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John Bunyan, 1628-1688.

by Norman Mable

John BunyanWho would true valour see.

John Bunyan was born at Elstow, Bedfordshire, in 1628. People of his name can be traced in that county back to the 12th century, but it is quite possible he belonged to a caste of itinerant gypsies.

His education was of the most meagre, little more than reading and writing being taught to the children of his class in those days.

According to his own account, Bunyan was an idle boy, and notoriously ungodly, particularly addicted to swearing, lying and blasphemy. During his early years he was terrified of evil agencies, and constantly fearful of malevolent spirits; but these apprehensions quite disappeared as he approached manhood and came under the influence of the Holy Spirit, when courage and confidence became characteristic of the rest of his life.

For awhile, after leaving school, he followed his father's occupation of a tinker, except for a short period during the Civil War, when he became a soldier. He was present at the siege of Leicester, and it may have been that this experience, with its close proximity to death, awakened in him considerations of his personal state; for, returning to Elstow, his thoughts were much occupied by his spiritual condition.

Shortly afterwards, when he was nineteen, he married a girl, a thoughtful wench, whose sole contribution to the home consisted of two religious books, given her by her father: 'The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven', written by Arthur Dent, a minister in Essex, and 'The Practice of Piety', by Lewis Bayly, Bishop of Bangor. These books she read to her husband, and although he was not yet convicted of sin, they aroused in him a longing for a better life. Later, a sermon on Sabbath breaking and a talk with a poor, but Christian man, still further affected him, and he commenced to read the Bible.

One day, as he worked at his trade, he overheard a conversation about the blessings of religion between some pious women sitting at their cottage doors close by. This gave him still more food for thought, with the result that he determined to leave his evil companions and associate only with those of good reputation.

After many trials and errors, and much mental conflict, Bunyan was finally led to accept Christ as his Saviour; and from that time made it the purpose of his life to convey to others the glad tidings of salvation.

He came under the influence of John Gifford—known as 'holy John Gifford'—pastor of the Congregational community at Bedford, and joined his Church in 1653. Although, as Dr. John Brown says in his biography of Bunyan, 'In his work entitled "Differences in Judgment about Water Baptism no bar to Communion", he rather implies than plainly states that he is a Baptist'. In a further work called 'The Heavenly Footman', published posthumously, Bunyan warns his readers, inter alia not to have too much company with some Anabaptists, 'though I go under that name myself.'

He became a regular preacher at Bedford and in the neighbouring villages, his graphic discourses having a powerful effect upon his hearers.

In the same year his wife died, leaving him with four little children, one blind. He, however, married a second time, with results as happy as those of his first marriage.

For five years he preached unmolested, but soon after the Restoration the ecclesiastical authorities began to worry him; and in 1660 he was convicted as 'a common upholder of several unlawful meetings and conventicles' and was committed to Bedford Gaol. There for twelve years he remained a prisoner, with but a brief interval of a few weeks. But not even this confinement could prevent him from preaching, for he regularly ministered to the prisoners in the gaol.

John Bunyan wrote a number of books, the first when he was only twenty-two, called 'Sighs from Hell', a record of spiritual struggle. During his imprisonment he continued his writing and produced four books: 'The Holy City, or the New Jerusalem* (1665); 'Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners', an autobiographical and devotional narrative (1666); 'Justification of Jesus Christ' (1671); and 'Defence of the Doctrines of Justification' (1672).

While in prison Bunyan was able partially to support his family by making long-tagged thread laces, the art of which he was taught during his incarceration.

His devoted wife was persistent in her strenuous efforts to secure his release, but without success; and she and the blind child had to wait a long while before they were all once again united.

In 1671, the year before his release, Bunyan was appointed pastor of the Church at Bedford. Here he became extremely popular and ministered for over sixteen years except for a break in 1675, when he spent another six months in prison under the Conventicle Act.

It was during this second imprisonment that the first part of 'Pilgrim's Progress' was written. This part was published in 1678, the second part not appearing until 1685. The work immediately achieved popularity; and has become famous the world over, having been translated into no less than one hundred and twenty languages and dialects.

Dr. Arnold of Rugby, writing to Mr. Justice Coleridge in 1836, said 'l have left off reading our divines, but if I could find a great man among them I would read him thankfully and earnestly. As it is, I hold John Bunyan to have been a man of incomparatively greater genius than any of them, and to have given a far truer and more edifying picture of Christianity. His "Pilgrim's Progress" seems to be a complete reflection of Scripture.'

Bunyan wrote no hymns as such, although many odd verses are scattered throughout some of his works. But the three stanzas comprising Who would true valour see have been used in public worship, and, especially during recent years, this quaint hymn has become exceedingly popular. It appears in the second part of 'Pilgrim's Progress' as the song of Valiant after his talk with Greatheart.

Bunyan died in 1688 at the house of Mr. Strudwick, a grocer, at the sign of the 'Star' on Snow Hill, London, and was buried in Bunhill Fields.

From Popular Hymns and Their Writers by Norman Mable. 2nd ed. London: Independent Press, Ltd., 1951.

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