haunted him day and night; it was whispered to him, as he walked through the streets, or sat at table; he trembled and wrestled, and cried out under it, as his own Christian did, during the conflict with Apollyon. Bunyan attributes this temptation to the immediate agency of the devil, and describes the assaults to which he was exposed from the enemy of souls, with a vividness of language which sometimes causes the reader to shudder. This state of mind led him to search the Scriptures with more diligence, to "see more into the nature of the promises." But so violent had been the struggle, that, on escaping from it, his health was impaired, and he began to exhibit symptoms bordering on consumption. But peace was gradually restored to his mind; and with it health returned.
In 1653, Bunyan became a member of the Baptist church in Bedford. He had already attracted attention; so that on joining the congregation, he was employed occasionally in exhorting or teaching, and in a short time was appointed itinerant preacher. In 1657, he was indicted for preaching at Eaton; but the proceedings against him appear to have been arrested. The character of Bunyan's preaching, we may gather from his own words: "It pleased me much, to contend with great earnestness for the word of faith, and the remission of sins by the death and sufferings of Jesus; but as to other things, I would let them alone, because I saw they engendered strife." How admirably, in these words, is foreshadowed the spirit which pervades the Pilgrim's Progress. His Christian meekness could not screen him, however, from persecution. In that age of bigotry and of wickedness, John Bunyan was regarded as a witch, a Jesuit, a highwayman, a libertine. In 1660, a warrant was issued against him, and after being brought before a justice in Bedfordshire, he was offered a discharge on condition of leaving off preaching. On refusing, he was committed to jail. Seven weeks after, he was brought before judges for examination; accused of neglecting the true church, and being possessed with the devil; and, without either trial or verdict from jury, sentenced to three months' imprisonment, "and at the three months' end," said the judge, "if you do not submit to go to church to hear divine service, and leave your preaching, you must be banished the realm; and if you be found to come over again, without special license from the king, you must be stretched by the neck for it, I tell you plainly." Bunyan answered, that if he were out of prison to-day, he would preach the gospel again to-morrow, by the help of God. On the king's coronation, in 1661, a general pardon was proclaimed; but in this Bunyan was not included. His wife made efforts to obtain his release before Judges Hale, Twisden, and others; but though the former was disposed to clemency, he was overruled by his hardened associates, and Bunyan remained in jail. The jailer was, however, a compassionate man, and allowed his prisoner to depart occasionally through the day, on promise of returning at night. These opportunities he employed in preaching ; but of this his persecutors soon obtained information, and the jailer was notified to keep him close, or to leave his situation. It is believed that he remained a close prisoner from 1661 to 1668. During this time, he laboured at making little articles for the support of his family. By the Act of Indulgence to Dissenters, he was liberated for a short time; but again incurring the persecution of the hierarchy, he was remanded to prison, where he remained until 1672. It was during this long period of confinement, that he wrote some of his most celebrated works—"Of Prayer by the Spirit," "The Holy City's Resurrection," "Grace Abounding," "A Defence of the Doctrine of Justification,"—and one other, "The Pilgrim's Progress, Part I."
Of this great work—one which has no superior, and few equals in our language—so much is known by every class of readers, that it were superfluous to describe or analyze it. It is dated from prison, November 21, 1671, but the date of the first edition is unknown. The second edition was issued in 1678, after which one edition after another was rapidly called for. At the same time counterfeit ones appeared, and imitations, purporting to be continuations. It was probably from these, that Bunyan received the idea of writing his second part, which appeared in 1684. Long before this, Bunyan had obtained his release, and entered upon the enjoyment of that long season of almost uninterrupted happiness with which his latter days were blessed. In 1672, his congregation observed a day of thanksgiving on account of his release. Shortly after, the voluntary contributions of his friends enabled him to build a meeting-house. Here he preached to large congregations with but little interruption. Scholars from college and conceited churchmen often came to argue with him, supposing that he was but an ignorant rustic; but they generally went away with far different opinions. In London, his reputation was so great, that, says one, "if but a day's notice were given, the meeting-house in Southwark, where he generally preached, would not hold half the people that attended. Three thousand persons have been gathered together for the purpose, in a remote part of the town; and no fewer than twelve hundred on a dark winter's morning, at seven o'clock, even on week days." The Baptist congregation at Hitchin, in Hertfordshire, is supposed to have been founded by him. In a wood, near Preston, he frequently preached to a thousand people; and five miles from Hitchin was a malt-house, in which he sometimes addressed large congregations, and whose pulpit was carefully removed as an honoured relic, when, in 1787, the meeting was transferred to Coleman's Green. So eager was he to dispense the word of life, that it is affirmed, on good authority, he sometimes passed at midnight through the town of Reading, disguised as a carter, with whip in hand, until he arrived at the secret meetings of his friends. The house in which the Baptists met for worship stood in a lane; a bridge was thrown from the back door across a branch of the Kennett, by which, in case of alarm, they might escape. It was while visiting this place, that Bunyan contracted the disease which terminated his life. A young man, having incurred his father's displeasure, was threatened with loss of his inheritance. He implored Bunyan to act as his mediator. Bunyan complied, and was successful; but his kindness to another proved fatal to himself. While returning to London on horseback, he was overtaken with heavy rains, which brought on cold, and a fever. The violence of the attack baffled his physician's skill; and ten days after, August 12, 1688, he died at the house of Mr. Stradwick, a grocer on Snowhill. He was buried at Bunhill Fields, where a tomb has since been erected to his memory.
Bunyan is described as being in "countenance of a stern and rough temper," but in his conversation mild and affable, "not given to loquacity or much discourse in company, unless some urgent occasion required it; observing never to boast of himself or his parts, but rather to seem low in his own eyes, and submit himself to the judgment of others, loving to reconcile differences and make friendship with all. He had a sharp, quick eye, accompanied with an excellent discerning of persons, being of good judgment and quick wit. As for his person, he was tall of stature, strong boned, though not corpulent; somewhat of a ruddy face, with sparkling eyes; wearing his hair on his upper lip, after the old British fashion; his hair reddish, but, in his latter days, time had sprinkled it with gray; his nose well set, but not declining or bending, and his mouth moderately large; his forehead somewhat high; and his habit always plain and modest." Bunyan married twice, and had many children, only four of whom survived him. His works are numerous, and as an instructor of the people he deserves to rank among the most powerful writers of his age. Perhaps, his most important work, next to the Pilgrim's Progress and Grace Abounding, is The Holy War, an allegory in which he describes the conflict between God and Satan for the town of Mansoul. His great allegory has been translated into nearly all the languages of Europe, and of countries much frequented by Europeans, and is adopted as a standard church-book by the various denominations of Protestants, as well as by Roman Catholics. It is in an especial degree the book of the common people; and, with the Bible, and a volume of Hymns or the Prayer Book, forms a fountain of pure English, for which it were vain to look elsewhere in the same number of pages.
From Cyclopedia of Eminent Christians... by John Frost. New York: World Publishing House, 1875.
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