Dr. Herbert Samworth
among the many books written about the life of John Bunyan are:
A Tinker and a Poor Man; John Bunyan, Immortal Dreamer;
and John Bunyan, Mechanick Preacher. These titles seek to
encapsulate the essential character of the man who wrote the book
that has been printed more times in the English language than any
other with the exception of the Bible. That book is The Pilgrims
Progress, an allegory that traces the journey of Christian from
the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. This article, on
a far more modest scale, is an attempt to accomplish the same purpose
as the books listed above.
argument can be made that the essential details and formative influences
on Bunyans life can be traced by using the titles of his books.
However, we must be aware that Bunyan was a prolific author and
the number of his books and treatises exceeded sixty. These books
cover a broad range of topics. In a three-volume edition of his
Works, published in the nineteenth century, his books were
placed in one of three classifications: doctrinal, experiential,
or practical. His doctrinal works, such as Justification by Faith
and Reprobation Asserted, explained the major teachings of
the Christian faith. His experiential works included A Treatise
on the Fear of God. Among his practical writings were Christian
Behaviour and One Thing is Needful. The placing of his
books under any particular classification is somewhat arbitrary
because all were marked by a judicious blend of doctrine, conviction,
attempt a description of Bunyans life and character by utilizing
the titles of three of his books. These are his best-known ones
and have been reprinted into the twenty-first century. They are
Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, The Holy War,
and The Pilgrims Progress. While it is true that several
of his lesser-known books are available as well as a complete edition
of his Works, these three are the ones that most people would
associate with his name. We will also seek to demonstrate that these
books aid us in understanding his life in an even more basic orientation
as a "ploughboy." For us to do this, it will be necessary
for us to review the salient facts of his life to provide the proper
born on November 30, 1628 in Elstow, England. He was the son of
Thomas and Margaret Bunyan. Margaret was the second wife of Thomas;
his first wife, Anne Pinney, had died several years before. John
was the first child of Thomas and Margaret, two other children,
Margaret and William, would follow. Thomas Bunyan was known a "tinker"
or "braseyer," one who sold and mended pots, pans, and
other household tools and utensils. While this was a humble occupation,
it should not be imagined that it carried a low social rating and
abject poverty. Although the details of his parents religious
convictions are unknown, there is good reason to believe that they
attended the local parish church. It is also apparent that the Bunyans
valued education because Thomas and his wife sent their son to school.
Although the instruction he received was meager enough, it was comparable
to what other boys of his time and social standing could obtain
and enabled him to read and write.
in which John grew to manhood in rural England were portentous of
earth-shattering changes in the fabric of English society. King
Charles I and Parliament were locked in a struggle to determine
who was the ultimate political authority. At the same time Charlesdemand
for religious uniformity was being rigorously enforced by William
Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. As a result numerous people departed
England for the New World where they could worship according to
their interpretation of Scripture and the dictates of their consciences.
A civil war erupted between the Crown and Parliament in the early
life was dramatically changed in 1644 when his mother died and he
entered the army as a private soldier. The Civil War between Charles
I and Parliament had reached a crisis state when it appeared that
Charles was gaining the upper hand. Under Oliver Cromwell, the Army
was reorganized on a "New Model" plan and soon the tide
of fortune began to flow in the direction of Parliament. Bunyans
two and one half years as a soldier exposed him to a different world
and association with a new class of persons. In early 1647 the scene
of the war shifted to Ireland, and although Bunyan had volunteered
to go, his company was suddenly disbanded and he was discharged
on July 21.
to which Bunyan returned in the summer of 1647 following his enlistment
was very different than the one he had left some two and one half
years before. His father had remarried during his absence and Fairfaxs
army was quartered near the village. The time had arrived for Bunyan
to venture into the world and assume responsibility for his own
living. However, the venture did not take him far from home because
he followed the same occupation as his father. He also married,
and despite all attempts to learn the name of his wife, she still
remains unknown to us today.
interesting aspect of this period of his life was the intense spiritual
struggle that he endured for several years. This conflict is chronicled
on the pages of Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.
In our age, when spiritual realities are often discounted as illusionary,
the intensity and reality of this spiritual battle may be difficult
to grasp. Bunyan related one such incident while he was participating
in a game of tipcat on the village green one Sunday afternoon when
he believed he heard a voice from heaven speaking directly to him
saying, "Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or have
thy sins and go to hell?" This threw him into a paroxysm of
terror but the impression soon wore off. There was another occasion
while ringing the church bell that he was convinced that the bell
was about to fall and crush him to death.
conflicts are rehearsed in vivid detail on the pages of Grace
Abounding. One literary critic has placed Bunyans autobiography
among the three greatest autobiographies ever written. The other
two were The Confessions of Augustine and The Autobiography
of Thomas Halyburton, a Church of Scotland minister who died
in the early eighteenth century. Whether or not one would agree
with this assessment, there is no doubt that Bunyan was serious
in his search for spiritual peace. One must read the book to learn
how Bunyan received what he termed his "outgate" to the
knowledge of forgiveness and spiritual peace.
was experiencing his spiritual struggles, things were going badly
for the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. After his death, and the
failure of his son Richard to govern England effectively, Charles
II was recalled from exile in 1660. Although Charles had promised
liberty to "tender consciences," it soon became apparent
that he intended to enforce a religious uniformity even more rigorous
than that of his father. The climax of this policy to achieve religious
uniformity came on August 24, 1662 when nearly two thousand clergymen
were ejected from the Church of England. Not only were they prohibited
from preaching in establishment churches, they were barred from
exercising any ministerial functions whatsoever.
also affected those who had remained outside of the established
church, especially the Baptists and the Quakers. The full force
of the law against non-conformity was wielded against them. By this
time much had occurred in Bunyans life. His first wife died
leaving him with four small children, the oldest of whom was eight
years of age and the youngest a mere infant. He married again and
all we know of his second wife was that her name was Elizabeth.
She proved to be a true helpmeet to him in the trials that were
soon to overtake them.
before, Bunyan followed his fathers trade of a "tinker."
However, others recognized a gift for speaking and Bunyan began
to edify the Baptist congregation of Bedford with his preaching.
The repressive arm of the law was soon brought against him and he
was arrested for preaching without a license. Following a mock trial
and Bunyans refusal to confirm, he was confined for the next
twelve years in the Bedford County Gaol.
It is almost
inconceivable to us today how a man could remain in prison twelve
years when he could have gone free merely by conforming to the ceremonies
of the English Church. It is even more incredible when we recall
that Bunyan was married and his family was dependent upon him for
their support. Even modern authors, who give us great insight into
Bunyans character and demonstrate a true sympathy with his
writings, are frequently baffled by his refusal to conform solely
for consciences sake.
Yet, a failure
to understand the role his conscience played in his actions will
result in a great misperception of Bunyan. Although The Holy
War would not be written for twenty-two years after John Bunyan
entered the door of the Bedford Prison, this book gives us the greatest
insight into his actions. The theme of The Holy War was the
capture and liberation of the soul of a man. The soul was portrayed
allegorically as a city that had been deceived and captured by Diabolus
and later liberated by Emmanuel. Using figurative language John
Bunyan demonstrated the worth of the human soul and the great spiritual
battle required to liberate it. Bunyan also possessed the ability
to see beyond just the individual persons to "the larger picture"
of mankind enslaved by Diabolus. For John Bunyan the "larger
picture" always included the reality of spiritual bondage and
to Bunyans conduct is to understand that he firmly believed
that his conscience had been captive to Diabolus and subsequently
had been liberated by Emmanuel. His conscience was now under the
authority of Emmanuel, the Captain of his salvation. The battle
that raged about him did not involve just him but also included
the cosmic warfare being waged in heaven and on the earth. He was
a soldier and Emmanuel had ordered that his place of duty was the
Bedford Gaol. To maintain a clear conscience, he was required to
remain at his post of duty. Therefore, other considerations, no
matter how they struck at his tenderest feelings as a husband and
father, had to give way in obedience to the One Who had liberated
we can now understand how Bunyan could refer to himself as "the
Lords free prisoner." As strange it may seem to twenty-first
century thinking with its emphasis on freedom and individual expression,
there is every reason to believe that Bunyan was convinced he was
more at liberty in his prison cell than those who had put him there.
in an effort to reduce political and ecclesiastical tensions, Charles
II issued an indulgence that permitted Non-Conformists to obtain
licenses to worship freely. Under the provisions of this Act, Bunyan
was released from prison after twelve years. Because of his books
and the respect earned by his long period of imprisonment, Bunyan
was nominated as pastor of the congregation that came to be called
the Bunyan Meeting. For twelve years, during Bunyans imprisonment,
the congregation did not have a settled meeting place. With the
release of Bunyan from prison, the congregation secured a license
to worship at the barn of Josias Ruffhead that he had purchased
for this purpose.
election as pastor of the congregation, Bunyan entered into the
third and final phase of his life and ministry. Although six months
of imprisonment in 1676 still awaited him, these sixteen years would
be the most fruitful of his life. Not only had he been chosen as
the pastor of the congregation of Bunyan Meeting, he was accorded
an unofficial position as "Bishop Bunyan." This was not
an official position recognized by his fellow Baptists because the
Baptist form of church government did not include the ecclesiastical
title of Bishop. Rather, it was an honor graciously accorded to
him because of his writings and faithfulness under persecution.
But by no means was it a position of ease because the faithful completion
of its duties contributed to his death in 1688. Nevertheless, whatever
labor it involved, Bunyan gladly undertook it because of his high
sense of calling.
imprisonment in 1676 was the most important event of this period.
During that time in the Bedford Prison, he completed work on the
book that established his fame, The Pilgrims Progress.
It is impossible to speak of that book apart from the name of John
Bunyan. Like The Holy War, The Pilgrims Progress
was an allegory. Using a genre, common to that time and to Scripture
itself, of a spiritual pilgrimage, Bunyan traced the path of the
Christian from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. If
Bunyan had written nothing else, his name would have been immortalized
through being its author. It is a book that must be read to be appreciated.
how does this book illustrate this period of Bunyans life?
As pastor, it was Bunyans responsibility to guide his people
on their spiritual journey. Certainly, his messages would have been
based on the text of Scripture, but The Pilgrims Progress
mirrors the Scriptures in such a manner that people can see their
reflection and make application to their lives. In summary, his
message was two-fold one of admonition and encouragement. People
needed to be warned of the danger of sin so they would flee from
the City of Destruction. Most were asleep and unaware of their danger.
Bunyan used Christian as an example of one who had awakened to his
perilous condition and had fled from the City of Destruction to
the place of salvation. In addition to being warned, people needed
to be encouraged to persevere in the pilgrimage to the Celestial
City. The way was often long and dangerous and there were many battles
to be fought. By means of the various incidents and character descriptions,
Bunyan skillfully limned the nature of the Christian life and pilgrimage.
Obstacles and enemies were drawn with the skill of a master teacher
who was preparing his pupils to contend successfully with their
that the three main periods of Bunyans life: conversion, prison,
pastorate can be illustrated by means of the books mentioned above,
how can one justify characterizing Bunyan as a "ploughboy?"
To understand this, we must note a statement made by William Tyndale,
the translator of the English Bible. Echoing a previous statement
of Erasmus, Tyndale reportedly said:
spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth
the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.
Tyndales life long enough for him to give a great portion
of the Bible to the English people in their vernacular language.
Although Bunyan was a tinker and not a ploughboy [although they
were nearly the same as far as their status in society was concerned]
he had been given the Scriptures and he learned them well. C. H.
Spurgeon, the great English preacher, stated of Bunyan:
[Read] him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline,
the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak
without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God
and the Scriptures will flow out.
As Ola Winslow
has so aptly stated, "In a very true sense John Bunyan was
one of Tyndales plowboys." However radical an idea, and
a seeming impossibility when Tyndale uttered the words, it became
true of John Bunyan. Who would have ever imagined that the ploughboy
and tinker would know as much, if not more, of the Scriptures than
the learned theologian?
we must take this a step further as it applied to John Bunyan. If
Tyndales idea, that the ploughboy could know more of the Scriptures
than the theologian, was radical, how much more radical would be
the thought that a ploughboy could have the ability to teach others?
This is what Bunyan was able to do in a masterful manner. If one
doubts the truth of this statement, consider the following. John
Owen is considered by many to be the greatest theologian England
ever produced. His Collected Works occupy twenty-four volumes
in their modern edition. Whenever John Bunyan came to London, Owen
was always among his auditors. John Owen was not ashamed to confess
that he learned more from the "tinker" than any other
preacher or theologian!
would have discounted Owens praise. He would have attributed
everything to the Word of God and nothing to his preaching or writing.
In this denial, he would have been correct. However, by his preaching
and writings that illustrated the great truths of conversion, spiritual
conflict, and hope, Bunyan educated a generation of tinkers and
ploughboys in the knowledge of the Scriptures. And John Bunyan,
Ploughboy, continues to educate our generation.