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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.