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To be a pilgrim

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This is a text-only version of an article first published on Thursday, 15 August 2013. Information shown on this page may no longer be current.

Thought for September 2013, by David Winter. They confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.

Hebrews 11:14-15John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress, one of the most widely read Christian books ever written, was born in 1628 and lived through some of the bleakest years of religious conflict in England, writes David Winter.

A tinker by trade, he came of peasant stock, but his parents determined that he should have at least an elementary education, so that he grew up able to read and write.

He served as a soldier in the parliamentary army during the civil war, but returned to his trade after three years under arms. His parents were faithful members of the Church of England, and John was baptized in the parish church of their village, Elstow, near Bedford.

However, he seems to have settled on an irreligious life-style as a young man, later claiming that he was unexcelled at blasphemy and cursing. His religious conversion owed much to the influence of John Gifford, who, although the pastor of an independent 'congregationalist' church in Bedford, actually became rector of St John's, Bedford during the Protectorate.

In 1653 Bunyan, now a serious seeker, joined them, and two years later was chosen as a deacon.

His eloquence and passion in preaching were formally recognised by a 'call to preach', though of course this recognition had no legal status in a society where any preaching outside the Established Church and its services was strictly forbidden. Eventually the fervent preacher was twice arrested, the first time serving no less than twelve years in gaol in Bedford, and on the second occasion six months, which he spent in a tiny one-roomed gaol on the bridge over the river Ouse.

It may well be that Pilgrim's Progress was written during this time.

Bunyan had already written his famous spiritual journal, Grace Abounding, but Pilgrim's Progress was at once enormously popular, its powerful story line, colourful characters and vivid allegory ensuring that its appeal would be to a very broad spectrum of readers. Bunyan was himself an uncompromising person, though his doctrinal dogmatism would be easily explained by the prevailing religious situation, in which the Established Church was trying desperately to contain two different forms of 'dissent', from the Roman Catholics, on the one hand, and the 'nonconformists', on the other.

Happily, Pilgrim's Progress stands tall above such sectarian issues, concerning itself with the great theme of the Christian pilgrimage and the perils and hazards that confront 'Christian' on his journey to the Celestial City.

It is a genuine work of literary quality, all the more remarkable considering its author's humble origins and limited education. His life is yet another illustration of the profound truth that when God calls a person to follow Christ he also illuminates that individual's gifts and talents.

Bunyan may have been a thorn in the flesh of the Established Church at the time, but today he's a jewel in the same Church's Calendar. David Winter is author of Seasons of the Son (SCM-Canterbury Press), a commentary on the Christian year.


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