Bunyan, John


b Elstow, Bedfordshire 1628, d London 1688. Born to his father’s second wife, he learned from him the craft of a brazier or ‘tinker’ and only briefly attended the local grammar school. As a teenager was drafted into Cromwell’s parliamentary army at Newport Pagnell, and on his release at 19 married a girl who read with him the two books she brought to their new home. One was The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven (a spiritual journey); the other, The Practice of Piety (by a Puritan bishop). These awoke in him a conviction of sin and guilt for his youthful follies and failures, but a long period of spiritual struggle followed, partly chronicled later in the various edns of Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666). His other reading-matter at this time was mainly the BCP, Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (Boke of Martyrs) and above all the Authorised Version of the Bible. At some point he joined an evangelical group led by a converted royalist, and by 1653 he had found Christian assurance, joined an independent Baptist church in Bedford and started his preaching ministry. His wife died c1658, leaving him with a daughter Mary, blind from birth, and two other children, and the next year he married Elizabeth who provided constant support through the dark years to come. In 1660 he was first arrested for ‘illegal’ preaching, and imprisoned for some 10 years from 1662, in Bedford jail where his serious writing began. 9 books were the fruit of this decade. After a 3-year period of freedom, during which he pastored the church, he was jailed again in 1675 and completed the first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress, possibly begun earlier but published in 1678. In 1680 came The Life and Death of Mr Badman and in 1682 The Holy War; part 2 of his great classic followed in 1684. On his further release he continued to preach in the countryside and in London, no longer molested by the authorities, where he died from pneumonia, succumbing to a chill taken from a rain-soaked journey on a pastoral errand to reconcile a father and son. He wrote many other works, and although not a hymnwriter as such, in the contemporary Baptist controversy he favoured hymn-singing (not Psalms only) in the congregation. Chiefly but not only through his major masterpiece from prison, countlessly reprinted and translated into over 100 languages, he became the first major English writer who was neither London-based nor university-educated.

The Pilgrim’s Progress has been almost universally praised for its memorably picturesque characterisation, vivid story-telling, dramatic moments, homely wit, imaginative beauty, rhythmic prose and native vocabulary. But even above all these, Christian believers value Bunyan’s incisive spiritual allegory, biblical insight and doctrinal discernment, sustained throughout the journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. The most disappointing editions are those which assess its literary or social qualities but are blind to its spiritual ones. Some early readers including Baptists complained of its limitations (where were the church and its ordinances?) while later ones have contrasted Christian’s pilgrimage with Chaucer’s in his Canterbury Tales; at least Bunyan’s pilgrims actually arrive! The other verse often extracted from the book as a hymn is He that is down needs fear no fall. Among many studies of his life and writing are 10 valuable pages in Gordon Rupp’s Six Makers of English Religion (1957), the 12 of Louis F Benson’s The Hymns of John Bunyan (from the Hymn Soc of America, 1930), and 9 columns by David L Jeffrey in the 2003 Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. No.884*.

Hymns and songs by Bunyan, John

Number Hymn Name
884 He who would valiant be