John Bunyan (1628-1688)
Born: Bedfordshire, England
Role: Author, baptist preacher and pastor
Emphases: Christian life as pilgrimage/warfare; divine grace; justification by faith
Protested against: Roman Catholicism; legalism; English Religious Conformity; Quakerism
Pressed for time this week, so a disproportionately short sketch of a very significant figure in Church History follows, supplemented by a helpful video about his life and ministry.
John Bunyan came from humble beginnings, had a colourful, personal spiritual and religious journey and endured a fair share of suffering for his biblical convictions. He became the author of one of the most notable works of English literature – a book which has been called the first English novel and one of the best-selling and most widely read English texts after the KJV Bible.
Bunyan was the son of a tinker and learned his father’s trade, before being swept up in the chaos of the English Civil Wars, in which he served as soldier in the Parliamentary Army that was waging war on forces loyal to King Charles I. He had something of a spiritual awakening as a result of reading devotional works of earlier Puritans, Arthur Dent and Lewis Bayly. His first wife had gifted him with copies of Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and The Practice of Piety, which he read with great interest and acknowledged the profound impact they had on his outlook for the rest of his life.
At least as early as his late twenties, Bunyan was associating with Separatist congregations of Independent or Baptist persuasion, which operated outside the structures of the official, national English Church. He was an effective preacher and came to have a significant influence amongst these congregations. It was likely because of this that he was singled out for particularly harsh treatment by the authorities when the monarchy was restored in 1660 and (what we would now call) Anglicanism was enforced as the state religion. Bunyan spent 12 years in prison from 1660-1672 for rejecting the Book of Common Prayer and preaching without a state-sanctioned licence to do so.
His masterpiece, Pilgrim’s Progress, is believed to have been penned in the mid-late 1670s, while Bunyan was imprisoned for a second, much shorter period. It is a Christian allegory, charting the journey of a pilgrim (named ‘Christian’) from his homeland (“The City of Destruction”) to the Celestial City, after being told the good news by a character called Evangelist. Along the way, Christian is joined and encouraged by other pilgrims and meets characters who bring him spiritual refreshment or enlightenment. But the journey is perhaps even more characterised by Christian’s encounters with characters and places that threaten to prevent him from reaching his destination.
Thousands of Christians in the last three centuries have been blessed and encouraged by this work (not to mention Bunyan’s other writings) as they see themselves and their own struggles in the story of the Pilgrim’s journey. Every page drips with the intense, Puritan vision of the spiritual life as a quest to remain faithful to Christ and follow Him to the Heavenly Jerusalem in the midst of perilous temptations, trials and discouragements.
Desiring God has a full and free version of Pilgrim’s Progress, which includes a more substantial biographical account of Bunyan’s life by John Piper. A great opportunity to read this classic if you never have before (or would like to again!). The video below gives a good account of Bunyan’s life and historical context if you prefer something audiovisual.
“John Bunyan” wikipedia
“Pilgrim’s Progress” wikipedia
D.L. Jeffrey “BUNYAN, John” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals.