In 1922 The Baptist Young Peoples Union of the Southern Baptist Convention, published a study course using John Bunyan’s classic “Pilgrims Progress.” The introduction included the image of the Bedford Jail (pictured above) and a brief biographical sketch (below). L P. Leavell, secretary of the BYPU, offered the course and said, “Certainly no young Baptist should be unacquainted with the greatest of all spiritual allegories. Its great word pictures grip the imagination and stir the soul and, at the same time, teach the fundamental doctrines of grace which Baptists hold so dear. Next to the Bible, possibly no book better deserves a place in a course prepared for young Christians.” You can access the text of Pilgrim’s Progress from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library and many other works at John Bunyan Online. Leavell prayed, “May the study of this book strengthen the faith and zeal of our Baptist young people and help them to realize that it is indeed ‘sweet to walk in this pilgrim way.'”
THE PREACHER WHO WROTE “THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS”
People have always loved a good story. But not until the year 1700 did the English speaking world have published a long story dealing with imaginary characters. “Robinson Crusoe” was published in 1719 and was the first of modern long stories.
But while the writer of “Robinson Crusoe” was a boy of seventeen there was a great, rough Baptist preacher in Bedford jail, in England, busy writing a greater story. This preacher was John Bunyan and he was writing “The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World To That Which Is To Come.” This story was widely read when Bunyan died in 1688, and is read today in more than eighty languages of the earth.
What sort of a man was Bunyan? From his beautiful writings we would think he was a scholar, having both leisure and culture. But, instead, he was born of poor parents and was never rich. His father was a mender of cooking vessels and John later followed the same trade, hence is often called “the Bedford tinker.” He went to school very little, but managed to learn to read and write.
He tells us that in his youth he was rough and thoughtless and given to swearing and Sabbath breaking. There was little religious influence in his home. Yet, when nine years old, he became interested in religion and, was converted when he was twenty-four or about fifteen years later.
BUNYAN’S YOUNG MANHOOD
When about seventeen, he served a year or more in the army. During one battle, a comrade who went forward in Bunyan’s place was killed. Bunyan never got over the thought that in this way God had spared his life for some purpose. When about twenty, he married a girl who was poor like himself, but of godly parents. She owned two books, of which Bunyan said, “Her only portion was two volumes which her father had given her, ‘The Plain Man’s Pathway,’ and ‘The Practice of Piety.’ In these I sometimes read, wherein I found some things pleasant to me.”
Bunyan thus reveals his liking for good literature, yet he little dreamed that he would himself make a valuable contribution to the world’s best literature.
BUNYAN BECOMES A “PILGRIM”
After his marriage, Bunyan gave up much of his wickedness, attended church, read his Bible and found his mind filled with thoughts of his lost condition. His wife encouraged him to read. This period of reading and thinking possibly gave him many of the ideas about which he wrote so beautifully later on.
He left off dancing and Sabbath breaking and set out from the “City of Destruction” to the “Heavenly Mansions.” One day, as he was walking in the country thinking and praying, there came to his mind this verse, “He hath made peace through the blood of the cross.” He says, “I then saw that the justice of God and my sinful soul could embrace each other.” Soon every thing became clear and he made a profession of religion after which he began preaching to others about the Saviour he had found.
IN PRISON FOR PREACHING
Bunyan joined the Baptist church at Bedford and two years later became its pastor. Great crowds came to hear him. But his preaching was cut short by King Charles II, who came to the throne of England in 1660 and ordered that all preachers who did not belong to the Church of England (Episcopal) should be imprisoned or banished. Bunyan was one of these and was thrown in jail for nothing else than preaching the Gospel as he believed it.
Twelve years he was kept prisoner. Yet he was not idle. He wrote many religious tracts and sermons. The one called “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners” is still read and is a masterpiece of its kind. Thus, to his long imprisonment, Bunyan owes his literary fame. He had quiet and leisure to think. He reminds us of the Apostle Paul, who, while in prison at Ttome, wrote letters which still bless the world.
BUILDING UP His FAME IN BEDFORD JAIL
In 1672 Bunyan was released. But three years later he was put back in jail and at this time he began his great work, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” This was a new species of literature upon which he worked until 1677, when it was published. Meantime he had been again released from jail. Three editions in the first year proved the popularity of “Pilgrim’s Progress” and, also, raised Bunyan to the place of a favorite writer and preacher of England. For the rest of his sixteen years of life, no one cared to put him in prison again.
BUNYAN’S LAST YEARS
Bunyan’s last fifteen years were spent in fruitful service for his Lord. His one thought was to preach and write about the way of salvation. He was a popular preacher even in London, where he went annually to visit the Baptist churches. It is said that if a day’s notice were given of his coming, the church would be crowded to overflowing to hear him.
He was active until his last illness which was contracted while riding home in a cold, driving rain from Reading, where he had been to reconcile a father to his wayward son. He died August 12, 1688, in his sixty-first year, at the home of a grocer on Snow Hill, at ‘The Sign of the Star.’ His last words were: “My toilsome days are over. I am going to see the Head that was crowned with thorns and the Face that was spit upon, for me. I have lived by hearsay and faith; but now I go where I shall live by sight, and shall be with Him in whose company I delight myself; take me, for I come to Thee.”
Thus, with triumphal joy, he entered the Celestial City.
How little did his enemies, who put him in jail, think that God would overrule their cruelty and make it the means of spreading Bunyan’s name and story over the whole world, and enable him to speak to every land and all nations, through all generations, until the Lord Himself shall come again.
Bunyan is buried in the graveyard at Bunhill Fields, not far from London. In the same graveyard are buried: Daniel DeFoe, who wrote “Robinson Crusoe”; and Isaac Watts, the great hymn writer; and Susanna Wesley, the mother of John and Charles Wesley. These four people influenced the world as few others have done.