Today begins new series of biographical sketches on the lives of godly departed saints. This week: John Bunyan
John Bunyan (November 28, 1628-August 31, 1688) was a Puritan author and preacher, best known for his classic work, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan received very little education before joining his father as a tinker tradesman, a lowly occupation usually associated with gypsies. He also led a thoroughly rebellious life against God. Describing his younger self, Bunyan said, “I had few equals, especially considering my tender years, for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God. Yes, so settled and rooted was I in these things that they became as second nature to me” (from his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners).
In 1644, after a series of tragic events, including the death of his mother and younger sister, and his father’s remarriage, Bunyan enlisted in the army at the age of sixteen. He served for three years, during which he saw little military action. In his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan tells of how as he and his company were going into battle, another officer took his place. That same officer was, as he stood watch, was shot in the head by a musketball and died. “Here were judgements and mercy, but neither of them did awaken by soul to righteousness. Therefore, I sinned still, growing more and more rebellious and careless of my own salvation.”
In 1649, he married his first wife. At this same time, Bunyan also began to conform his behaviour to more “polite” society, but was still did not know Jesus Christ. “I was nothing but a poor painted hypocrite,” he said amidst the praise due to his seeming growth in godliness. Eventually, true faith emerged around the year 1653, but it was long embattled.
Despair struck Bunyan when his first child was born blind, and after having three more children, his wife died in 1658. He remarried a year later. He experienced an extremely dark spiritual time, questioning his salvation, his repentence of earlier sins, and his relationship with God. Temptation and condemnation weighed upon him heavily, and he could rarely see hope, even in the words of Scripture.
Bunyan emerged from this dark time of trial as a bold and confident preacher, a Non-Conformist who practiced the faith apart from the State Church of England. In 1660, under the rule of Charles II, Bunyan was jailed for preaching of the Word of God without license. Despite his wife’s best efforts, he would remain in prison for the next 12 years.
During this time, Bunyan began his (in)famous writing career, in which he penned many books, including his autobiography. After his release, under Charles II’s Declaration of Indulgence, Bunyan took on the role of pastor to the community of Bedford, his home. When persecution was renewed in 1677, he was again jailed for six months. In 1678, the first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress was published in London. A sequel was published six years later.
The editors of the Whitaker House edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress describes Bunyan as follows:
Although Bunyan had a limited amount of schooling, his work as a writer was that of an accomplished artist. He handled all areas of writing—satire, heroic splendor, humor and spiritual fervor—with incomparable expertise. He was able to skillfully combine the spiritual principles of the Bible with the practical living of the common people he knew so well.
The Pilgrim’s Progress would go on to become a staple of every home in Britain, Europe and North America for more than two hundred years. Of this work, it’s said to be second only to the Bible in number of copies sold and translated into other languages.
John Bunyan died at the age of 59 in 1688 in London, after journeying to preach there. Having ridden during heavy rain to settle a dispute between a father and son, he developed an accute fever, possibly pneumonia. While Bunyan has long ago gone to see Jesus face-to-face, his writing and legacy live on to bring glory to God, and encourage us to perservere until the day we join him in the Celestial city.