“Maybe we should cancel today’s meeting.”
John Bunyan (1628-1688) considered these words as he prepared to preach at a private gathering in Stamhill, England. The seething political turmoil of 1660 caused King Charles II to distrust unlicensed preachers; those hostile to the monarchy could stir up rebellion. New laws allowed preaching only in the established church and barred unlicensed preachers like John. When a warning had reached John that a constable was coming to seize him, a friend urged him to cancel the meeting and flee to escape arrest.
John didn’t take long to think about it. If he ran, his action would leave a sour taste in the mouths of listeners. Weak new converts would think he talked a good talk but couldn’t walk the walk. On the other hand, if he stood true and got arrested for preaching the gospel, his faithfulness would encourage other believers to be faithful.
He went forward with the service. “We had begun in prayer for the blessing of God upon our opportunity, intending to have preached the word of the Lord unto them there present; but the constable coming in prevented us.”
In short, he was arrested for preaching. John was not leading a rebellion, but the constable arrested him. His already published books such as Some Gospel Truths Opened (1656) explained what he believed and displayed his sincerity, but still authorities treated him as a rabble rouser and sent him to jail. At a court session several weeks later, he was told that if he agreed to hold no more meetings, he could go free. John refused. God had commanded his people to share the gospel and John meant to preach no matter what human laws said.
Why John Set His Heart on Preaching
John’s determination to preach arose from his own difficult path to finding salvation. Born in 1628 in Elstow, Bedfordshire, England, he lived in a thatched cottage. His father was a tinker, who spent his days pushing a cart along the roads, stopping at homes to fix metal pots and pans. John received a grammar-school education and became a leader of a group of rough boys. He often disobeyed his father, but, like most sons of his day, he learned his father’s trade. During the English Civil War he served as a soldier, probably on the Puritan side. Far from God, he lived in terror because of his sins.
At nineteen Bunyan married, and his Christian wife (whose name is not known) encouraged him to reform his life. He tried, but the outward reformation could not keep John from constantly slipping back into old habits. Though he lived well enough to impress his neighbors, he described himself as a “painted hypocrite.” He plied his trade as a tinker.
Around that time, John heard some women talking as though they really knew Christ. He perked up his ears, found out they went to an independent church and in 1651 he began attending the independent meetings at Bedford. Spiritually moved by the pastor’s intense biblical preaching, he began to pore over the Scriptures. Finally the conflict within him ended in the assurance of God’s grace in his life. Salvation had at last come to John Bunyan. He began preaching in 1656, determined to share the gospel with others. That decision led to his arrest.
What the Bunyan Family Suffered
John’s refusal to stop preaching led to a long imprisonment (until 1672). His family suffered greatly. His first wife had died a couple years before his arrest, leaving John’s second wife, Elizabeth, to care for four step-children, including a blind daughter, Mary. Elizabeth was pregnant when the constable seized John. The stress of her situation and the desperation of her efforts to get him freed brought on labor. After eight days of contractions, she miscarried. Elizabeth and the children were thrown onto the charity of friends.
John did all he could to support his family from jail by making shoelaces. He also published books and tracts while in prison that first time, including a book about prayer, another about the end of the world, and one on the New Jerusalem. The most famous of the books he wrote during those years in prison was a spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666).
Payment for his writings helped sustain his family. He spent whatever time he could with them, especially blind Mary who brought him his soup each day. John loved all of them dearly but especially Mary.
“The parting with my wife and poor children hath oft been to me in [jail] as the pulling the flesh from my bones especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides; O the thoughts of the hardships I thought my blind one might go under, would break my heart to pieces.”
He also continued to minister while in jail, counseling visitors and preaching to the other prisoners. His jailer trusted John so much, he secretly let him out from time to time to hold church services, and John always came back. But that freedom ended when the authorities found out and threatened to fire the jailer.
The Pilgrim’s Progress
In 1672 King Charles issued the Declaration of Indulgence, allowing people to worship and preach according to their consciences. Under the terms of the Indulgence, Bunyan was released. When the indulgence was revoked the following year, Bunyan continued to pastor Bedford’s independent congregation, without retribution. However, within a few years, he was arrested again and sent back to jail for a few months for refusing to show up at Church of England services. While serving this prison term he began writing his most famous book, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
After it was published in 1678, The Pilgrim’s Progress became a bestseller. It tells the story of a man with a burden of sin who seeks salvation, is pointed toward the cross of Christ and then, after his burden falls off, is given directions for the Celestial City. After many trials, satanic attacks, narrow escapes—and several failures—he arrives at the river of death where he finds himself in great fear. Cheered and encouraged as he wades into the water, he gets across to where angels await to receive him in glory.
This allegory of salvation and the Christian walk gave the English language such colorful phrases as “Vanity Fair,” “the Slough of Despond,” “House Beautiful,” “Muckraking,” and, “Hanging is too good for him.” Bunyan’s own struggles and realization of the depth of God’s grace in his life gave him an ability to touch the hearts of many people: he was describing the deepest experiences of the Christian soul. Because other Christians could relate to the temptations described in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the book quickly became the world’s best-selling devotional work. Today, the book has been translated into hundreds of languages. Even China’s Communist government put out an edition.
John continued to preach and to minister through writing until his death in 1688. Among his other well-known books were The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680) The Holy War (1682), and a sequel to The Pilgrim’s Progress (1684) in which Christian’s wife sets out for the Celestial City. Elizabeth published some other manuscripts after her husband’s death.
Introduce children to John Bunyan through the Torchlighters animated film, The John Bunyan Story. Bunyan’s life and the story he told in The Pilgrim’s Progress will help kids see the importance of living a deep Christian life in the face of danger and suffering—the way John Bunyan did. John’s masterpiece has recently been made into a family-friendly movie, in theaters this Easter weekend!
Learn more about Christians behind bars at Captive Faith.
Chronology of Bunyan and the England of His Day
- 1628 Bunyan is born.
- 1642–1646 Civil war pits Royalists and Parlimentarians.
- 1644 Bunyan is drafted into the Parliamentary (Puritan) army.
- 1649 Bunyan marries a poor wife who brings two books to the marriage and will bear him four children.
- 1651 Bunyan comes under the ministry of John Gifford.
- 1653 Bunyan is baptized.
- 1656 Bunyan’s Some Gospel-truths Opened is published.
- 1656 Bunyan first preaches in public.
- 1658 Bunyan’s first wife dies; he publishes A Few Sighs from Hell, or the Groans of a Damned Soul.
- 1659 Bunyan marries Elizabeth; His The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded is published.
- 1660 Charles II promises freedom of conscience in the Declaration of Breda.
- 1660 Bunyan arrested in November for unlicensed preaching.
- 1662 The Act of Uniformity requires the use of all the rites and ceremonies in the Book of Common Prayer in Church of England services and requires that all ministers be ordained by bishops (essentially outlawing Puritans and independents who become “ejected” ministers).
- 1663 Bunyan’s Praying with the Spirit and with Understanding, Too is published.
- 1664 The Coventicle Act makes it punishable for any person over 16 years of age to attend a religious meeting not conducted according to The Book of Common Prayer.
- 1665 The Five Mile Act prohibits any ejected minister from living within five miles of a corporate town or of any pulpit where he had formerly served. Plague ravages London. Bunyan’s The End of the World, The Resurrection of the Dead and Eternal Judgment, is published, as is his The Holy City or the New Jerusalem.
- 1666 London burns in a great fire. Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners is published.
- 1667 Milton’s Paradise Lost is published.
- 1672 Bunyan called to pastor at Bedford. Released from prison, he is licensed as a Congregational pastor.
- 1675 A warrant is issued for Bunyan’s arrest.
- 1677 Bunyan is imprisoned for six months for failing to attend Church of England services.
- 1678 The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 1, is published.
- 1680 The Life and Death of Mr. Badman is published.
- 1682 The Holy War is published.
- 1684 The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 2 is published.
- 1687 King James II issues a Declaration of Indulgence but it is considered unconstitutional because not passed by Parliament.
- 1688 Bunyan dies.
- 1692 Elizabeth Bunyan dies.