John Bunyan was born in Elstow, England, in 1628. As the son of a household appliance repairman, Bunyan was expected to carry on his father’s trade. Bunyan had very little schooling but learned the rudiments of reading and writing. From boyhood on, Bunyan experienced private visions that fed his brand of Christian devotion. He saw devils and heard inner voices talking about Christ and later in life felt driven to pray to trees and broomsticks. These visions and dreams would later serve as an inspiration for his writings. At sixteen, Bunyan enlisted in the army as a solider and fought in the English Civil War, fought between the Puritans and the Royalists over Charles I’s changes to the Church of England, including a new English Prayer Book.
Bunyan’s involvement in the Baptist Church began soon after marrying Margaret Bentley in Elstow in 1647. At the behest of his wife, Bunyan began to read the Bible and attend church on a regular basis. Bunyan was received into the Baptist Church in 1653. Bunyan advanced his knowledge of the Christian faith and scriptures by fasting and practicing solemn prayer. He started preaching in Bedford and nearby villages and gained an immense, popular following wherever he preached, earning the nickname “Bishop Bunyan” because of his stature as a religious teacher and thinker. After bearing Bunyan four children, Margaret died in 1657. Two years later, Bunyan remarried. Bunyan’s experience of religion was deeply individual. A pious young man, his strong sensitivity to sin was self-imposed and self-enforced. His personal standards were harsh and unforgiving. Bunyan did not commit many sins, but he did confess to using profane language, having danced, and having rung the bells of his local church without permission. His severe and self-critical moral code provides the backdrop to Christian’s earnest and impassioned search for salvation in The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Religion and politics both dominated Bunyan’s life. The Puritans, evangelical Christians with strict moral beliefs, had a great influence over the government and culture of England during Bunyan’s lifetime. Their growing power culminated in civil war and the installation of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of Britain in 1653. During Cromwell’s reign various “immoral” activities were brought to an end throughout Britain, including dancing and theatergoing. For many years, the country was in the grip of a religious fundamentalism. Religion in the seventeenth century was also highly political. It was not simply a matter of choosing one’s faith to practice peacefully at home but a sign of political alliance with or rebellion against the ruling faction in public life. Religion affected one’s career and one’s family’s prosperity, and Bunyan demonstrates this in The Pilgrim’s Progress when Christian suddenly decides to leave his family behind to seek salvation in the Celestial City.
When Bunyan joined the Baptist Church, he began preaching to his own congregation without a state license to do so and was jailed in 1660 by the Church of England for this infraction. Bunyan and other outspoken Protestants were not simply discriminated against but were persecuted and imprisoned. Bunyan himself spent twelve years in prison, where he began to write Part I of The Pilgrim’s Progress. The book was later published in 1678. Bunyan’s assurance in the validity of his personal visions underlies The Pilgrim’s Progress, which he disguises as a dream. Bunyan also drew on personal experience when writing and preaching in public. Whenever Bunyan provides images of bondage and detention in his work, like the old man in the iron cage in the Second Stage of The Pilgrim’s Progress, he invokes his own imprisonment and the state’s repression of his fellow religious rebels. After Bunyan was eventually freed from prison in 1670, he began to preach again and became a pastor of the Bedford church.
Bunyan published Part II of The Pilgrim’s Progress in 1684. In the six years between Parts I and II, his confidence as a writer grew visibly. The Pilgrim’s Progress is so fresh and original partly because Bunyan knew no great fiction writers to copy. Early editions of his work were often on cheap and coarse paper, bought mainly by the poor. Bunyan thus had a hand in educating the class from which he himself came. Though Bunyan published nine books, including his spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, The Pilgrim’s Progress has remained arguably the most renowned published Christian allegory, a symbolic story that serves as a disguised representation for meanings other than those indicated. The characters in Bunyan’s allegory have no individual personality but are embodiments of moral qualities as illustrated by their names: Christian, Christiana, Great-heart, and Hopeful, to name a few.
The Pilgrim’s Progress has been translated into more languages than any other book except the Bible and is said to be one of the most widely read books in English. After catching a severe cold on his way to London, Bunyan died at a friend’s house in 1688. Bunyan is buried in the cemetery at Bunhill Fields in London. It is said that many Puritans pleaded on their death beds to be buried as close as possible to the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
I would take a certain issue with the observation that Bunyan invokes his own imprisonment when he writes about the man in the iron cage. Certainly Bunyan would have been sensitive to the idea of imprisonment, and this sensitivity could very well have emboldened his passion to warn others of the unwanted consequences of certain behaviors, but I believe there the similarity ends. Bunyan had been imprisoned for preaching the gospel without an official sanction from the religious establishment of the day; the unjust result of extreme obedienc
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