John Bunyan was the author of the famous Pilgrim’s Progress. His life had some interesting twists and turns.
EARLY LIFE: “ John chose a job ‘on the road’ by adopting the trade of tinker, the mender of pots and pans. Few people could afford to purchase new pots when old ones became damaged, so pots were mended time and time again. Tinkers were regarded, by some, in the same poor light as gypsies. John enlisted in the Parliamentary army and from 1644-1647 served in the Newport Pagnell garrison. The English Civil War was nearing an end and it was told that John was saved from death one day, when a fellow soldier volunteered to go into battle in his place and was killed while walking sentry duty.”
SPIRITUAL JOURNEY: It was sometime later that John wrote in his autobiography, Grace Abounding, that he had led an abandoned life in his youth and was morally reprehensible as a result. He began to hear voices urging him to “sell Christ” and that he was tortured by fearful visions… claiming to have heard a voice that asked: “Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven or have thy sins and go to hell?” John believed that this had been the voice of God, chastising his indulgent ways. John’s spirituality was born from this experience and he began to struggle with guilt, self-doubt and to believe in the Bible’s promise of damnation or salvation. He sometimes was despondent and struggled with mental turmoil until his spiritual journey led him to St. John’s Church in Bedford.
BECOMING AN AUTHOR AND PREACHER: He began writing. His first book, Some Gospel Truths, was written in 1656 and his second book, Vindication, was published. Pilgrim’s Progress was to come later.
PERSECUTION: Bunyan’s persecution began when Charles II of England was crowned. Meeting-houses were quickly closed and all citizens required to attend their Anglican parish church. It became punishable by law to “conduct divine service except in accordance with the ritual of the church, or for one not in Episcopal orders to address a congregation.” Thus, John Bunyan no longer had the freedom to preach in whatever way he felt lead, something he had enjoyed under the Puritan Commonwealth. He was arrested on 12 November 1660, when preaching privately. John was brought before a magistrate where he refused to desist from preaching. Bunyan was told that all the authorities wanted was that he not preach at private gatherings, as it was suspected that these non-conformist meetings were being used by people plotting against the king. In answer to the court, John argued that God’s law obliged him to preach at any and every opportunity and so he was duty bound to refuse.
Bunyan was brought before the courts again and was incarcerated for 3 months for the crimes of “pertinaciously abstaining” from attending mandatory Anglican church services and preaching at “unlawful meetings”. He was put in and out of jail at various times for a total of twelve years.
THE WRITING OF PILGRIM’S PROGRESS: It was during 1675, in Bedford County Gaol, that John Bunyan conceived his allegorical novel: The Pilgrim’s Progress. In 1666, John was briefly released for a few weeks, before being re-arrested – again, for preaching – and sent back to Bedford’s County gaol, where he remained for a further six years. During that time, he preached to his fellow prisoners – a congregation of about sixty. In his possession were two books, John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the Bible, a violin he had made out of tin, a flute he’d made from a chair leg and a supply of pen and paper. Both music and writing were integral to John’s Puritan faith. John Bunyan was released in January 1672, when the Declaration of Religious Indulgence was issued. ( The Declaration granted broad religious freedom in England by suspending penal laws enforcing conformity to the Church of England and allowing persons to worship in their homes or chapels as they saw fit. It ended the requirement of affirming religious oaths before gaining employment in government office.)
JOHN BUNYAN WROTE ONLY ONE HYMN: “To be a Pilgrim” (also commonly known as “He Who would Valiant be” is the only hymn John Bunyan is credited with writing. The hymn recalls the words of Hebrews 11:13: “…and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”
WORDS TO JOHN BUNYAN’S HYMN: “To be a Pilgrim” as they have been slightly modified in recent years.
He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim. Who so beset him round with dismal stories Do but themselves confound—his strength the more is.No foes shall stay his might; though he with giants fight, He will make good his right to be a pilgrim. Since, Lord, Thou dost defend us with Thy Spirit,We know we at the end, shall life inherit.Then fancies flee away! I’ll fear not what men say,I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.
Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of England requested it sung at her funeral. Read the words above as you listen.
Another version: St Paul’s congregation music (Enlarge screen)