Who Is John Bunyan?

The most popular novel in the history of the world was written in prison by a man whose humble beginnings and arduous life reflect the One he lived for—Jesus Christ (The Portable Bunyan). John Bunyan, who never received more than a second grade education, impacted Christian thinking and English literature so profoundly that he was able to transcend the cultural and religious framework from which he wrote and influence a universal audience (Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners).

The Drunken Tinsmith

John Bunyan was born in England in 1628, entering into the broader historical context with “the final phases of the Reformation movement still fresh in the minds of the people” and the Puritan pilgrimage to America dawning in the near future. John’s father was a tinker (a tin smith), providing a meager life for his family and training his son to follow in his footsteps. At the age of sixteen Bunyan lost his mother and two sisters, after which his father married for the third time.

It was his radical encounter with God’s grace that led to his regeneration and conversion.

Bunyan quickly left home to join the British army, where he stayed for three years, and then returned home to set up a business as a tinker. During his late teenage years Bunyan wanted nothing to do with religion and even had a reputation as a drunkard. In Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, he describes his depravity at this stage of his life: “It was my delight to be taken captive by the devil at his will (2 Tim 2:26), being filled with all unrighteousness, which did also so strongly work, and put forth itself, both in my heart and life, that I had but few equals for cursing, swearing, lying and blaspheming in the holy Name of God.”

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners

Bunyan describes the beginning of his conversion, or his “first longings for Godliness,” in his marriage to a godly woman in 1649. Mary came from a poor family, and her only dowry was the two books that her father had left to her: The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and The Practice of Piety.

Although Bunyan describes a gradual external change towards religion, it was his radical encounter with God’s grace that led to his regeneration and conversion. Instrumental in his conversion was Mr. Gifford, the pastor of a Baptist church in Bedford, where Bunyan began attending and eventually preaching. Bunyan recounts the hope and joy he found in the gospel in Grace Abounding:

One day as I was passing in the field…with some dashes on my conscience, fearing lest all was still not right, suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul: Your righteousness is in heaven.  And I thought as well that I saw, with the eyes of my soul, Jesus Christ at God’s right hand.  There, I say, is my righteousness, so that wherever I was or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, he lacks my righteousness, for that was right before Him.  I also saw that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ Himself, the same yesterday and today and forever.

When Gifford died, Bunyan was selected as the pastor of this church in his native town. He became a bold and powerful preacher. Great crowds attended his meetings and multitudes of people were turned away each Sunday. It is significant to note that while Bunyan is remembered mostly for his novels, he was first and foremost a preacher of the Word of God.

Jailed for Jesus

It was during this time that Bunyan began to write books, the majority of which were theological in nature and found wide acceptance and distribution. The first of his books, Some Gospel Truths Opened, was a fierce attack on the Quakers for relying on their own “inner light” rather than the inspired words of the Bible. As his popularity and notoriety grew, Bunyan increasingly became a target for enemies of the English Non-conformists. In 1658 Bunyan was arrested for the first time in Eaton Socon and was indicted for preaching without a license. It was during these long days and months in prison that Bunyan wrote his most famous works: Grace Abounding, his spiritual autobiography; The Holy War, which describes the war of God’s church with Satan; and his most famous work, The Pilgrim’s Progress, the journey of a man named Christian journeying from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City.

It is significant to note that while Bunyan is remembered mostly for his novels, he was first and foremost a preacher of the Word of God.

After twelve years in prison Bunyan was released and immediately began pastoring a congregation in Bedfordshire, which grew upwards to 4,000 members. Five years later Bunyan would be imprisoned again for preaching. Yet whether he was in jail or out of jail, Bunyan staunchly proclaimed the truth of God through preaching and writing. The English officials, at one point, told Bunyan that they would let him go free if he would simply remain quiet. Bunyan replied, saying, “If you would let me out today, I should preach tomorrow.”

Bunyan died in 1688 from a fever, and his statement before death reveals his passion for his Savior and his love for his church, “I long for nothing so much as to be dissolved and be with Christ. I am content to depart when He shall call me. I have long borne a crucified heart, and by grace I shall enter into rest. Stay me not, for I am bidden into the presence of the King! Weep not, for though I pass away the Lord abides with you and never faileth!”

Timeline of Bunyan’s Life

  • 1628 (Nov) Bunyan born in Elstow, England.
  • 1644 Bunyan’s mother and sister both die.
  • 1644 Drafted into the Parlimentary army
  • 1647 Bunyan returns from the army to set up business as a tinker.
  • 1649 Marries first wife
  • 1650 Bunyan’s blind daughter Mary’s birth
  • 1651 Bunyan comes under ministry of John Gifford
  • 1653 Bunyan baptized
  • 1656 First preaches in public
  • 1656 Publishes Some Gospel Truths Opened
  • 1658 First wife Mary dies and is left with four children
  • 1659 Marries Elizabeth
  • 1660 Imprisoned until 1672 for unlicensed preaching
  • 1666 Grace Abounding published
  • 1672 Called as pastor of Bedford church (Jan. 21)
  • 1672 Released from prison
  • 1672 Licensed as Congregational preacher (May 9)
  • 1675 Warrant issued for Bunyan’s arrest
  • 1677 Imprisoned for six months for not attending parish church
  • 1678 Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 1, published
  • 1682 Holy War published
  • 1684 Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 2, published
  • 1688 Bunyan dies
  • 1692 Elizabeth dies

Timeline of Bunyan’s Historical Context

  • 1546 Martin Luther dies
  • 1564 John Calvin dies
  • 1611 King James Bible completed
  • 1615 Richard Baxter born
  • 1616 John Owen born
  • 1616 William Shakespeare dies
  • 1617 Calvin’s completed works published in Geneva
  • 1618 Synod of Dort
  • 1620 Mayflower leaves Plymouth, England
  • 1623 Blaise Pascal & Francis Turretin born
  • 1630 Puritan migration to New World begins
  • 1633 Galileo forced to renounce heretical ideas
  • 1636 Harvard founded by Puritans
  • 1637 Descartes’ Discourse on Method
  • 1642 Sir Isaac Newton born (1642–1727)
  • 1644 William Penn born (1644–1718)
  • 1646 Westminster Confession
  • 1648 George Fox founds Society of Friends
  • 1667 Milton’s Paradise Lost published
  • 1678 Pilgrim’s Progress first edition
  • 1685 Bach and Handel born
  • 1688 Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elentic Theology published
  • 1730 The Great Awakening

Works by John Bunyan for Further Reading

The complete set of The Works of John Bunyan, George Offor edition, is available for free viewing and PDF download at http://www.johnbunyan.org/.

  1. A complete bibliography of Bunyan’s 59 publications can be found in Richard L. Greaves, John Bunyan (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969) 169-71.
  2. A Few Sighs from Hell, or the Groans of a Damned Soul, 1658
  3. A Discourse Upon the Pharisee and the Publican, 1685
  4. A Holy Life
  5. Christ a Complete Saviour (The Intercession of Christ And Who Are Privileged in It), 1692
  6. Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, 1678
  7. Grace abounding to the Chief of Sinners, 1666
  8. Light for Them that Sit in Darkness
  9. Praying with the Spirit and with Understanding too, 1663
  10. Of Antichrist and His Ruin, 1692
  11. Reprobation Asserted, 1674
  12. Saved by Grace, 1675
  13. Seasonal Counsel or Suffering Saints in the Furnace – Advice to Persecuted
  14. Christians in Their Trials & Tribulations, 1684
  15. Some Gospel Truths Opened, 1656
  16. The Acceptable Sacrifice
  17. The Desire of the Righteous Granted
  18. The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded, 1659
  19. The Doom and Downfall of the Fruitless Professor (Or The Barren Fig Tree), 1682
  20. The End of the World, The Resurrection of the Dead and Eternal Judgment, 1665
  21. The Fear of God – What it is, and what is it is not, 1679
  22. The Greatness of the Soul and Unspeakableness of its Loss Thereof, 1683
  23. The Heavenly Footman, 1698
  24. The Holy City or the New Jerusalem, 1665
  25. The Holy War – The Losing and Taking Again of the Town of Man-soul (The Holy War Made by Shaddai upon Diabolus, for the Regaining of the World), 1682
  26. The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, 1680
  27. The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, 1678
  28. The Strait Gate, Great Difficulty of Going to Heaven, 1676
  29. The Saint’s Knowledge of Christ’s Love, or The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, 1692
  30. The Water of Life or The Richness and Glory of the Gospel, 1688
  31. The Work of Jesus Christ as an Advocate, 1688


  • Bacon, Ernest W. John Bunyan: Pilgrim and Dreamer. Grand Rapids: Baker Book
  • House, 1983.
  • Batson, E. Beatrice. John Bunyan: Allegory and Imagination. London: Croom Helm,
  • 1984
  • Brown, John. John Bunyan: His Life, Times and Work. Archon Books, 1969.
  • Ellis, J.J. John Bunyan: The Immortal Dreamer. London: Pickering & Inglis LTD.,
  • Greaves, Richard L. John Bunyan. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969.
  • Harrison, Frank Mott. John Bunyan: A Story of His Life. London: Banner of Truth
  • Trust, 1964.
  • Hill, Christopher . A Tinker and a Poor Man: John Bunyon and His Church, 1628-1688.
  • New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989
  • Hofmeyr, Isabel. The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of the Pilgrim’s
  • Progress. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Kennedy, Austen. John Bunyan the Man. Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1928.