John Bunyan – A “Tinker” of Souls
John Bunyan (1628 – 1688) is best remembered as the author of the beloved Christian classic Pilgrim’s Progress. A Baptist minister, he would become one of England‘s most celebrated prisoners. He is born in Bedfordshire, the son of a tinker who went from house to house repairing broken items. Bunyan later recalls living in abject poverty; with little formal schooling and “without God,” he was an unruly child.
Later, while serving three years in the parliamentary army, he senses God singling him out for protection, while other soldiers around him die in battle. On leaving the military, he takes up his father’s trade and becomes an impoverished tinker. When he marries Mary at twenty-one, he becomes convicted of his sinful life of worldlinessâ€”particularly dancing and sportsâ€”and begins attending church. In 1653, at the age of twenty-five, he is baptized and licensed to serve as a lay preacher.
With Mary’s death six years into their marriage, Bunyan is left alone with four little children. Moving to Bedford, he remarries and begins his preaching ministry. His is a simple style of biblical storytelling, but he is soon drawing crowds, some coming from great distances to hear him. However, the timing corresponds with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. After twenty years of freedom of worship, Nonconformist services are banned, and ministers are rounded up and arrested. Thus begins Bunyan’s dozen years of prison. His second wife, Elizabeth, only seventeen when they marry, is now alone with young children. Yet she becomes his strongest defender and advocate, going before judges and magistrates and pleading his cause.
He can free himself by promising not to preach, but he refuses. He tells local magistrates that he would rather remain in prison until “moss grows on his eyelids” than fail to do what God has commanded him to do. Unlike many seventeenth-century incarcerations, his time behind bars is not all misery. In fact, guarded by a friendly small-town jailor, he is permitted some nights at home, and visitors are welcome. Most astonishingly, on occasion he is allowed to preach to those gathered in “unlawful assemblies.” But the most precious freedom he enjoys is time for reading and writing.
Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, his spiritual memoir of his early life and ministry, is a treasured piece of Puritan writing. With a simple straightforward style, he records events and relationships without overstated religious piety. He confesses temptations even during his Sunday sermon. Besides inner struggle, he confronts community gossip and rumors of his own sexual impropriety, which he insists are untrue.
Bunyan’s final years in jail are devoted primarily to writing Pilgrim’s Progress, the book for which he became famous. He is released, however, before the volume is finished. When Charles II issues the Declaration of Indulgence, freeing Nonconformists from their prison cells, Bunyan wastes no time in getting back into regular ministry. But he soon finds himself back in jail when Nonconformity is again made illegal. The six-month confinement affords more time for writing.
Pilgrim’s Progress, quickly regarded as a literary masterpiece, is an allegory that touches the emotions like few other books have, spanning every social class and religious identity. By the time of his death there are nearly a hundred thousand copies in print.
While his fame is spreading, Bunyan continues to preach as an itinerant evangelist. Indeed, he travels so much that he is dubbed “Bishop Bunyan.” He also serves as chaplain to the mayor of London. All the while he continues writing, producing in 1680 what some have regarded the first English novel: The Life and Death of Mr. Badman. He also writes theologically oriented treatises, including Differences in Judgement about Water-Baptism no Bar to Communion.
If you enjoyed the above article, please take a minute to read about the book that it was adapted from:
Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church
by Ruth A. Tucker