One of the most familiar Puritans was John Bunyan. His allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, remains in print and by many statisticians is second to the Bible as the all-time best-selling book. There are some 1,300 editions of The Pilgrim’s Progress currently in existence.
Following his conversion, Bunyan moved to Bedford with his wife and four children under the age of six; his firstborn, Mary, was blind from birth. That same year, he became a member of Gifford’s church, and was soon appointed deacon. His testimony became the talk of the town. Several were led to Christ because of God’s work in John’ soul.
In 1655, Bunyan began preaching to various congregations in Bedford. Hundreds came to hear him. He published his first book, Some Gospel Truths Opened, the following year. John wrote it to keep written to protect believers from being misled by Quaker and Ranter teachings about Christ’s person and work.
Two years later, Bunyan published A Few Sighs from Hell, an exposition of Luke 16:19-31 about the rich man and Lazarus. The book attacked professional clergy and the wealthy who promote carnality. It was well received, and helped establish Bunyan as a reputable Puritan writer. About that same time, his wife died.
In 1659, Bunyan published The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded, which expounded his view of Covenant or Reformed theology, stressing the promissory nature of the covenant of grace and the dichotomy between law and grace. This helped establish him as a thoroughgoing Calvinist, although he still had disagreements with another Puritan pastor, Richard Baxter.
In 1660, while preaching in a farmhouse at Lower Samsell, Bunyan was arrested on the charge of preaching without official rights from the king. When told that he would be freed if he no longer preached, he replied, “If I am freed today, I will preach tomorrow.” He was thrown into prison, where he wrote prolifically and made shoelaces to provide some income for twelve and a half years (1660-1672).
Prior to his arrest, Bunyan had remarried, this time to a godly young woman named Elizabeth. She pleaded repeatedly for his release, but judges such as Sir Matthew Hale and Thomas Twisden rejected her plea. So Bunyan remained in prison with no formal charge and no legal sentence, in defiance of the habeas corpus provisions of the Magna Carta, because he refused to give up preaching the gospel and denounced the Church of England as false (see Bunyan’s A Relation of My Imprisonment, published posthumously in 1765).
In 1661 and from 1668-1672, certain jailers permitted Bunyan to leave prison at times to preach. George Offer notes, “It is said that many of the Baptist congregations in Bedfordshire owe their origins to his midnight preaching.” His prison years were times of difficult trials, however. Bunyan experienced what his Pilgrim’s Progress characters Christian and Faithful would later suffer at the hands of Giant Despair, who thrust pilgrims “into a very dark dungeon, nasty and stinking.” Bunyan especially felt the pain of separation from his wife and children, particularly “blind Mary,” describing it as a “pulling of the flesh from my bones.”
One of the defining characteristics of the Puritans, especially John Bunyan, was their commitment to the Scriptures in spite of the sacrifice it would entail. May we be found to as faithful in our day as they were in their day.
Soli deo Gloria!