JOHN BUNYAN was born in the year 1688 at Elstow, near Bedford, England, the oldest son of a tinker, a maker and mender of pots and kettles. Although the family was poor, they owned a cottage in Harrowden. Bunyan described his childhood as normal and happy, and he learned to read and write a little. As a child he travelled the district helping his father and learning the trade.
When he was sixteen, Bunyan was summoned in a county levy for the Parliamentary army to participate in the civil War. He later spoke of a narrow escape during one of his engagements in the military: “When I was a soldier, I, with others, was drawn out to go to such a place to besiege it; but when I was just ready to go, one of the company desired to go in my place; and coming to the siege, as he stood sentinel, he was shot in the head with a musket bullet, and died.” After approximately three years, his company disbanded and he returned to Elstow and continued to work as a tinker. Bunyan was a lover of music but had little money for buying instruments. This lack failed to deter him: he hammered a violin out of iron and later carved a flute from one of the legs of a four-legged stool, which was among his sparse furnishings in his prison room.
MARRIAGE AND SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
Returning to Elstow in 1647 Bunyan resumed his work as a tinker, and the Museum has his anvil and metal violin from this period. Two years later he married a local girl who bore him four children, the first of whom, called Mary, was born blind. The arrival of Mary in 1650 made Bunyan reflect seriously on his life for the first time. He questioned the value of his favourite pastimes such as bell-ringing in Elstow Church, dancing and playing tip-cat, an early form of rounders. In Grace Abounding published in 1666, Bunyan describes this period of spiritual crisis admitting that, “Even as a child I had few equals in cursing, swearing, lying and blaspheming the Holy name of God”.
The Civil War was over but it had made its mark throughout the country. Some people wanted a simpler form of worship and Independent congregations (from the Church of England) began to emerge. One Sunday, John Bunyan heard a sermon on the evil of breaking the Sabbath; Bunyan was playing a game of tip-cat on the Elstow village green when he heard a voice within asking “Wilt though leave thy sins and go to heaven? Or have thy sins and go to hell?” From that moment on Bunyan’s life began to change. In 1653 he joined the newly-formed Independent church that met in St John’s Church, Bedford, south of the river, where he became friends with their pastor John Gifford.
By 1655 Bunyan and his family were living in St Cuthbert’s Street in Bedford and it was at this time that Bunyan discovered he was a gifted preacher. By 1659 he was recognised beyond the county border as a preacher. In 1656 he became involved in disputes with local Quakers under Edward Burrough and these led to his first book, Some Gospel Truths Opened. In 1658 his first wife died and the following year he married his second wife, Elizabeth, with whom he had two children. In this year he also published his most ambitious theological work The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded.
ARRESTED AND IMPRISONED FOR PREACHING
In 1660 Cromwell’s Protectorate came to an end and the monarchy was restored. In the belief that national unity could only be achieved by religious uniformity, the state attempted to restrain the developing Independent congregations by forbidding preaching. Bunyan was arrested in the hamlet of Samsell just after he had begun a meeting. He was held at nearby Harlington Manor overnight; appearing before the local justices the next morning, he was sentenced to three months in prison.
Since Bunyan refused to give an assurance not to preach, he remained in the County Gaol for 12 years from 1661 to 1672. The County Gaol was demolished in 1801, but one of its prison doors was saved and is on display within the Museum. In vain, his wife Elizabeth tried to get his case reopened by pleading with Sir Matthew Hale, the Lord Chief Justice of England, when he stayed in Bedford. Bunyan was allowed several privileges as a prisoner, since he was not a common criminal. The prison was only five minutes’ walk from his home so food was brought into his cell, often by his blind daughter Mary, and a stoneware jug believed to have been used for this purpose can be seen in the Museum. He also received daily visits from friends and had occasional excursions from prison, keeping him in close contact with members of the congregation. He is reputed to have made a wooden flute out of a stool leg in his prison cell: this is on display at the Museum. During imprisonment he supported his family by making “long-tagged bootlaces” which they could sell.
WRITING THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS
This period in prison was used for writing. In 1663, he wrote Christian Behaviour followed in 1665 by The Holy City and in 1666 by Grace Abounding, his spiritual autobiography. It is thought that the impetus for the latter might have been the knowledge of the 40 people who died of the plague on the north side of the river where John Bunyan was imprisoned. This is mentioned in St Paul’s Parish Register. It was during the years 1667-72 that Bunyan probably wrote much of the first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
BECOMING PASTOR AND BISHOP
In 1672 King Charles II issued the Declaration of Religious Indulgence, and Bunyan, like other church offenders, was released from prison. He was immediately appointed pastor of the Independent church in Bedford, which later bought a barn and orchard in Mill Street as their place of meeting. In 1673 the King was forced to withdraw his Declaration, and early in 1677 Bunyan returned to prison.
Apart from this second (and some people think there was a third) brief spell in prison, Bunyan spent his time from 1672 onwards preaching, directing the affairs of the Church and visiting outlying congregations and sister churches in Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Surrey and London. It is during this period that he earned the nickname “Bishop Bunyan”.
On 18 February 1678 Bunyan published the first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress. During the last ten years of his life he published The Holy War (1682) and The Pilgrim’s Progress – Second Part (1685).
DEATH AND LEGACY
On 31 August 1688 John Bunyan died in London. He had been on a mission of mercy to Reading, to effect reconciliation between a young neighbour of his and the father with whom he had quarrelled. The mission successfully accomplished, Bunyan continued his journey on horseback to London. On the way he was overtaken by a great storm of wind and rain, and he arrived at the house of his friend, John Strudwick, on Snow Hill, drenched to the skin and feeling unwell. In spite of his evident weakness and sickness, he insisted on fulfilling an engagement to preach on the following Sunday, at the Meeting House of one John Gammons in Petticoat Lane. He then returned to John Strudwick’s house, where he grew weaker, and a few days later died. Bunyan was buried in the Strudwick family vault in the burial ground of Bunhill Fields, City Road, London.
Bunyan is best remembered for The Pilgrim’s Progress, a book which gained immediate popularity. By 1692, four years after the author’s death, publisher Charles Doe estimated that 100,000 copies had been printed in England, as well as editions “in France, Holland, New England and Welch”. By 1938, 250 years after Bunyan’s death, more than 1,300 editions of the book had been printed.
Bunyan’s work, in particular The Pilgrim’s Progress, has reached a wider audience through stage productions, film, TV, and radio. A stage work by Ralph Vaughan Williams, which the composer styled a Morality, based on The Pilgrim’s Progress was first performed at the Royal Opera House in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain and revived in 2012 by the English National Opera.