Aaron Pelttari and Caleb Griffis

J.E. and the 18th Century

Prof. Westblade

October 1, 2003         


John Bunyan: The Man, the Myth, and the Ox.


            John Bunyan was born in November 1628 in Elstow, a small village just outside Bedford in Bedfordshire, England. He was born the son of a tinker, was saved by grace around the age of twenty-five, and became one of the most knowledgeable preachers of God’s word—both by word and pen—that has ever lived. Bunyan held to the Puritan doctrines of grace and election, which he defended by means of his vast Biblical knowledge; and he expounded and defended these and many other doctrines in the more than forty works that he published during his lifetime, not counting works published posthumously. Of course, he gained the most fame for his enduring allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which is indicative of its author, in that it is steeped in the Word of God. Even by taking a cursory look at his writings, the fact becomes obvious that Bunyan had an intimate knowledge of the Bible and that his knowledge naturally found expression in his writing. Thus, the man went from being in his younger days a self-acclaimed heathen to loving deeply the things of God. As a result of his encounter with grace, Bunyan then became England’s chief proponent of the faith rooted in the Word.

            John Bunyan’s father, Thomas Bunyan, was a tinker who worked with pots and pans. His family had owned property in Bedfordshire as early as the twelfth century, and John inherited his craft from his father.[1] Bunyan attended elementary school until he was ten, at which age he left school to become a tinker with his father.[2] He learned to read and write during this time, reading the Life of Sir Bevis of Southampton, a popular book, and the Bible; but after leaving school, he quickly forgot both how to read and write, until some ten years later, when his wife helped him learn again. After his mother died in 1644, he joined the Parliamentary army and served four years with the revolutionary forces. In 1648, Bunyan married a wife whose name has not survived but who aided his conversion: She brought two devotional books into the marriage as her dowry and she taught John to read again. These likely contributed to his intense spiritual struggles over the next five years and to his ultimate conversion. Thus, Bunyan lived an unremarkable life before God saw fit to reveal his grace and majesty to this “chief of sinners.”

            Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Or a Brief Relation of the Exceeding Mercy of God in Christ, to his Poor Servant John Bunyan is the title of Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, written in 1666, while he was in prison for preaching without a license. Bunyan was first impressed by a great conviction of sin, in particular the sin of playing games on the Sabbath. He writes in his autobiography, “[As] I was in the midst of a game of cat, and having struck it one blow from the hole, just as I was about to strike it a second time, a voice did suddenly dart from heaven into my soul which said, ‘Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or have thy sins and go to hell?’”[3] Bunyan also recalls the conversation of several women he overhead: “Their talk was about a new birth, the work of God in their hearts. . . . They talked how God had visited their souls with his love in the Lord Jesus.”[4] Bunyan was puzzled and struggled to understand how he might live holily and what was meant by the “new birth.” Between 1648 and 1651, while Bunyan was encountering God in the ways that he later described in Grace Abounding, he also met John Gifford, the pastor of an independent church in Bedford, who influenced him deeply. As he recalls that God both cleared away his guilt and gave him new life in one way, Bunyan writes, “Suddenly, this sentence fell upon my soul, Thy righteousness is in heaven. And me thought, with awe, I saw, with the eyes of my soul, Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, was my righteousness.”[5] Thus, Bunyan discovered the truths that he would later expound both for those living in his own day and for many generations to come. In 1653, Bunyan joined the church led by Gifford in Bedford; and in 1655, having become a deacon, he began to preach locally. His preaching, afterwards, led both to his writings and to his imprisonment, which are to be considered next.

            Bunyan began the largely extemporaneous preaching for which he was highly regarded two years after he joined the Bedford church. His sermons were full of scripture; for, although he knew neither Greek nor Hebrew, his understanding of the Bible was complete such that he would have an appropriate reference for seemingly every possibility. As the sermons that he preached influenced the rhetoric of his written works, Bunyan sounds like a preacher in his writings. His first written work, Some Gospel Truths Opened, was published in 1656 in response to the recent Quaker movement and in defense of the supremacy of God’s Word for faith. From this point of his life on, Bunyan preached, spent time in prison because of it, and wrote. In 1658, he was indicted for preaching without a license, but the case never came to trial. In 1660, the year of the Restoration, he was arrested for preaching, charged for holding unlicensed conventicles, and sentenced to prison. He then spent twelve years, with a brief reprieve during the sixth year, in the Bedford jail. During his time in prison, he wrote eleven books, the chief of them Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners in 1666. As an interesting note, the only books that he is known to have had in prison were Fox’s Book of Martyrs and the Bible. After the end of his first imprisonment, which ended as Charles relaxed statutes against the Nonconformists, Bunyan spent one more term in prison, this time for six months in 1675. During his second imprisonment, Bunyan wrote Pilgrims Progress, and he subsequently published the first edition in 1678. This allegory was instantly popular, and it quickly made Bunyan the best-known proponent of Puritan theology. Thus, Bunyan went from being a common profligate before his conversion to being, through grace, a man most adept at conveying the truths revealed in the Bible.

            Although known primarily for his allegorical writing, Bunyan was also outspoken about his theology. As a preacher Bunyan debated in favor of the Puritan, Calvinist viewpoint. Even The Pilgrim’s Progress is clear in its Puritan theology yet at the same time is free from being the “peculiar possession of any one Christian denomination.”[6] This most likely accounts for its widespread success since it was able to relate to so many and offend so few. Even so, Bunyan still works his theology into every part of his writing to make known what he saw as truth.

            The main theological opponent for Bunyan was John Burrough, a Quaker who sharply disagreed with Bunyan’s theology. Bunyan commonly debated Burrough and other Quakers in actual dialogue as well as in writings and books he published. One of the main issues that Bunyan had problems finding common ground with the Quakers was that of Christ’s humanity. As Bunyan saw it, the Quakers did not believe in the full humanity of Christ. The Quakers would emphasize Christ within and claim that Christians should be guided primarily by the voice of God inside of them. Burrough defended his position stating that he did believe in the full humanity of Christ and gives grounds for his beliefs. Bunyan never responds to this again.[7] One of the main reasons that Bunyan questioned the belief of the Quakers was that they also claimed to have no belief in the actual physical resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The Quakers thought that Jesus only spiritually resurrected and ascended. Of course this created a problem for Bunyan’s theology since Christ’s death and resurrection are the basis of Christianity. Since physical death could not have killed the spirit of Christ a spiritual resurrection would have had no significance. Therefore, a spiritual resurrection does very little for salvation to Christians. Burrough and Bunyan often disagreed and seemingly never reconciled any of their debates since both had some arguments that the other could not be convinced of.

            Bunyan had a very strong view of the Spirit’s work in the lives of Christians. Bunyan did not question the reality of Christ within, which the Quakers emphasized and of which Burrough claimed Bunyan had a very limited view.[8] The creative writer simply opposed the Quaker view that emphasized the Spirit of Christ to the point of diminishing his humanity. His belief was that “the revelatory work of the Spirit through Scripture was sufficient for all religious knowledge, and coupled this with a warning against dependence on the much adored idol of university education.”[9] There was a fear of too much human thought getting in the way of the work of Christ. Bunyan had no formal education and did not see it as a necessary tool to interpret scripture since the Spirit of Christ would be there to guide a Christian. Christ’s Spirit and conscience also had a relationship that lead an unregenerate to God, Bunyan believed. As Bunyan viewed the conscience, it was able to make one aware of sins, an eternal deity, and the human responsibility to obey God whereas the Spirit of Christ had the capability to deliver the elect from the curse of sinning against God’s divine law. Bunyan shows his view of a very active Spirit and the reality of the human responsibility in his reformed theology.

            By viewing the scripture as authoritative and agreeing with Spirit-lead revelation Bunyan held a very common Protestant view of scripture’s place in the Christian life. Bunyan thought “truth is found in scripture, but God reveals it only to those who have received the spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ.”[10] This as before stated was different from that of the Burrough and the Quakers since they believed in the Spirit’s voice inside of each Christian as authoritative. Thus, a tension was found here as well. Bunyan “favored a plain interpretation of scripture and stressed the Holy Spirit’s role in enlightening the reader’s understanding.”[11] The problem with this thinking was that Burrough also believed that the Spirit led the interpretation of scripture. Bunyan and Burrough disagreed on so many issues, yet each thought that they were rendering the inspired interpretation of scripture.

            To Bunyan the sacraments were not essential to the church. His Puritan, and thus Calvinistic thinking was the cause of this conclusion. Baptism and Communion were excellent “representatives of Christ’s death and resurrection but not of the faith.” Bunyan called them “mystical Ministries.”[12] The divisions in the church were a point of frustration for Bunyan and he saw that “because divisions over baptism discriminate between the elect they are ‘momentary and hatch in darkness.’”[13] This led Bunyan to believe that there was no need for baptism for Christians to participate in communion. Baptism had no saving power and was not needed since Bunyan thought that it was just a source of dividing people in the church. In one sense, because of election, whether or not someone was baptized did not matter. Bunyan called “for the acceptance of any into church membership and communion who profess faith in Christ, repent of their sinfulness, and live a virtuous life.”[14] As a result of his claims in A Confession of My Faith and a Reason of My Practice he was accused of being against paedobaptism. “Not only did Bunyan embrace believer’s baptism, but he deemed those who rely solely on Spirit-baptism to be deficient in ‘light.’”[15] The way in which a person lived and proclaimed Christ in their life was more important to Bunyan than baptism. Although Bunyan was lax on letting un-baptized Christians join in communion he did not allow the unregenerate to participate. Bunyan was very strict on this point and believed that “Mixed communion polluteth the ordinances of God.”[16] The sacraments did have meaning for Bunyan but in his mind they held no ultimate power over the salvation of lost souls and therefore had very little importance to him especially in comparison to many of his Catholic and Anglican contemporaries.

            Bunyan exerted a profound influence on the typology of the England in which he lived and, as his England influenced the colonies, on the New England in which Jonathan Edwards lived. He made the Christian life come alive in his allegories, and he preached the word of God, which was the center of the Puritan movement. Moreover, he himself was imprisoned for preaching this gospel to which he wholeheartedly adhered. In regards to theology, he, like Edwards after him, opposed mixed communion. Both did so as a result of their passion for the truth of God revealed in the Bible, and both were strongly committed to this truth. And so, Bunyan’s passion for the truth and ability to communicate it in word and letter have made him influential among Christians from the time in 1655 when he first began to preach until today.       


[1] Latham, George W. “The Life of John Bunyan.” The Pilgrims Progress by John Bunyan. Scott, Foresman and Company: Chicago, 1906. http://www.wholesomewords.org/biography/bbunyan4.html. Accessed on Sept. 28, 2003.

[2] “Introduction,” Pilgrim’s Progress. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 1999, xii.

[3] Bunyan, John. Grace Abounding. Quoted in “The Life of John Bunyan.” The Pilgrims Progress by John Bunyan. Scott, Foresman and Company: Chicago, 1906. http://www.wholesomewords.org/biography/bbunyan4.html. Accessed on Sept. 28, 2003.


[4] Bunyan, John. Grace Abounding. Quoted in They Found the Secret, “John Bunyan.” by Raymond V. Edman. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1984. 35.

[5] Ibid, 37.


[6] Latham, George W. “John Bunyan Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners” http://wholesomewords.org/bigraphy/bbunyan5.html. Accessed on September 30, 2003

[7] Greaves, Richard L., “Glimpses of Glory,” 81.

[8] Ibid, 80.

[9] Greaves, Richard L., “John Bunyan,” 24.

[10] Greaves, Richard L., “Glimpses of Glory,” 78.

[11] Ibid, 79.

[12] Greaves, Richard L., “Glimpses of Glory,” 274.

[13] Bunyan, John, “The Miscellaneous Works of John Bunyan,” 4:178. Quoted in Greaves, “Glimpses of Glory,” 274.

[14] Greaves, Richard L., Glimpses of Glory, 274.

[15] Ibid, 275.

[16] Ibid, 274.