John Bunyan is loved by many and best known for the allegory The Pilgrims Progress. Because Bunyan was one of the earliest of the Particular Baptists, he holds special interest to us. He was born in around 1628 in Elstow, Bedfordshire. His exact birth date is not known but he was baptized on November 30, 1628.
Bunyan’s father was a tinker who traveled mending pots and pans; the family was of considerably limited financial resources. Bunyan’s mother and sister died when John was a teenager and this impacted him greatly. He then joined the army. He had picked up swearing from his father and put that to great use in his military service. While serving, he added other vices to this sin. He would later confess these things in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.
In 1647, he left the army and was married within two years. There is very little information known about his wife, but we do know that she was a devout Christian lady. The couple entered marriage with few material possessions. Bunyan records: “not having so much household-stuff as a dish or a spoon betwixt us both.” Despite their impoverished lifestyle, they had their first child, Mary, in 1650. She was born blind; they later had three other children born to them.
In Bunyan’s youth, he enjoyed bell-ringing, dancing, and playing games. He did sometimes play games on Sunday. One Sunday he heard a sermon from the Vicar of Elstow concerning Sabbath-breaking and felt greatly convicted. After this he was in great turmoil over the condition of his life and this went on for the next few years. Later, he heard some women talking about spiritual matters. They were members of the Bedford Free Church, a non-conformist group. He was converted and became a member of this church. Eventually, the members asked him to begin preaching. He did so and thus a preacher was born. In 1658, Bunyan’s wife died, leaving him with some very young children. Not too long thereafter he met a young woman named Elizabeth. They were soon married.
Bunyan had the freedom to preach as a non-conformist, but this was to be short-lived. This freedom was curtailed in 1660 by the restoration of the monarchy. A series of strict uniformity laws was shortly to be passed. He was arrested per the Conventicle Act of 1593, a law that made it illegal to hold religious services outside of the parish church. This was a largely unused law, but they applied it to Bunyan and the non-conformists in Bedford. It called for three months’ imprisonment and then banishment or execution if the person did not promise to not preach any further. Bunyan would not agree to stop preaching. Therefore, his imprisonment was extended to 12 years. His wife was left without means of support and to raise his four children alone. The church generously aided her in providing for their basic needs.
While in prison, Bunyan had a copy of the Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. He also had writing materials. We are blessed that so many of his writings have endured until present day. It was from his prison that he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. He also wrote a number of tracts. It is possible that some of this writing may even have brought his family a little bit of money. In 1672, the king enacted a declaration of indulgence. This sought the release of nonconformists. In May of that year Bunyan was released from prison and he immediately sought a license to legally preach.
After release from prison, Bunyan devoted his life to preaching and writing. He resumed the role of pastor of the church in Bedford where he was affectionately referred to as Bishop Bunyan. During the 1670’s, he faced two problems. He had allowed a young woman from the Bedford church to ride on his horse. There was no reason to suspect anything improper, but this event angered the girl’s father. Shortly afterward, her father died suddenly. It was suspected that she had poisoned her own father. However, the coroner report stated that he had died of natural causes. This definitely left its mark. The second ordeal involved another term in prison – likely a result of his refusal to attend the parish church.
In 1688, Bunyan was traveling through Reading, Berkshire to settle a dispute within a family. He was caught in a difficult snow storm and fell ill with a fever. By August, he died and was buried in a tomb owned by a friend. His burial was in Bunhill Fields, a nonconformist burial ground in London. His widow died in 1691, just three years later.
Bunyan published 42 writings during his lifetime. Some of these were world-changing documents. They are well worth our reading yet today. Many people still read and are deeply impacted by The Pilgriims Progress. The very first book that he penned was a religious tract titled “Some Gospel Truths Opened,” written to expose some errors of the Quakers and holding to a strong apologetic tone. Allegory was a frequent tool of Bunyan’s and he employed it to write The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, Pilgrims Progress, Part Two, and The Holy War. Another volume definitely worth noting is Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, his autobiography published in 1666 while he was still in prison. Other volumes of note would include Saved by Grace, Of Antichrist and His Ruin, A Holy Life, The Desire of the Righteous Granted, and A Few Sighs from Hell or The Groans of a Damned Soul. Much of Bunyan’s writing concerned living out the Christian life. Practical holiness was a strong theme in the development of his theology and a strong Particular Baptist theology is present throughout his corpus. Bunyan leaves us with a perception of the sovereignty of God in our salvation. Then he shows us that because of our election we ought to live out our Christian life in a certain manner. There is a strong practical note to much of his writing, a practicality that makes his writing very useful to us today more than 300 years later.
Bunyan gives incredible insight into the thinking of the Particular Baptist or non-conformist mindset of England in the 1600/s. He shows both doctrinal concerns as well as practical thinking driven by those concerns. Bunyan provides an unwavering example for us. His theology was so important to him that he was willing to endure prison. He sacrificed everything for the cause of the Gospel. His non-conformist thinking is very clear from this vantage point. Bunyan considered his beliefs worth being separated from his family. His practices and beliefs could have cost him his life, but his life was worth risking for the sake of the truth. We can take that example to heart today. Is the Gospel worth risking everything? Would we go to prison if needed for the truth? Would we sacrifice our own lives for the sake of the Gospel and the church? In Bunyan we see a life marked by the sacrifices that earmark biblical Christianity. Bunyan is a man we can follow, respect, and value.
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