John Bunyan was the son of a travelling tinker (a mender of pots and kettles) based in Bedford, and became one himself. Although tinkers were usually gipsies, the Bunyans were not. Bunyans could trace their ancestors in Bedford to the 12th century (although the family name went through thirty four spelling variations before settling on “Bunyan”). John never went to school, but he learnt to read and write at home.
Bunyan’s mother died when he was sixteen and his father quickly remarried. This seems to have provoked him into leaving home and becoming a soldier. It was the late stages of the first part of the Civil War. It is not known which side he fought on. He recounted later that he had a miraculous escape from death when another soldier traded places with him on a guard duty and was shot.
After the war, he went back to Bedford and to life as a tinker. He married in 1649. He and his wife were so poor they didn’t have so much as a dish or a spoon between them. But his wife brought two religious books from her father which kindled Bunyan’s religious interest. Up to that point apparently, Bunyan had been a fun-loving man. He liked dancing and bell-ringing and swore a great deal. The influence of his wife made him a reformed man. He went to church and read the Bible. In 1655 his wife died. He later wrote an account of his early married life (without once finding it necessary to mention his wife’s name in it).
Bunyan joined a non-conformist church and began preaching. His fame as a preacher soon spread. Huge crowds would flock to hear him in places around the Midlands. Local priests of the Church of England – who regarded this as an infringement on their preaching monopoly – were incensed. Bunyan was prosecuted for his preaching in 1658. He was accused of being a witch, a Jesuit, a highwayman, and of having two wives. None of these things were true of course.
In 1658 Bunyan began his writing career. His first two books were attacks on the Quakers. His third had the forbidding title, Sighs From Hell or The Groans of a Damned Soul.
The Restoration brought with it a crack-down on non-conformists. The law required everyone to attend their parish churches. It became illegal to conduct a service except in accordance with the ritual of the Church of England.
It was illegal for anyone who wasn’t a priest to address a congregation. Bunyan continued preaching, in barns, private houses, and out in the open. Finally, he was arrested. He was imprisoned for six years. A few weeks after his release he was arrested for the same offence and went back to prison for another six years. He is supposed to have maintained his family by making shoelaces and selling them to his fellow inmates. He was finally set free by Charles II’s Declaration of Indulgence in 1672.
During his time in prison, Bunyan continued with his writing. It was in prison that he composed Pilgrim’s Progress. This tells the story of Christian’s pilgrimage through danger and distraction to the Celestial City, dealing with the likes of Mr Worldly Wiseman along the way. He followed this with The Life and Death of Mr Badman in 1680 and The Holy War in 1682. A few extracts can be read by clicking extracts. Capitalising on the success of his first volume, he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, Second Part in 1684. This related the pilgrimage of Christian’s wife, Christiana, and their children to the Celestial City.
The Declaration of Indulgence permitted non-conformists to preach if they obtained a licence. Bunyan received a licence to preach in Bedford and surrounding areas. But the Declaration of Indulgence was withdrawn the same year and replaced by the Test Acts. In 1675 new laws against non-conformists were put into effect. Bunyan’s continued preaching put him at risk. He may even have served a further prison sentence of three months in 1675.
He formed a close friendship with Dr John Owen, a senior member of the Church of England hierarchy. When Charles II expressed his surprise that so learned a divine could listen to an illiterate tinker, Owen replied that he would gladly give up all his learning for Bunyan’s power to touch hearts.
In 1688, Bunyan fell ill on a trip to London and died at the house of his friend John Strudwick. He was buried in the Strudwicks’ vault in the burial ground at Bunhill Fields, near City Road. He had several other connections to the parish of St Giles Cripplegate in the Barbican. He occasionally attended St Giles’ church (the church preserved in the centre of the Barbican). After his release from prison in Bedford, he often preached at a chapel in Monkwell Street.