John Bunyan's book The Pilgrim's Progress has achieved lasting fame and world wide recognition, being translated into over two hundred languages by the present day. The great popularity of his story of Christian's journey to the Celestial City has tended to over-shadow his other writings and his faithful work as a preacher of the gospel. A study of Bunyan's life however, reveals a gracious example of God's dealings in bringing him to faith in Christ, in upholding him through long years of imprisonment and in making a fruitful servant whose testimony has challenged, convicted, encouraged and comforted a continuing number of people down through the intervening years.
Although the exact date of Bunyan's birth is not known, he was baptised on 30 November 1628 at the parish church in Elstow, a small village of less than seventy houses about a mile south of Bedford. His family had lived in the area for several centuries and Bunyan's father was the local brazier or tinker, an occupation which was often scorned and derided. Bunyan's writings contain references to his lowly origins but little is known of his childhood or his education. Apart from expressing his gratitude that his parents kept him at school until he could read and write, and a brief reference to attending a "grammar school in my minority." Bunyan's only other statement about his education is short but illuminating—"I did soon lose the bit I learnt...long before the Lord did His gracious work of conversion upon my soul."
As was customary, Bunyan followed his father's trade and evidently his spare time was spent gambling, dancing, swearing and playing games, particularly on Sunday afternoons. His parents were presumably Anglicans, but Bunyan appears to have had little interest in religion or church attendance, except to listen to the bells being rung. Nevertheless, he lived in an area of England where Calvinist doctrines were spreading steadily at that time and Puritanism was established to a degree that produced increasing attacks from those who condoned the lax standards of morality in society.
Bunyan admitted that his behaviour did arouse feelings of guilt and shame, but he tried to conceal them in order that he could continue to enjoy his pleasures. Writing later in his life he confessed, "It was my delight to be taken captive by the Devil." (Grace Abounding, paragraph 4).
Times of Change.
In 1644, when Bunyan was aged sixteen, his life underwent dramatic changes. Firstly, his mother died in June, followed a month later by his sister, then his father remarried in September and in November John was recruited into Parliament's army. The Civil War between Crown and Parliament had broken out two years earlier and as each side strove to enlist men from the areas under its control, Bunyan found himself included in a force gathered from Bedfordshire to form a garrison at Newport Pagnell. The war ended with the defeat of King Charles I in 1645, but the Parliamentary army was kept intact to deal with any further royalist resistance and Bunyan was not released from his duties until July 1647. It appears that although he was not directly involved in the conflict, he had narrowly escaped from drowning in the sea on one occasion and on another a soldier who offered to take Bunyan's place at a siege was shot and killed. It was only after his conversion that Bunyan realised the providential nature of these events in his life, for despite the fact that all Parliamentary troops were issued with a Bible and a catechism and were expected to attend regularly the services led by Puritan preachers, he remained in his unregenerate condition when he returned home to Elstow. Soon afterwards Bunyan's circumstances changed yet again, since by 1649 he had married a girl who was to play an important part in leading him to Christ.
Times of Conviction.
Few details have survived concerning Bunyan's wife and even her full name is unknown, though it is assumed she was called Mary. She clearly came from a pious family because Bunyan recorded, "My mercy was to light upon a wife whose father was counted godly." He also stated that she inherited from her parents two books significantly entitled The Plain Mans Pathway to Heaven by Arthur Dent and The Practise of Piety by Lewis Bayly. Through his wife's influence and the reading of these books, Bunyan began to show an interest in religion—attending Elstow parish church and following the services with eager curiosity. Yet he had to admit it was a matter of "saying and singing anything within the church, and doing as he liked when he came out."
One Sunday morning the vicar, Christopher Hall, preached on "the evil of breaking the Sabbath either with labours, sports, or otherwise," and Bunyan "went home when the sermon ended with a great burden on my spirit." (Grace Abounding, paragraphs 18 & 20). However, by the time he had had a meal, he wrote later, "I shook the sermon out of my mind and to my old custom of sports and gaming I returned with great delight." Later that afternoon as he played Tipcat with his friends on the village green, he suddenly heard a voice from heaven say to him, "Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven or have thy sins and go to hell?" Bunyan was turned from amusement to amazement in an instant and leaving the game he stated, "I looked up to Heaven, and was as if I had, with the eyes of my understanding, seen the Lord Jesus looking down upon me." Saying nothing to his companions, Bunyan felt deep conviction of sin sweep over him but his first reaction was, "to take my fill of sin...that I might taste the sweetness of it." As a result the experience had no immediate effect on Bunyan's life and he admitted, "I knew not Jesus Christ, neither did I leave my sports and plays."
Struggle of a Soul.
Shortly afterwards Bunyan met a man whose knowledge of the Scriptures was clearly evident in his conversation and this impressed Bunyan so much that he too became an avid reader of the Bible. As the days passed, his friends noticed a great change taking place in his behaviour as he gave up gambling, swearing and dancing, and began to reform his ways. He befriended poor people and tried to keep the Commandments until he wrote, "I thought I pleased God as well as any man in England." His pride in his good works steadily increased but for all his self-righteousness, he still had no lasting peace of heart.
By this time Bunyan's wife had had their first child—a girl who was born blind and who was named Mary. Both parents were deeply moved with pity for the child's sad affliction and Bunyan resolved to make every effort to provide for her as best he could. He also had moments when his pride was shaken by a sense of dread and on one occasion as he stood in the church bell-tower watching the ringers pulling the ropes, he had an overwhelming fear that the steeple would fall upon him.
Bunyan had been in this condition for over a year when he recorded, "Upon a day, the good providence of God did cast me to Bedford, to work on my calling; and in one of the streets of that town, I came where there were three or four poor women sitting at a door in the sun, and talking about the things of God," (Grace Abounding, paragraph 37). Although he considered himself, "a brisk talker...in the matters of religion" by this time, the conversation of the women filled him with humility. They used words that he realised he could not utter about himself, as they spoke of the, "work of God in their hearts," of their, "own miserable state by nature," of the mercy of God in, "visiting their souls with His love in the Lord Jesus" of the, "new birth" they had experienced, and how they rested on God's promises to keep them safe when trials and temptations came to them. In his own words Bunyan's heart began to shake and he felt himself to be nothing more than, "a poor painted hypocrite."
From that day Bunyan often returned to Bedford to spend time in the company of the small group of Christians he had met. The grace of God began to draw him and he confessed, "I could not stay away." He also experienced a new hunger for God's Word so that he might know for himself the wonderful truths they spoke about. "The Bible was precious to me in these days" he confided, adding he was never out of it, "either by reading or meditation."
Yet the wiles of Satan were not finished with him. Bunyan's associates were quick to suggest all kinds of false teachings and heretical books for his attention; he was tempted to perform miracles to prove he was a Christian. Doubts assailed him daily—did God exist? Were the Scriptures true? Was Christ God and Man? Was it still a day of grace? Bunyan was driven to prayer continually for guidance and strength as the struggle raged within his soul. "O Lord consider my distress!" was his cry, and as he felt his longings for salvation, he prayed, "O Lord, call me also!"
It was then God gave him a promise, "I will cleanse their blood that I have not cleansed: for the Lord dwelleth in Zion," (Joel 3:21) and Bunyan knew of a certainty that the work of grace in his heart would one day be completed.
Out of Darkness.
The long period which John Bunyan spent under conviction of sin caused him at length to speak about his distressed state to the small group of Christians he had become acquainted with in Bedford. They recommended him to seek counselling by their minister, a man named John Gifford whose life had undergone a remarkable transformation a few years earlier. Gifford had been an officer in the king's army during the Civil War and had been captured and sentenced to death, but had escaped on the night before he was to be executed. He continued his profligate way of life until he was converted after reading a book entitled "The Four Best Things; Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven" by the Puritan writer Robert Bolton. He joined a small group of believers in Bedford and in 1650 eleven of them formed an Independent congregation and invited Gifford to be their pastor. Three years later he was appointed to St. John's Church in Bedford and it was shortly afterwards that he met Bunyan for the first time.
On hearing Bunyan's account of his burdened condition, Gifford wisely advised him to pray earnestly for the Holy Spirit to guide and enlighten him through reading and meditating upon the Scriptures. Bunyan recorded that he had begun "to see something of the vanity and inward wretchedness of my wicked heart," (Grace Abounding, paragraph 77) but he had not yet come to believe that only the blood of Christ can remove the guilt of sin.
In the weeks which followed, as Bunyan took Giffords advice, he found that familiar verses of Scripture began to have new meaning for him. His copy of Martin Luther's Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians was so well thumbed that it began falling apart, and Bunyan described it as "before all the books that ever I have seen, as most fit for a wounded conscience." Through verses such as, "And having made peace through the blood of His cross" (Col. 1:20) and "The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin." (1 John 1:7) Bunyan was led to faith in Christ as his Saviour. The truth of 1 Cor. 12:3, "no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost," glowed in his heart and he rejoiced in the promises of Scripture, "because I live, ye shall live also," (John 14:19) and "My grace is sufficient for thee," (2 Cor. 12:9). Bunyan at last knew the assurance of faith of which Paul wrote in Romans 8:31-39, and he was baptised in the River Ouse by Gifford soon afterwards.
Serving the Saviour.
Bunyan became the twenty sixth member of Gifford's congregation and within two years he was appointed a deacon. About this time he moved from Elstow to Bedford where he and his wife had two further children—both boys, before she died. Bunyan was by nature fearful of speaking in public and therefore when he was invited to preach to a small meeting in Bedford, he accepted reluctantly at first. He sought to take services only in isolated villages where he was not known, but before long he was convicted by the exhortations of Scripture that any gift which God grants through the Holy Spirit must be used for His glory and not hidden under a bushel (Matt 5:15).
When pastor Gifford died in September 1655, Bunyan continued to assist his successor John Burton by preaching more frequently. He recorded that despite feeling "great fear and trembling" he relied upon the fact that "the Lord did lead me to begin where His Word begins with sinners," and added "I preached what I smartingly did feel." The evidence of God's blessing upon his ministry was shown by the growing numbers who gathered to hear him and who responded to the claims of the gospel.
It was Bunyan's custom to write down his sermons after he had preached them and in 1656 he published a collection of these in a book entitled Some Gospel Truths Unfolded. In the book's preface, John Burton defended Bunyan against the charges that he was not properly educated or qualified to preach, by stating, "...he hath through grace, taken these three heavenly degrees, to wit, union with Christ, the anointing of the Spirit, and experience of the temptations of Satan, which do more fit a man for that mighty work of preaching the Gospel, than all university learning and degrees that can be had."
It is clear from other books which Bunyan published during that period, namely, A Few Sighs From Hell (1658) and The Doctrine of Law and of Grace (1659) that he had been subjected to critical attacks because of his lowly background. An example of this had happened after Bunyan had taken a service at Toft, a village near Cambridge in May 1659 when Doctor Thomas Smith, a professor at the university, questioned what right "a tinker had to preach." Such views were growing in volume in the years after Cromwell's death in 1658 which precipitated the collapse of the Commonwealth government and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The new political conditions quickly led to laws restricting religious freedom, and preachers such as Bunyan were amongst the first to suffer from their enforcement. In fact a warrant against Bunyan was issued under an earlier law which forbade unauthorised preaching and on 12 November 1660 he was arrested while conducting a service in a farm house at Lower Samsel near Bedford.
Suffering For Well-Doing.
A local magistrate named Francis Wingate had wanted to silence the Puritans in that area for some time, and therefore he insisted that Bunyan could only be released on condition that he agreed not to preach any more. Bunyan flatly refused to give that undertaking and would not allow his friends to stand surety for him on such terms. As a result Bunyan was ordered to Bedford gaol to await a further hearing.
After a delay of two months Bunyan was eventually charged in January 1661 with "...devilishly and perniciously abstaining from coming to church to hear Divine service, and is a common upholder of several unlawful meetings and conventicles, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom." Despite the fact that at the time of his arrest, Bunyan had been found sitting quietly amongst a group of people holding open Bibles, he was regarded during his trial with suspicion and hostility. His pleas that Scripture did not command the use of the Anglican Prayer Book and its forms of service were not accepted and he was gaoled for three months under threat of banishment if he did not give up preaching. Bunyan's reply was solemn and dignified, "...if I were out of prison today, I will preach the gospel again tomorrow—by the help of God!"
As the end of his sentence drew near, efforts were made to persuade him to accept the conditions, stressing that Bunyan was a loyal subject and should therefore follow the apostle Paul's example in acknowledging the authority of the lawful government. Bunyan's response was to agree that Paul urged men to practise civil obedience, but nevertheless the apostle had often suffered imprisonment for preaching a risen Saviour, and so in that respect Bunyan's situation was consistent with Paul's.
Bunyan was well-aware that his family would be faced with great hardship while he was in prison. About a year before his arrest he had married again and consequently his second wife whose name was Elizabeth, had been left with the responsibility of caring for his four children. So keenly did Bunyan feel the separation from his family that he described it as "...pulling the flesh from my bones," but he trusted God's promises would stand fast for him during his time of affliction. In his "Relation" of his imprisonment, he wrote that "...those Scriptures that I saw nothing in before, were made in this place and state to shine upon me," and when his wife visited him he was able to share with her the verses which God had used to reassure and comfort him, "Leave thy fatherless children, I will preserve them alive and let thy widows trust in me" (Jer. 49:11) and "Verily it shall be well with thy remnant; verily I will cause the enemy to entreat thee well in the time of evil and in the time of affliction" (Jer. 15:11). His wife graciously accepted that Bunyan ought not to "Buy liberty of the body at the price of slavery of the soul" (H. Talon, John Bunyan: The Man and his Works, p. 8) and although she began to petition valiantly for his release, she was reconciled to waiting upon God for His sovereign will to be made known in their lives.
Busy With The Pen.
After his imprisonment in 1660, John Bunyan accepted the harsh conditions without complaint and although he was often chided by various officials for refusing to give up preaching and thereby seeking self-imposed martyrdom, Bunyan responded by stating, "I am not running myself into sufferings, but if godliness will expose me to them, the Lord God make me more godly still." (Seasonable Counsel, p. 694). In the unheated prison with only straw to sleep upon, Bunyan gave thanks to God for the consoling grace He supplied, and conscious of hardships his wife and children were suffering, he occupied himself by making laces which he was allowed to sell for their support.
Bunyan was not alone in his confinement, since over sixty other "dissenters" from the county of Bedford were held prisoners at that time. It is known that they had times of communal prayer and that Bunyan preached to them whenever possible, and these fellow-prisoners urged him to write down his messages for others to read. A visitor to the prison described Bunyan's library as, "the least and yet the best I ever saw, consisting of two books"—these were the Bible and Foxe's "Book of Martyrs" and Bunyan spent much time drawing spiritual nourishment from his reading. As early as 1661 he had written a book of verses entitled, Profitable Meditations and this was followed by a treatise on prayer based on 1 Cor. 14:14 called, I Will Pray With The Spirit (1662), a devotional study Christian Behaviour (1663) and in 1665 a collection of sermons named, The Holy City and three shorter works entitled, One Thing Is Needful, Ebal and Gerizim and Prison Meditations.
About this time another prisoner encouraged Bunyan to write an account of his testimony since his conversion, but at first he felt that he had little of interest to recount, saying, "I have nought to say of myself, friend, except that once I was blind, and now I see; once I was a lost sinner, and now I am saved by the grace of God; blessed be His name!" "Then say that, brother Bunyan," replied his colleague, and thus he was led to embark upon his next book. While seeking a suitable title Bunyan was meditating upon the verse, "By grace are ye saved," when he was moved to add, "and by grace ye are kept!" The assurance of God's unfailing goodness and mercy so warmed his heart that the title was promptly written down Grace Abounding to The Chief of Sinners. The book which followed has been described as, "the greatest of all spiritual autobiographies" and shortly after it was printed in 1666 the authorities relented and allowed Bunyan to leave prison.
From Captivity To Captivity.
Bunyan's joyful return to his family was marred by the failing health of his blind daughter Mary, who had always held a special place in his affections. He was also deeply moved by the fearful events of the day as the "Great Plague" had swept the country and London was devastated by the "Great Fire." Bunyan felt renewed urgency in proclaiming the way of salvation in such troubled times, but his liberty was soon ended as he was re-arrested while preaching in a small Bedfordshire village.
In Bunyan's second period of imprisonment much stricter conditions were imposed upon him, and yet his greatest sorrow came with the news that his daughter Mary had died. The restrictions upon Bunyan were relaxed gradually after 1668 and he slowly resumed preaching to other prisoners and writing books for the spiritual benefit of those outside. The long years he had spent in custody gave him the time and solitude to meditate deeply on, "the grounds and foundation of those principles for which I thus have suffered...and having examined them and found them good, I cannot, I dare not, now revolt or deny the same, on pain of eternal damnation." Thus he decided to write, A Confession of Faith and Reason of my Practice, and it was followed by A Defence of the Doctrine of Justification which countered some of the erroneous teachings being published at that time.
Bunyan was even allowed to attend services outside the prison and when King Charles II signed the Declaration of Indulgence in 1672, his eventual release seemed assured. The congregation of Bunyan's church in Bedford had also been harassed and persecuted while he had been in prison, but its members faithfully stood by him and in anticipation of his release they chose him first as an eIder and then as their pastor. Bunyan was thus able to resume his public ministry and he was granted a licence to preach in May 1672, although he was not officially pardoned until September of that year.
As Bunyan once more became fully involved in the work of the gospel, criticism, both public and private, were soon launched against him, but rather than descend to acrimonious controversy he wrote several books including, Peaceable Principles and True (1674) to allow the public to be the judge of his beliefs. However, reaction to the religious toleration granted in 1672 was so strong that the Declaration of Indulgence was cancelled and Bunyan's liberty was short-lived since he was re-arrested in 1675 and placed in the town jail which stood on the Ouse bridge.
Vision of Heaven.
The place of Bunyan's confinement has been described as a "dark, dank, dreary dungeon," but despite his discomfort he set about finishing the book he was writing when he was arrested. It was entitled, Instruction for the Ignorant and within a short time he also wrote, Saved By Grace and The Strait Gate (1676). and begun to work on The Pilgrim's Progress. He had contemplated writing an account of a Christian's experiences through life in the form of a journey, but had never set about the task until one night in a dream he had a vision which stirred him so deeply that he felt compelled to write. He related to his wife, "I have had a vision of Heaven...and of Hell too!...I have lived my whole life over in a single night, I passed through this sin-stained world, and I crossed the bridgeless river...I saw in my dream those that had raiment that shone like gold. They had harps and crowns too. Then I heard that all the bells in the City rang for joy! The City shone like the sun and the streets were paved with gold. When I had seen, I wished myself among them! Then I saw too a way to Hell even from the gates of Heaven, as well as from this sin besmirched earth of ours." The narrative was clearly based very closely on Bunyan's own spiritual experience and it reveals a profound knowledge of the Bible. As he completed his story of Christian's journey to the Celestial City, his friends worked for his release which was secured in 1677, and soon after the first part of The Pilgrim's Progress was printed.
Many recognised the importance of the book even before it was published, including Dr. John Owen, the great Puritan theologian who claimed he would, "willingly exchange all my learning for the tinker's power of touching men's hearts." Yet Bunyan still threw himself into the work of preaching and writing with renewed energy. He accepted invitations to preach at chapels and churches over a wide area, and large crowds gathered to hear him particularly in London. Similarly his output of books was maintained with, The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680), The Holy War (1682) and the Second part of The Pilgrim's Progress (1684) as he wielded his pen for the sake of the gospel.
The last years of Bunyan's life were fully occupied in ministering to a vast number of people through his preaching, his writing, which reached a total of sixty books, and his pastoral work amongst many scattered congregations. It was while he was visiting Reading to reconcile a family dispute in August 1688 that heavy rain storms overtook him and as he rode on to fulfil a preaching engagement in London he developed pneumonia. He conducted the service on 19 August at a meeting-house near Whitechapel, preaching on the text, "Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13), but his health deteriorated and he died at the home of friend on 31 August. His testimony remained steadfast to the end and shortly before his death he told his friends, "I desire nothing more than to be dissolved and to be with Christ...esteeming death as gain, and life only a tedious delaying of felicity expected." Bunyan was buried at Bunhill Fields in City Road, Finsbury—a valiant soldier of Christ had been called to his reward.
Used with permission of Heath Christian Bookshop Charitable Trust, United Kingdom, ©1996.
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