Elstow Abbey - History - People

John Bunyan 1628-1688

What follows is a very brief summary of John Bunyan’s life, drawn from the many existing biographies and articles. However, there are, as all scholars know, problems over Bunyan’s earlier life. This summary is as accurate as records permit, but, for instance, there is no direct proof of the date on which, or even the year in which, his first wife, Elizabeth, died. There is, though, adequate circumstantial and indirect evidence for us to state that it occurred in the year given below (1655).

Secondly, “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, like Charlotte Elliott’s great hymn “Just as I am without one plea”, was and is a literally life-changing work. Paul Fussell, in his highly esteemed “The Great War and Modern Memory” (OUP 1974), predicates convincingly that Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” was the widest-read book among all ranks of those from these islands who struggled in the blood-steeped mud of Northern France and Belgium. And recently we all remember the way in which Terry Waite, when a hostage in Beirut, found consolation in John Bunyan’s plight as someone unjustly imprisoned. While being held as a hostage in Beirut, he miraculously received, in November 1991, a postcard from a caring stranger of the stained glass window in the Abbey Church which shows John Bunyan in jail. He commented later at the International John Bunyan conference in Bedford in 2004: “It was a sign of hope and an inspiration. It showed people had not forgotten me.”

Bunyan rose from humble origins to become one of the world’s most widely read Christian writers. He lived most of his life after Elstow in and around the town of Bedford. Although a prolific writer in his later years, he is best known for his spiritual allegory, “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, which was an immediate success on Publication in 1678 and has since become a world classic, having been translated into over 200 languages.

Bunyan was born in 1628, in the parish of Elstow, which lies a mile to the south of Bedford. He was the son of a tinker and as a child he travelled the district helping his father and learning the trade. He apparently had a happy childhood, playing tip-cat, a form of rounders, on the village green and learning to read and write at the local school. His youth, however, was not entirely trouble-free. The Civil War broke out in 1642 and Bunyan joined the Parliamentary forces, in 1644 and as a teenager, against King Charles I.

On returning to Elstow some two years later, Bunyan resumed his work as a tinker. In 1649 or 1650 he married a local woman, Mary, who bore him four children (two daughters and two sons); one of them, their eldest child also called Mary, was sadly born blind. Mary’s disability was probably one of the factors that caused Bunyan to reflect seriously upon his early life for the first time and to question the value of his pastimes of bell-ringing, dancing and playing such as tip-cat. He claims to have had few equals in “cursing, swearing, lying and blaspheming the holy name of God”, and by his own account he now became in need of a deeper purpose.

Bunyan found the answer he was looking for in a small, newly formed, dissenting congregation that met at St John’s Church, now joined with St Leonard’s, to the south of the river Ouse in Bedford. He became friendly with the pastor, John Gifford, and joined the congregation in the early 1650s.

In 1660, five years after the death of Bunyan's first wife and his own removal to live in Bedford, Cromwell’s Protectorate came to an end and the monarchy was restored. In the belief that national unity could only be achieved through religious uniformity, the state attempted to restrain the developing Independent Congregations by forbidding them to preach. Bunyan, by now a respected speaker, refused to be silenced and was arrested in the hamlet of Samsell. He was held at nearby Harlington Manor overnight and then appeared before the local justices in Bedford, where he was sentenced to remain in prison until he would conform.

Bunyan was 32 when he was taken to the County Gaol, which then stood on the corner of Silver Street and the High Street, less than five minutes from his home. At first it was thought that the sentence would last a few weeks. However, months went by and no release was forthcoming. His second wife Elizabeth tried to get his case reopened by pleading with Sir Matthew Hale, the Lord Chief justice of England, when he stayed at the Swan Chambers in Bedford, but it was in vain. All in all, Bunyan spent the next 12 years in prison. Most of his time was spent writing. He completed several books, including his autobiography “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners” (published in 1666), but, more importantly, it was while he was in gaol that he wrote “The Pilgrim's Progress” (but not published until later).

In 1672, King Charles II issued the Declaration of Religious Indulgence and Bunyan, along with other Church offenders, was set at liberty. He was immediately appointed pastor of the Independent Congregation, which later bought a barn and orchard in Mill Street as their place of meeting. Bunyan quickly re-established himself as a preacher and was fully occupied as leader of the church. However, his freedom was to be short lived.

In 1673, the King was forced to withdraw his Declaration, and, on an ecclesiastical technicality, Bunyan returned to prison. It seems certain that he went back to the County Gaol, although it has been traditionally held that Bunyan served his second, shorter sentence in the Town Gaol on Town Bridge. He was eventually released from prison in June 1677, and on 18th February 1678 he published “The Pilgrim's Progress”.

Bunyan lived for a further ten years. In that time he wrote “The Life and Death of Mr. Badman” and “The Holy War” alongside a his total of 40 books. He travelled throughout Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Surrey and London teaching and preaching his gospel. Bunyan died in August 1688 after contracting pneumonia while on a visit to London. He is buried in a vault in Bunhill Fields, City Road, London. The John Bunyan Museum at the Bunyan Meeting Free Church, Mill Street, Bedford, is a permanent memorial to his life and works, along with the bronze Bunyan statue, presented to Bedford in 1874 by the Duke of Bedford and standing proudly at the south end of de Pary’s Avenue (see photograph).

Elstow Abbey - John Bunyan with signature

In 1628 John Bunyan was brought to Elstow church to be baptised in the font which is still in use today. As a boy he played with other local children on the green. He knew the church well, attending there for over twenty years.

The foundations of his religious knowledge were built in Elstow Abbey, but his faith came direct from the scriptures, and its strength, in due course, led him out of the church doors and into the open countryside, where he spoke to the people in the freedom of the fields.

Elstow Abbey - Pilgrims Progress Window

The small Bunyan chapel, which serves also to honour those who suffered through imprisonment in the Far East during World War II, commemorates the achievements of this brave and simple man.

Above the original altar he knew so well is a window (see above) celebrating his greatest book “The Pilgrim's Progress” and on the other, north, side of the church and also facing east is one depicting the triumph of good over evil the theme of “The Holy War”.

Elstow Abbey - John Bunyan with Cross An archive of material on John Bunyan can be found at John Bunyan Online under the “Bunyan Archive” tab.

John Bunyan's statue in Bedford

John Bunyan's statue near St. Peter's Church, Bedford


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