Dissenter and Christian preacher, John Bunyan was born in Elstow in 1628 and is most famous for his allegorical work Pilgrim’s Progress. He was a man who stood by his beliefs and was imprisoned several times for preaching without a license and he remains one of the more enigmatic figures of English history.
Bunyan professed to being brought up in modest circumstances, the son of a brazier, but records show that his grandfather actually owned a number of properties in the area. At the age of 16, when his mother died and his father remarried, Bunyan left home and joined the newly formed army of the Parliament, spending some time stationed at Newport Pagnell.
He took part in the Civil War and then, when it ended, returned to Elstow and may have followed in his father’s footsteps working as a brazier. Whilst his later autobiography would say that he led a life of wanton abandon, there seems to be little evidence that he behaved any differently to his compatriots of the time. He was, however, well known for his excessive profanity.
Whilst he was in Elstow he said he began to hear voices that led him to question his life of sin. He began to develop a more spiritual view of life and became a firm believer in sin and damnation as basic tenets of existence. He moved towards a more pious life when he married in 1650 and inherited two books that greatly influenced his future thinking: The Plain Man’s Pathway and the Practice of Piety.
Although he struggled with his Christian faith initially, Bunyan joined with the non-conformists and published his first book, Some Gospel Truths, in 1656. He was arrested for unlicensed preaching a few years later but it did not end in a prison sentence at the time.
He became a popular preacher and gained some fame in the southern counties. It wasn’t until Charles II was restored to the throne that his troubles began. Preaching against the Book of Common Prayer became an offense you could be imprisoned for and, in 1660, he was sentenced and sent to Bedford County Gaol.
Despite imprisonment, Bunyan refused to desist from preaching and he spent further periods in gaol. Whilst he was in Bedford County Gaol he first began to write Pilgrim’s Progress and, when the law was changed and he was freed, he took up a position as pastor in St John’s Church where he continued with the book. This seminal work was published in two sections over a period of 6 years, completed in 1684. He was soon also attracting large crowds but when the law was changed again, Bunyan once more found himself in prison.
With the succession of James II, Bunyan again came into favor and served as chaplain for the Mayor of London for a while. He published many of his sermons and was one of the most prolific and widely read writers of his time and Pilgrim’s Progress is still the most well-known allegorical work in the world today. In 1688, when traveling to a friend’s to resolve a dispute, Bunyan caught pneumonia and died a few days later at the age of 59.