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John Bunyan (Harrowden, near Bedford, 28 November 1628 – London, 31 August 1688) was an English tinker, preacher and writer. He wrote a book called The Pilgrim's Progress which has been translated into more languages than any other book except the Bible. The book is a story about a man who is trying to lead a good life as a Christian. It is allegory. The characters in the story represent good things or bad things. Bunyan lived at a time when there was no religious freedom: everybody had to believe what the Church of England told them. Bunyan did not agree with some of the things the Church of England said. He started to preach about his ideas. He was arrested and put into prison because of his beliefs. He wrote The Pilgrim's Progress while he was in gaol (prison).
Bunyan’s father was a tinker: a metal worker who mends pots and pans. The Bunyan family had been living in Bedfordshire at least since the 12th century. They had gradually lost more and more of their land and had become quite poor. John Bunyan’s father had inherited a small cottage and 9 acres of land. He could not read or write.
John Bunyan only went to school for two, three or four years. He learned how to be a tinker from his father.
Youth: religious conversion
There was a lot of fighting in England at the time Bunyan was a child. Many people were against King Charles I so there was a Civil War and the king was executed. For several years England was a republic, ruled by Oliver Cromwell.
When Bunyan was 16 years old, he served in the parliamentary army at Newport Pagnell (1644 - 1647). After that, he started to work as a tinker, and in 1649, he married. His wife had two books, both of which were religious books. Bunyan started to be influenced by religion. He became very frightened because he realized he had done things which were wrong, and he wondered whether God would forgive him, so that he would go to heaven when he died, or whether he would be punished and go to hell. The kind of things he did which at that time were thought to be wrong (sins) were not things which would worry many people nowadays: ringing church bells, dancing, playing games on Sundays and, perhaps the worst of all, swearing. Other wrongs he had done in the past included disrespecting his parents, and very likely causing, or at least unremorsefully (unsorrowfully) helping along the early death of his mother and sister - which he did by refusing to take any of the burden or workload at home. It was only for lack of money that he did not spend his time with prostitutes, though he longed to join the gambling and "painted women" who attended fairs and other public events. In his book Grace Abounding Bunyan describes himself as the “Chief of Sinners”. He tells how one day he was walking along when he heard a group of women talking to one another about salvation. This made him think about these things.
In those days, people were supposed to worship God in the Church of England. There were, however, groups of people who wanted to worship God in different ways. These people were called “non-conformists”. In 1653, a sect (religious group) of non-conformists had taken over St John’s Church in Bedford. Their vicar was John Gifford. Bunyan discussed the Bible a lot with Gifford.
Bunyan lived in Elstow, near Bedford, until 1655, when his wife died. He moved to Bedford to be nearer to Gifford’s church . He married again in 1659. In 1660, the Restoration of the Monarchy took place: England had a king once more: Charles II became king. It was bad for religious freedom, because all non-conformist meetings were forbidden. St John’s Church had to become part of the Church of England again. Bunyan refused to go to church. He started to preach to groups of people anywhere they could meet: in barns or in the streets. Because he did not have permission to preach, he was arrested and put in gaol. At first, he was sentenced to 3 months, but because he refused to promise to stop preaching, he spent 12 years in gaol.
Years in gaol
Bunyan spent the years 1660-1672 in gaol, and again he was in gaol for a short time in 1677. The gaol was at the top of Silver Street in the centre of Bedford, only 5 minutes walk from his house in St Cuthbert Street, which was then on the edge of the town. The gaol had 6 cells and 2 dungeons. He could probably have been free at any time if he had promised to give up preaching, but he did what he firmly believed to be right. He made some money in gaol by making shoelaces. His eldest daughter Mary, who was blind, brought him soup every day and also gave him books to read. Sometimes, he seems to have been let out of gaol for short periods of time. This was not really allowed, but often, the guards might let a prisoner out if they promised to come back. Bunyan even travelled as far as London once, and he must have gone home sometimes because he had two more children by his second wife during that time.
It was during this time in gaol that he wrote his allegorical novel: Pilgrim's Progress. We do not know whether he wrote it all while he was in gaol. The book is in two parts. The first part finishes with the words: “So I awoke, and behold it was a dream”. When the second part begins he says “..as I slept I dreamt again”. This might mean that he wrote the second part in 1677 when he was in gaol again. This is only a guess, we do not know.
Bunyan was released in January 1672, when Charles II issued the “Declaration of Religious Indulgence” which meant that people were free to worship God in the way they wanted. The king had done this mainly because he wanted the Catholics to have less power. Non-conformist sects could register and get a license. Bunyan became pastor (priest) of the Bedford church. In March 1675, he was again imprisoned for preaching (because Charles II withdrew the Declaration of Religious Indulgence). This time he seems to have been in the Bedford town gaol on the stone bridge over the river Ouse. After a few months, he was let out. He was a very popular preacher, so he was not arrested again. His book The Pilgrim's Progress was published in 1678. He also wrote several other books about religion, but The Pilgrim's Progress was the one that became extremely popular. Because Bunyan did not have a formal education he wrote in a very direct style which ordinary people could understand. A passage from Part Two of The Pilgrim's Progress beginning "Who would true Valour see" is sung regularly as a hymn.