John Bunyan, the Puritan preacher and author most famous for his popular allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, died on August 31, 1688, at the age of 59, after catching a fever in a storm.
Bunyan is buried in Bunhill Fields, which poet Robert Southey called “the Campo Santo of the Dissenters.” George Fox, founder of the Quakers, novelist Daniel Defoe, and William Blake, the visionary poet and painter, are among the other religious free-thinkers buried there.
Bunyan grew up in Elstow, a village near Bedford, England, where from a young age he worked as a tinker, his father’s trade. Bunyan received scant education. At the age of 16 he joined the Parliamentary Army as part of a demand for conscripts.
Bunyan spent three years in the Army before returning to Elstow, his family, and his tinkering. Bunyan married a pious young woman and struggled with his reprobate ways versus a “straight and narrow” religious life.
He later wrote that while playing games on the Sabbath (sacrilege according to the clergy) he suddenly heard a voice from the heavens demanding “Wilt thou leave thy sins, and go to Heaven? Or have thy sins, and go to Hell?”
Bunyan’s wife (we don’t know her name) died in 1658, leaving Bunyan alone with four children, one of whom was blind. By then he had joined a “nonconformist” Baptist congregation and had become a preacher.
In 1861 he was arrested for preaching outside of the authority of the established Anglican Church. He spent the next 12 years in prison (with brief periods of freedom) mostly because he wouldn’t promise to stop preaching if released.
‘If you let me out today, I’ll preach again tomorrow,” he defiantly declared.
He had recently remarried to an 18 year old woman named Elizabeth, who was now left penniless with four stepchildren.
“O I saw in this condition I was a man who was pulling down his house upon the head of his Wife and Children; yet thought I, I must do it, I must do it,” Bunyan said of his long imprisonment and refusal to give up preaching.
In prison Bunyan wrote his spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding for the Chief Among Sinners (1666), describing his conversion from “debauchery” to godliness. He also began work on The Pilgrim’s Progress, which would be his major achievement.
He was released from prison in 1671, during a period of expanded religious tolerance. The Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678 to wide popularity not only in England but in Scotland and especially in the American colonies.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is a dream-like allegory following a young man named Christian on his journey from the City of Destruction, seen as the physical world, to the Celestial City, identified as heaven or salvation. Along the way Christian has to navigate through the swampy Slough of Despond.
The Pilgrim’s Progress has been an important and beloved book to everyday Christians over its three centuries of life (it was enormously popular among the Victorians) but it has gone in and out of fashion among the elites and academics because of its lack of literary polish.
Oddly enough, The Pilgrim’s Progress (along with Bunyan’s other writing) is currently on the uptick as a subject of academic scrutiny, while it is less read today among non-academic readers than it was a century ago.