John Bunyan was born in Elstow, near Bedford, England, in 1628. His parents were poor, and his father was a metalworker, or “tinker,” who traveled around mending pots and pans; John followed in his father’s trade. He had no formal education but learned to read and write.
Although we have few details about his early life, in his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, he tells us his parents did not encourage him in matters of spirituality at home. He was rough, enjoyed dancing and playing tipcat, and was given to “cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God.”
In 1644 Bunyan lost both his mother and sister Margaret. Later that same year, when an edict demanded 225 recruits from Bedford, he entered the Parliamentary Army as a private at sixteen.
There are few details about his military service, which took place during the English Civil War. However, during one battle, a fellow soldier died when he requested to go forward in Bunyan’s place. This dramatic event led Bunyan to believe God had spared his life for some purpose. His military service exposed him to a variety of religious sects while indulging in all sorts of ungodly behavior.
Bunyan spent nearly three years in the army before returning home in 1647 to continue his trade as a metalworker. His father was now remarried and had more children, so Bunyan moved to a cottage in Elstow High Street.
His first marriage, in 1648, was to a girl who was poor like himself but came from a godly family. Her name is unknown, but she owned two books, of which Bunyan said, “Her only portion was two volumes which her father had given her, ‘The Plain Man’s Pathway’ and ‘The Practice of Piety.’ In these I sometimes read, wherein I found some things pleasant to me.”
During his first five years of marriage, his wife would have a profound influence on his life as he attended church regularly and gave up his sinful life. He also pored over the Scriptures, leading him to his own thoughts about the conviction that he would later write about in detail.
He joined a Baptist society at Bedford and by 1653 had become a lay preacher as a member of the congregation at Bedford. Over time, Bunyan’s popularity exploded, and great crowds in the thousands would come to hear him preach.
Their first child, Mary, was born blind in 1650. They would have three more children: Elizabeth, Thomas, and John. But in 1658, ten years into their marriage, Bunyan’s wife died, leaving him with four small children under ten. A year later, in 1659, he got remarried to an eighteen-year-old young woman named Elizabeth.
However, their first year of marriage was interrupted when the religious tolerance that had allowed Bunyan to preach was curtailed when the monarchy was restored to power. In 1660 King Charles II came to the throne and ordered that all preachers that did not belong to the Church of England be imprisoned or banished.
Bunyan could no longer preach at the Anglican church where his congregation met. Still, he continued preaching in other places and later that year was warned that he would soon be arrested. He refused to escape and was arrested and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment. They threatened him with more jail time, banishment from England, and possible execution if he did not agree to stop preaching.
Although he could have his freedom whenever he wanted it, Bunyan refused to renounce preaching, opting to stand firm and keep a clear conscience instead; he was imprisoned for a total of twelve years in the Bedford County Jail.
Bunyan’s imprisonment brought great hardship to his family. Elizabeth, who was pregnant at the time of his arrest, would later give birth to a stillborn child. She continually attempted to secure her husband’s release while caring for Bunyan’s four small children, one of whom was blind. She relied on the charity of fellow church members and on what little Bunyan could earn in prison making shoelaces.
Occasionally they allowed him out of prison, where he attended the Bedford meetings and even preached. His daughter Sarah was born during his imprisonment, and a son, Joseph, was born after his release.
While imprisoned, he became the pastor of a congregation of inmates and stayed busy writing religious tracts, sermons, and nine books, including Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, which was published in 1666. In 1671 King Charles II issued a declaration of religious indulgences that released thousands of non-conformists from prison, including Bunyan, in 1672.
He immediately returned to preaching but three years later was imprisoned again for around six months. It was during this time that he began work on The Pilgrim’s Progress, which was published after his release.
Bunyan was never jailed again but spent the last fifteen years of his life preaching all over England, including a visit to London every year to deliver sermons to large Baptist congregations.
In August 1688, on his way to London to preach, Bunyan went to Reading Berkshire on a ministerial visit to help resolve a quarrel between a father and a son. As he returned to London on horseback, he got caught in a heavy rainstorm and fell ill with a violent fever, dying at the age of sixty.
He died at the house of his friend, John Strudwick, a grocer and chandler on Snow Hill in Holborn. His grave lies in the cemetery at Bunhill Fields in London.
John Bunyan, The People's Pilgrim - Short Documentary
This documentary reveals the story of John Bunyan’s life, his personal struggles, his triumphs, and his remarkable legacy. The uneducated son of a tinker, Bunyan survived the horrific English Civil War only to be jailed during an era of great religious persecution. From his jail cell Bunyan wrote his great allegory of the Christian life. The film was created by the Christian Television Association and produced by Gary Wilkinson. It is approximately 50 minutes long.