The most influential Christian of all time - John Bunyan
John Bunyan is known throughout the world as the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the greatest classics in the English language. First published in 1678, with a second part added in 1684, this amazing book has never been out of print.
Pilgrim Progress has always been one of my favourite books. I remember my dad buying me this picture filled book when I was about 10 years old from the ship called Logos which came to Madras (now called Chennai), India. I was a very ardent reader right from a very early age and when I saw this book I was so hooked to it. I still hold this copy as one of my priced possessions. As the second most read book in the world next to the Bible, it has been translated into more than 200 languages and never been out of print.
Whether you read this beloved classic as a kid or as an adult, chances are that you were left with the memory of several vivid scenes from the pilgrim’s journey and some very interesting characters.
I heard and read the story as a kid, and have read the book multiple times. Every time I do, something stands out from the pages and speaks to the current situation in my life or leaves a lasting lesson or memory about some rich truths from the Scripture. Sometimes, it answers a difficult theological question I’ve been chewing on.
John Bunyan was born in Elstow, near Bedford, in 1628, the son of Thomas Bunyan and Margaret Bentley. He followed his father into the tinker’s trade but rebelled against God and ‘had but few equals, both for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God’. As a teenager, he joined Cromwell’s New Model Army, but continued his rebellious ways. His life was saved on one occasion when a fellow-soldier took his place at the siege of Leicester, and ‘as he stood sentinel he was shot in the head with a musket bullet and died’.
Discharged from the army after three years, Bunyan married a God-fearing woman (whose name is unknown) in 1648, who brought two books to the marriage: The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven (Arthur Dent) and The Practice of Piety (Lewis Bayly). These convicted Bunyan of his sin and he made attempts to reform his life. But he realised that he was lost and without Christ when he came into contact with a group of women whose ‘joyous conversation about the new birth and Christ deeply impressed him’. In 1651 the women introduced him to their pastor in Bedford, John Gifford, who was instrumental in leading Bunyan to repentance and faith.
That same year he moved to Bedford with his wife and four children, including Mary, his firstborn, who had been blind from birth. He was baptised by immersion in the River Ouse in 1653. Appointed a deacon of Gifford’s church, Bunyan’s testimony was used to lead several people to conversion. By 1655 Bunyan was himself preaching to various congregations in Bedford, and hundreds came to hear him. John Owen said of him that he would gladly exchange all his learning for Bunyan’s power of touching men’s hearts.
In the following years, Bunyan began publishing books and became established as a reputable Puritan writer, but around this time, his first wife died. He remarried in 1659, a godly young woman named Elizabeth, who was to be a staunch advocate for her husband during his imprisonments – for in 1660 Bunyan was arrested for preaching without official permission from King Charles II; he was to spend the next 12½ years in Bedford County Gaol.
Although a time of much suffering, Bunyan’s years in prison were productive, for he wrote extensively, with only the Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs beside him, publishing such titles as Christian Behaviour, The Holy City and A Defence of the Doctrine of Justification. Of particular significance for his life-story was Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, which chronicled his life up to the time of his imprisonment.
He was eventually released in 1672, and took up his pastorate in Bedford, having been appointed by the congregation the preceding January. After some fruitful years of ministry, in March of 1675 Bunyan was again imprisoned for preaching publicly without a license. It was during this imprisonment that he began the first part of his most famous book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which was to sell more than 100,000 copies in its first ten years in print.
Released in 1677, Bunyan spent the last ten years of his life ministering to his congregation and writing, including – Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ (1678), The Life and Death of Mr Badman (1680), The Holy War (1682), and the second part of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1685). He published ten more books in the last three years of his life, amongst them The Jerusalem Sinner Saved and The Acceptable Sacrifice.
In August 1688, after successfully mediating in a disagreement between a father and son, as he was riding from Reading in Berkshire to London, Bunyan caught a cold and developed a fever. He died at the house of his friend John Strudwick, a grocer and chandler on Snow Hill in Holborn.
Bunyan’s dedication, diligence, and zeal as preacher, evangelist, and pastor earned him the nickname of “Bishop Bunyan.” Although he frequently preached in villages near Bedford, and at times in London churches, Bunyan always refused to move from Bedford.
The Pilgrim’s Progress was a best-seller from the moment of its publication. Much of its attraction in English lies in the beauty and simplicity of Bunyan’s prose, and in the vividness with which he brings his allegorical characters to life, acutely catching the rhythms of colloquial speech. Its influence was profound, as any reader of nineteenth-century fiction will know. Maggie Tulliver, Adam Bede, Little Nell, Nicholas Nickleby, and Huckleberry Finn all read The Pilgrim’s Progress. Many other novels draw upon Bunyan in their structure, setting and thematic development – think of Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Vanity Fair, not to speak of books for children like Little Women or The Wizard of Oz.
As it entered other cultures and societies in over 200 translations, it was adapted and appropriated for different purposes, and its meanings changed significantly. This is especially obvious in the illustrations, where, for example, we see Christian in the garb of a Samurai warrior, or leaving an African hut to set off on his journey. The narrative of a man on a quest for the truth is one with strong echoes in folk-tale, and it is not difficult to see how it was able to transcend national barriers to become a world book. The heroes of The Pilgrim’s Progress are ordinary people striving to hold on to their beliefs in a hostile and uncomprehending society. Their story continues to inspire the imagination of readers across the world.
It is a book strongly marked by his experience of persecution and suffering. The central character, Christian, is warned from the outset of the trials and dangers he will have to undergo on his journey from the City of Destruction. His pilgrimage takes him through the Slough of Despond and the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and he has to contend with enemies like the fiendish Apollyon and Giant Despair. But with the help of his trusty companions, Faithful and Hopeful, he finally makes it to the Celestial City. The famous episode at Vanity Fair, where Faithful is put to death, dramatizes, in part, Bunyan’s own trial before the Bedfordshire magistrates. What comes across is the cultural isolation of the pilgrims, and their awareness that they are a minority battling for survival against the dominant forces of the day.
Finally I would like to leave you with a quote by C. H. Spurgeon "Next to the Bible, the book I value most is Pilgrim's Progress. I believe I have read it through at least a hundred times. It is a volume of which I never seem to tire; and the secret of its freshness is that it is so largely compiled from the Scriptures. It is really Biblical teaching put into the form of a simple yet very striking allegory."