Pilgrim's Progress | Study Guide

John Bunyan

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John Bunyan | Biography


Early Years

John Bunyan was born in the English village of Elstow, Bedfordshire, in 1628. His exact birth date is unknown, but he was baptized on November 30, almost certainly within a few weeks of his birth. His father was a traveling metalworker, variously described by biographers as a tinker (traveling repairer of pots and pans) or brazier (brass worker). Whatever the exact nature of the elder Bunyan's work, he passed down his craft—and not much else—to his son John. The younger Bunyan received a rudimentary education at his local grammar school, which, at that time in England, would have included such subjects as rhetoric, arithmetic, and Latin classics by rote memorization. Even after taking up his trade as a metalsmith, Bunyan read avidly from both popular fiction and religious literature.

Bunyan and his contemporaries lived during a period of bitter strife between adherents of the Anglican, or Church of England, faith and Protestant groups, which included Quakers, Puritans, and Separatists. These groups conjoined politically to enforce their agenda of ethical behavior through Parliament in opposition to the English monarchy, which was primarily Anglican. Frustrated by the inflexible attitude of King Charles I (1600–49) and his Royalists, Parliamentarian Separatists sought to remove the institution of the monarchy by force.

Bunyan's autobiography states that his youth was spent in enthusiastic pursuit of every vice available. He claims he ceased to read and write. In 1644 the now teenaged Bunyan was drafted or volunteered into the Parliamentary militia as part of the ongoing English Civil Wars (1642–51). The wars took place between the Royalists, who defended the monarchy, and Parliamentarians, who sought to overthrow the monarchy and install their own system of rule. This objective was decisively obtained in 1649 with the trial and execution of Charles I. Though he saw little combat from his post in northern Buckinghamshire, Bunyan was caught up in the spirit of religious diversity and dissent that had accompanied the war's outbreak. He was strongly influenced by Puritan thought, with its exhortations to self-denial and its condemnation of even seemingly innocuous pleasures.

Religious Awakening

Bunyan's true religious conversion, however, came after his first marriage in 1649. His first wife, whose name is speculatively thought to have been Mary (d. 1658), came, according to Bunyan's autobiography, from a poor but pious family. Together John and Mary had two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth; Mary was born blind. Although of the Anglican faith, Mrs. Bunyan brought two Puritan tracts as her dowry (the property traditionally bestowed on a husband by his wife or her family at the time of their wedding). These writings were The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven and The Practice of Piety. Reading these books and being influenced by his wife's compassionate patience seems to have continued a process that had begun in 1651 when Bunyan met John Gifford (d. 1655), who adhered to the teachings of Protestant reformer and French theologian John Calvin (1509–64), the minister of a nonconformist Baptist congregation in Bedford. The two men had much in common. Gifford had also served in the military (although in the Royalist Army as a physician). He had been a "repulsive man of bad habits" until 1650, when Gifford encountered "the simple truths" expressed in Mr. Bolton's Last and Learned Works of the Four Last Things—Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven. Bunyan revered Gifford as the "Holy Mr. Gifford" and converted in 1653. Soon Bunyan was preaching in his own right and attracting a considerable following. He often shared the pulpit with another Calvinist Baptist preacher, William Kiffin (1616–1701). This part of Bunyan's life is detailed further in his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666).

Often called a Puritan himself, Bunyan can more accurately be described as a Puritan Separatist. The Puritan sect—and its Separatist offshoot—was composed of nonconformist English Protestants who rejected what they regarded as the excesses of the established Church of England. They particularly shunned the Anglican Church's ceremonial pomp and centralized hierarchy—both of which they viewed as holdovers from Catholicism. Social reform prohibited drunkenness, laces or colorful attire for men and women, and leisurely pastimes like dancing, attending plays (especially comedies), or playing card games (gambling). These prohibitions were especially enforced on the Sabbath (Sunday), which was a day devoted to rest, prayer, biblical studies, and church attendance. Separatists like Bunyan took this idea even further and believed the conscientious thing to do was to break off from the Church of England entirely, whereas Puritans sought to purify it from within. The nature of the social reforms based on religious ethical behavior proposed by the two groups is similar enough, however, that The Pilgrim's Progress can be, and has been, analyzed as a window into Puritan thought.

Prisoner and Author

Separatists, Puritans, and others who lay beyond the pale of the established Church enjoyed relative religious freedom during the Civil Wars and the interregnum. The interregnum was the period between monarchs (1649–60) after the well-attended public beheading of Charles I for treason and before his son, Charles II (1630–85), was brought from exile to be crowned in London. Political, religious, and social control was held by their dominance in Parliament and supported by military force. Transgressions such as drunkenness or prostitution were severely punished by incarceration or humiliating public display, during which the offender was ridiculed and pelted with rotten food (or worse) by passersby. Public executions by beheading or hanging for the most serious crimes were common. Reenactments of the beheading of Charles I were also frequently staged for the populace to remind everyone of the evils of the monarchy and to deter any support for Royalists who might attempt to restore the monarchy.

This situation was virtually reversed when Charles II assumed the throne in 1660, ushering in a period known as the English Restoration, referring to the restoration of the monarchy. Religious nonconformists of all kinds under the Restoration were prohibited from preaching publicly by a series of repressive acts known as the Clarendon Code, the first of which was passed in 1661. Bunyan, who refused to stop preaching, was arrested early that year and sent to the county jail, where he remained until 1672, when he was granted a royal pardon as part of a broad but temporary relaxation of the Penal Laws. He returned to his congregation and continued to preach and publish but was arrested again in 1675 following a reversal of royal policy toward nonconformists. Bunyan spent a further six months (December 1676–June 1677) in jail at Bedford before he was released through the help of patrons (notably the well-connected William Kiffin) in the English nobility, having spent 12 years altogether in prison. During this long imprisonment, he penned several religious works, of which The Pilgrim's Progress is by far the best known today.

The publication of Part 1 of The Pilgrim's Progress in 1678 was an instant success, sparking various imitators and unofficial sequels before the release of Part 2 in 1684. The Pilgrim's Progress is not the only religious commentary of Bunyan's time to gain popularity. Contemporary Englishman John Milton (1608–74) published his epic poem Paradise Lost in 1667, followed by Paradise Regained and Sampson Agonistes, which were published together in one book in 1671. These later works were more didactic than the vivid description of Satan's rebellion against God in Paradise Lost. Nonetheless, Milton, an outspoken Presbyterian and well-educated critic of "state sanctioned religion," is credited with managing to convey "a Christian idea of heroism."

With the accession of the Catholic James II (1633–1701) to the British throne in 1685, the country seemed poised for a revival and expansion of the religious tolerance briefly tested in the 1670s. James's initiatives—which benefited nonconformists as well as Catholics—were ultimately thwarted by the Glorious Revolution (1688–89). This transition was brought about by the deposition of James II and the installation of his daughter Mary II (1662–94), who ruled from 1689 to 1694 with her husband, the Dutch Prince of Orange, William III (1650–1702). Although Protestants, the joint monarchs attempted a unification between Catholics and Protestants, but the compromise left Dissenters banned from holding any government office or sitting in Parliament.

Bunyan, who died on August 31, 1688, did not live to see that devastating reversal. A few years after his death, Bunyan's known works were republished in folio. This paved the way for numerous translations, modernizations, and retellings—not to mention a few frauds and forgeries, such as the spurious "Part 3," which was included in editions of Bunyan's famous allegory for many years. The Pilgrim's Progress is his lasting contribution to English literature. Through the 19th century, it was found, next to the Bible, in every English home. Many American frontier households also contained a copy of Bunyan's book alongside the Bible and the works of English playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616). Children memorized and recited passages from these books for guests and family members well into the early 1900s.

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