God has raised men in the history of the church who, though not orthodox in all their views, nevertheless have fashioned the thinking of subsequent generations. Such a man was John Bunyan, teacher of the doctrines of grace but a Baptist in his covenant theology. His influence is due to the one book for which he is known by millions: Pilgrim’s Progress. Children and adults in succeeding generations who have read this fascinating allegory of the Christian life have come to appreciate and cherish it; people of God who have not read it do well to do so.
A brief description of the times in which John Bunyan lived is essential to understand his life.
After the Reformation in England, a struggle arose between those who were satisfied with the episcopacy of Anglicanism on the one hand, and, on the other, those who desired a more profound reformation than Anglicans wanted. After all, Anglicanism retained many Roman Catholic elements, especially in liturgy and church polity.
Those who desired more complete reformation, after the order of Calvin’s reformation in Geneva, fought long and bitterly for their views. Becoming known as Puritans, they finally gained civil power in England after the royalist forces of Charles I were defeated by the Parliamentary forces under Oliver Cromwell. Their power lasted, however, only about as long as Cromwell himself, and shortly after Cromwell’s death, the monarchy was restored in the person of Charles II. Charles, a friend of Roman Catholics, did all in his power to restore that which was lost under Cromwell. The Puritans were defeated in their efforts.
The difficulty was that the Puritans themselves were divided. Some Puritans, while fighting for their position, were content to remain in the Anglican Church and seek renewal from within. They never succeeded, but continue in that church until today. They have become known as the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church. Others were convinced that the only way to purge Anglicanism was through instituting their reforms in their own parishes. For this they paid the price of ejection from the Anglican Church, and many suffered greatly.
This latter group did not, on the whole, favor a Reformed system of church government any more than Anglicanism did; they opted instead for a congregational and independentistic form of church government which made each congregation self-governing without any federative unity. These are the beginnings of Congregationalism and the Baptist movement.¹ Their influence is still felt today in the British Isles, which are filled with such independent Baptistic congregations.
Into this political and ecclesiastical situation John Bunyan was born, and in it he was raised and did his work.
Bunyan’s early life
John Bunyan was born in 1628 in the village of Elston near the town of Bedford. His father was a tinker² and the class to which he belonged was, while not the most humble in England, still far from the nobility.
Tinkers in England were usually Bohemian gypsies who were thought to be remnants of old Israel or ancient Egypt. Aware of this, Bunyan attempted, though unsuccessfully, to determine whether these Bohemian gypsies were his ancestors.
Because one of England’s virtues was that education was available to all, Bunyan’s father enrolled him in the Bedford Grammar School. But the school was so morally bad that his father, fearing for his son, took him out. That was the end of his education, and whatever he learned from that point on was through his own efforts.
John Bunyan worked hard after leaving school, but he also played hard. He became known for his dissolute and profligate life. Especially his wild and blasphemous language made him a byword among the local folk.
Wearying of the discipline of the home, he ran away and joined the Parliamentary Army.³ He saw no action, distinguished himself in no way, and soon returned home as wild and wicked as ever.
After resuming his former labors and even spending a time in bell-ringing in the local parish church, he married a meek and poor, though exceptionally pious, young girl. She managed to curb his wild nature and to persuade him to engage in reading to advance his meager education.
While the godly influences of his wife can only be surmised, the local minister, Mr. Gifford, was instrumental in Bunyan’s conversion. The year was 1653.
Mr. Gifford had come to the ministry in a rather strange way. He had been a royalist officer, an escaped prisoner, a gifted physician in Bedford, a licentious man, but finally a converted man of God who became pastor of the congregation in Bedford. This congregation was part of the Cromwellian State Church during the days of the Cromwell Republic.
Bunyan came under the influence of Mr. Gifford and was instructed by him in the faith. In keeping with general practices among the dissenters, Bunyan received no formal education for the ministry, but assumed this position after Mr. Gifford died. The congregation was Baptist.
Bunyan possessed a retentive, fierce, impatient, and energetic mind. While Bunyan was living in his sins, that mind led him to the head of the wicked young men in the area. Under the power of divine grace, it became useful in a long and noble service in the gospel.
Through hard work and patient study Bunyan became a powerful and beloved preacher whose congregation grew rapidly.
Tragedy came into his life at this point. His wife died, leaving him with four children, one of whom was a blind daughter. This little daughter, gentle, loving, thoughtful, and kind, became her father’s special delight.
Bunyan soon married again, and his second wife was a faithful wife, a help to him in his ministry, and a mother to his children. It seems, however, as if he never had any children with her.
When Charles II came to the throne he put forth every effort to silence dissent and to conform all England to the Prayer Book. Dissenters were forbidden to preach, and John Bunyan was soon thrown into the prison in Bedford for disobeying the command of the king.
Twelve and a half long years he spent in the prison, in spite of many efforts to secure his release and in spite of many attempts on the part of his wife to persuade the courts to show mercy.
Nevertheless, although imprisonment and separation from his family were dreadful, Bunyan’s suffering was never as bad as was the suffering of others in far more horrible prisons.4 His wife was cared for, if meagerly, by his congregation; the jailer was a kind man who did not, as some, vent his brutality on his prisoners; and in the later years Bunyan was even permitted to leave prison to see his wife and children, to preach in his congregation, to visit his parishioners, and even to travel to London—although the jailer was severely censured for the latter extravagance. He was not deprived of his books, paper, and pen, and it was during these years in prison that Bunyan wrote a number of books, including the classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress. His blind daughter came to visit him nearly every day.
Finally, after twelve and a half years, and when Charles II relented a bit, Bunyan was released. He put his affairs in order, and resumed his labors in the congregation. It was under his leadership that his congregation organized and became the first legal congregation of dissenters in England.
His fame as a preacher grew, and the small chapel had to be repeatedly enlarged. Branch meetings were held in the surrounding villages, and the first preaching circuits were established. Bunyan became a kind of “bishop” of the churches and was even sometimes affectionately called “Bishop Bunyan.”5
His influence spread, and even in London, when he preached, he attracted throngs of people. The story is told that Dr. Owen was one of his frequent hearers in London. When that erudite and highly educated divine was sneeringly asked by Charles II how he could go to hear a tinker preach, Owen responded: “I would give all my learning to be able to preach as well as the tinker.”
His ministry was not long. During a time when he was very ill, Bunyan departed on a long trip through stormy and wet weather to engage in pastoral work. From this he never recovered, and he died in the home of a friend. The year was 1688. He was 60 years old. His wife outlived him by four years. The Pilgrim’s Progress
Bunyan’s views accurately reflect the theology of Puritansin those days. He was strong on doctrine and even satirized the Anglican Church in Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who wanted to reduce Christianity to mere ethics. He held firmly to the doctrines of grace, but emphasized particularly the Lutheran viewpoint of justification by faith alone.
But especially in the view of conversion, he reflected Puritan views, and without a solid doctrine of the covenant he had no room for the conversion of the elect in infancy in the line of the covenant and in the daily conversion to which a child of God is called. In his spiritual biography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), he spoke of conversion as involving conviction of sin, attempts to appease God with legal righteousness, subsequent despair, a long and drawn-out period of temptation and struggle, and finally peace in the way of faith in Christ. Such a conversion, though indeed the means God uses to bring some to salvation, has become the norm for genuine conversion even in many Reformed circles, but in those circles where there is no biblical doctrine of the covenant.
Bunyan wrote over 50 books, the best-known of which are The Holy War and Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. But The Pilgrim’s Progress will to the end of time be associated in the minds of many saints with John Bunyan. It has gone through over 50 editions, and every Christmas season seems to bring a new one these days. It has been translated into many foreign languages, including all the languages and dialects of continental Europe. It was, in past years, almost always found on the shelf of godly homes, even though the only other book was the Bible.
Even Huckleberry Finn gives a concise description of it: “Interesting, but tough.” But who among us, who has read it, can ever forget Mr. Valiant-for-Truth and Mr. Worldly-Wiseman? And who, having traveled with Pilgrim, can erase from his mind the Slough of Despond and House Beautiful? It will live yet many generations, if the Lord tarry, as the pilgrim’s guide on our way to the Celestial City.
1 This statement is not quite correct. Baptist churches were established in England long before the ejection. But many of these independent congregations moved in the direction of the Baptist churches.
2 A mender of kettles and pots.
3 That he joined the army is certain. Over the question of which army he joined, there is some dispute. Some biographers insist that he joined the Royalist troops. At any rate, this was in the days when the armies of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell were engaged in bloody civil war.
4 Anyone who has read Charles Dickens knows the dreadful state of England’s prison system and the suffering of those in it.
5 These independent congregations had no rule of elders, and it is not strange that a man of Bunyan’s influence would occupy an influential place in the churches.