A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature/Bunyan, John

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Bunyan, John (1628-1688). -- B. at Elstow, near Bedford, the s. of a poor tinker, was ed. at a free school, after which he worked at his father's trade. At 17 he was drafted as a soldier in the Civil War, and served for two years at Newport Pagnell. At 19 he m. a pious young woman, whose only dowry appears to have been two books, the Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven and the Practice of Piety, by which he was influenced towards a religious life. In his autobiographical book, Grace Abounding, B. describes himself as having led an abandoned life in his youth; but there appears to be no evidence that he was, outwardly at any rate, worse than the average of his neighbours: the only serious fault which he specifies is profanity, others being dancing and bell-ringing. The overwhelming power of his imagination led him to contemplate acts of impiety and profanity, and to a vivid realisation of the dangers these involved. In particular he was harassed by a curiosity in regard to the "unpardonable sin," and a prepossession that he had already committed it. He continually heard voices urging him to "sell Christ," and was tortured by fearful visions. After severe spiritual conflicts he escaped from this condition, and became an enthusiastic and assured believer. In 1657 he joined the Baptist Church, began to preach, and in 1660 was committed to Bedford Jail, at first for three months, but on his refusing to conform, or to desist from preaching, his confinement was extended with little interval for a period of nearly 12 years, not always, however, very rigorous. He supported his family (wife and four children, including a blind girl) by making tagged laces, and devoted all the time he could spare from this to studying his few books and writing. During this period he wrote among other things, The Holy City and Grace Abounding. Under the Declaration of Indulgence he was released in 1672, and became a licensed preacher. In 1675 the Declaration was cancelled, and he was, under the Conventicle Act, again imprisoned for six months, during which he wrote the first part of The Pilgrim's Progress, which appeared in 1678, and to which considerable additions were made in subsequent editions. It was followed by the Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680), The Holy War (1682), and the second part of The Pilgrim's Progress (1684). B. was now widely known as a popular preacher and author, and exercised a wide influence. In 1688 he set out on a journey to mediate between a father and son, in which he was successful. On the return journey he was drenched with rain, caught a chill and d. in London on August 31. He is buried in Bunhill Fields. B. has the distinction of having written, in The Pilgrim's Progress, probably the most widely read book in the English language, and one which has been translated into more tongues than any book except the Bible. The charm of the work, which makes it the joy of old and young, learned and ignorant, and of readers of all possible schools of thought and theology, lies in the interest of a story in which the intense imagination of the writer makes characters, incidents, and scenes alike live in that of his readers as things actually known and remembered by themselves, in its touches of tenderness and quaint humour, its bursts of heart-moving eloquence, and its pure, nervous, idiomatic English, Macaulay has said, "Every reader knows the straight and narrow path as well as he knows a road on which he has been backwards and forwards a hundred times," and he adds that "In England during the latter half of the seventeenth century there were only two minds which possessed the imaginative faculty in a very eminent degree. One of these minds produced the Paradise Lost, the other The Pilgrim's Progress." B. wrote about 60 books and tracts, of which The Holy War ranks next to The Pilgrim's Progress in popularity, while Grace Abounding is one of the most interesting pieces of biography in existence.

There are numerous Lives, the most complete being that by Dr. John Brown of Bedford (1885 new 1888): others are Southey's (1830), on which Macaulay's Essay is based, Offor (1862), Froude (1880). On The Pilgrim's Progress, The People of the Pilgrimage, by J. Kerr Bain, D.D.