John Bunyan: Biography, Books & Poems

Instructor: Matthew Hill
John Bunyan was a Puritan writer who was imprisoned for 12 years for preaching without a license. He wrote over 60 books and poems but is best known for 'The Pilgrim's Progress.'

Roots of a Renowned English Writer: John Bunyan

History is full of popular works that were written from prison, such as John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, which became one of the most published books in Christian literature. John Bunyan was born just outside of Bedford, England, in November 1628. His family had modest economic means, and Bunyan's education was sporadic and informal. He worked as a traveling repairman, but when the English Civil War began, Bunyan joined the army. In addition to war, he experienced tragedy early on, as his mother and sister died one month apart.

John Bunyan
John Bunyan

Spiritual Awakening

In his memoirs, Bunyan described himself as rebellious and apathetic in his spiritual walk, until he saw a series of visions that got him thinking. His first wife -- her name is unknown -- influenced him to read devotional literature, which aided his spiritual development. She died in 1658, and the next year, he re-married to a woman named Elizabeth. Bunyan had six children total, four from his first wife and two from his second. One of his daughters was blind.

He joined a Baptist church and was baptized by John Gifford, a pastor who was non-Anglican (he did not represent the Church of England). Bunyan then began to preach at Gifford's church, and he soon started preaching and teaching in other environments. This was risky, given that the newly installed King Charles II distrusted non-Anglicans, and such ministers were prohibited from preaching without a license. Though warned to stop preaching, Bunyan refused and was sentenced to prison in November 1660.

Home of John Bunyan, located in England
John Bunyans Home in England

Bunyan's Imprisonment and The Pilgrim's Progress

Bunyan wrote that his worst experience was the time away from his family. However, his prison term included frequent visitations and even temporary leave to visit his family. After 12 years, he was released but briefly imprisoned again for six months for unlawful preaching. Bunyan did not sit idly, though, as he penned his most famous work, The Pilgrim's Progress, while imprisoned. Written in two parts, the first part was published in 1678 and the second part in 1684.

John Bunyan in prison
John Bunyan in Prison

The story is written in allegorical form, which uses real, concrete subjects to represent abstract or spiritual elements. The first part tells the story of the character Christian. Christian tires of the city, which symbolically stands for the corrupt world in general, and journeys to the Celestial City. The second part tells the story of Christian's wife, Christiana, and their children's journey to the Celestial City. The journey is not easy, and the story is rich in symbolism.

At every turn, the central characters confront colorful people, such as Worldly Wiseman, Goodwill, Formalist, and Hypocrisy, as well as colorful places, such as Wicket Gate, Difficulty Hill, and Palace Beautiful. The story illustrates that home for the true believer is not Earth, but a heavenly home with God. It's argued that, aside from the Bible, The Pilgrim's Progress is the most-read Christian classic of all time.

Title page of The Pilgrims Progress
Title Page of Pilgrim Progress

Bunyan as a Prolific Writer

The Pilgrim's Progress was not his only work, and in his lifetime, Bunyan penned over 60 known books and poems. One of his earliest was Some Gospel-Truths Opened According to the Scriptures (1656), which criticized the Quaker doctrine. In 1666, he published a memoir of his conversion in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. The book is best seen as a spiritual biography in the tradition of St. Augustine's Confessions, as Bunyan seeks not only to recount his own spiritual journey, but also to encourage others in their own.

Plaque in England commemorating John Bunyan
Plaque of John Bunyan

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