John Bunyan, the author of the book which has probably passed through more editions, had a greater number of readers, and been translated into more languages than any other book in the English tongue, was born in the parish of Elstow, in Bedfordshire, in the latter part of the year 1628, and was baptized in the parish church of the village on the last day of November of that year.
The year of John Bunyan's birth was a momentous one both for the nation and for the Church of England. Charles I., by the extorted assent to the Petition of Right, had begun reluctantly to strip himself of the irresponsible authority he had claimed, and had taken the first step in the struggle between King and Parliament which ended in the House of Commons seating itself in the place of the Sovereign. Wentworth (better known as Lord Strafford) had finally left the Commons, baffled in his nobly-conceived but vain hope of reconciling the monarch and his people, and having accepted a peerage and the promise of the Presidency of the Council of the North, was foreshadowing his policy of "Thorough," which was destined to bring both his own head and that of his weak master to the block. The Remonstrance of Parliament against the toleration of Roman Catholics and the growth of Arminianism, had been presented to the indignant king, who, wilfully blinded, had replied to it by the promotion to high and lucrative posts in the Church of the very men against whom it was chiefly directed. The most outrageous upholders of the royal prerogative and the irresponsible power of the sovereign, Montagu and Mainwaring, had been presented, the one to the see of Chichester, the other - the impeached and condemned of the Commons - to the rich living Montagu's consecration had vacated. Montaigne, the licenser of Mainwaring's incriminated sermon, was raised to the Archbishopric of York, while Neile and Laud, who were openly named in the Remonstrance as the "troublers of the English Israel," were rewarded respectively with the rich see of Durham and the important and deeply-dyed Puritan diocese of London. Charles was steadily sowing the wind, and destined to reap the whirlwind which was to sweep him from his throne, and involve the monarchy and the Church in the same overthrow. Three months before Bunyan's birth Buckingham, on the eve of his departure for the beleaguered and famine-stricken city of Rochelle, sanguinely hoping to conclude a peace with the French king beneath its walls, had been struck down by the knife of a fanatic, to the undisguised joy of the majority of the nation, bequeathing a legacy of failure and disgrace in the fall of the Protestant stronghold on which the eyes of Europe had been so long anxiously fixed.
The year was closing gloomily, with ominous forecasts of the coming hurricane, when the babe who was destined to leave so imperishable a name in English literature, first saw the light in an humble cottage in an obscure Bedfordshire village. His father, Thomas Bunyan, though styling himself in his will by the more dignified title of "brazier," was more properly what is known as a "tinker"; "a mender of pots and kettles," according to Bunyan's contemporary biographer, Charles Doe. He was not, however, a mere tramp or vagrant, as travelling tinkers were and usually are still, much less a disreputable sot, a counterpart of Shakespeare's Christopher Sly, but a man with a recognized calling, having a settled home and an acknowledged position in the village community of Elstow. The family was of long standing there, but had for some generations been going down in the world. Bunyan's grandfather, Thomas Bunyan, as we learn from his still extant will, carried on the occupation of a "petty chapman," or small retail dealer, in his own freehold cottage, which he bequeathed, "with its appurtenances," to his second wife, Ann, to descend, after her death, to her stepson, his namesake, Thomas, and her own son Edward, in equal shares. This cottage, which was probably John Bunyan's birthplace, persistent tradition, confirmed by the testimony of local names, warrants us in placing near the hamlet of Harrowden, a mile to the east of the village of Elstow, at a place long called "Bunyan's End," where two fields are still called by the name of "Bunyans" and "Further Bunyans." This small freehold appears to have been all that remained, at the death of John Bunyan's grandfather, of a property once considerable enough to have given the name of its possessor to the whole locality.
The family of Buingnon, Bunyun, Buniun, Boynon, Bonyon, or Binyan (the name is found spelt in no fewer than thirty-four different ways, of which the now-established form, Bunyan, is almost the least frequent) is one that had established itself in Bedfordshire from very early times. The first place in connection with which the name appears is Pulloxhill, about nine miles from Elstow. In 1199, the year of King John's accession, the Bunyans had approached still nearer to that parish. One William Bunion held land at Wilstead, not more than a mile off. In 1327, the first year of Edward III., one of the same name, probably his descendant, William Boynon, is found actually living at Harrowden, close to the spot which popular tradition names as John Bunyan's birthplace, and was the owner of property there. We have no further notices of the Bunyans of Elstow till the sixteenth century. We then find them greatly fallen. Their ancestral property seems little by little to have passed into other hands, until in 1542 nothing was left but "a messuage and pightell (A small enclosure behind a cottage) with the appurtenances, and nine acres of land." This small residue other entries on the Court Rolls show to have been still further diminished by sale. The field already referred to, known as "Bonyon's End," was sold by "Thomas Bonyon, of Elstow, labourer," son of William Bonyon, the said Thomas and his wife being the keepers of a small road-side inn, at which their overcharges for their home-baked bread and home-brewed beer were continually bringing them into trouble with the petty local courts of the day. Thomas Bunyan, John Bunyan's father, was born in the last days of Elizabeth, and was baptized February 24, 1603, exactly a month before the great queen passed away. The mother of the immortal Dreamer was one Margaret Bentley, who, like her husband, was a native of Elstow and only a few months his junior. The details of her mother's will, which is still extant, drawn up by the vicar of Elstow, prove that, like her husband, she did not, in the words of Bunyan's latest and most complete biographer, the Rev. Dr. Brown, "come of the very squalid poor, but of people who, though humble in station, were yet decent and worthy in their ways."