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John BunyanBunyan was born in Harrowden (one mile southeast of Bedford), in the Parish of Elstow, England. He was baptized John Bunyan, on 30 November 1628 as recorded in the Elstow parish register. The family has a long history in England and the name has been found spelled over thirty-four different ways: Binyan, Buniun, Bonyon, Buignon, being the most common – Bunyan being the most recent.

John Bunyan was born to Thomas Bunyan and Margaret Bently; she was also from Elstow and she, like her husband, was born in 1603. They married on 27 May 1627 and in 1628 Margaret's sister, Rose Bently, married Thomas' half-brother Edward Bunyan. (Thomas had married his first wife in 1623 and like his father before him, would marry two more times within months of being widowed.) They were working-class people with Thomas earning a living as a tinker or brazier; one who mends kettles and pots. Bunyan wrote of his modest origins, "My descent was of a low and inconsiderable generation, my father's house being of that rank that is meanest and most despised of all the families of the land".

He had very little schooling (about 2–4 years). He was educated at his father's house with other poor country boys and what little education he received was to benefit his father and his own future trade. He followed his father in the Tarish Tinker's trade, which at the time had a reputation as being a lowly sort of occupation and was associated historically with the nomadic lifestyle of gypsies.

In 1644, at the age of sixteen, Bunyan lost his mother and two sisters, all who died within months of each other; and his father married for the third time. It may have been the arrival of his stepmother that precipitated his estrangement and subsequent enlistment in the parliamentary army. He served in the parliamentary army at Newport Pagnell garrison (1644–1647) as the civil war was nearing the end of the first stage. He was saved from death by a fellow soldier who volunteered to go into battle in his place and was killed while walking sentry duty.

After the civil war was won by The Parliamentarians, Bunyan returned to his former trade and eventually found a wife. In 1649 (when he was about 21), he married a young woman, Mary, whose only dowry appears to have been two books, Arthur Dent's Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven and Lewis Bayly's Practice of Piety, by which he was influenced towards a religious life. She was an orphan, her father leaving only those two books as her inheritance, and their life was modest to say the least. Bunyan writes that they were "as poor as poor might be", not even "a dish or spoon between them".

In his autobiographical book, Grace Abounding, Bunyan describes himself as having led an abandoned life in his youth, and as having been morally reprehensible as a result. However, there appears to be no evidence that he was outwardly worse than the average of his neighbours. Examples of sins to which he confesses in Grace Abounding are profanity, dancing and bell-ringing. The increasing awareness of his un-Biblical life led him to contemplate acts of impiety and profanity; in particular, he was harassed by a curiosity in regard to the "unpardonable sin," and a prepossession that he had already committed it. He was known as an adept linguist as far as profanity was concerned, even the most proficient swearers were known to remark that Bunyan was "the ungodliest fellow for swearing they ever heard". While playing a game, Tip-cat, in the village square, Bunyan claimed to have heard a voice that asked: "Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven or have thy sins and go to hell?" He believed it was the voice of God chastising his indulgent ways, as Puritans held sacred the Sabbath day and permitted no sport. His spirituality was born from this experience and he struggled both with his sense of guilt and self-doubt and his belief in the Bible's promise of Christian damnation and salvation.

As he struggled with his newfound faith, Bunyan became increasingly despondent and fell into mental as well as physical turmoil. During this time of conflict, Bunyan began a four year long discussion and spiritual journey with a few poor women of Bedford who belonged to a nonconformist sect which worshiped in St. John's Church. He increasingly identified himself with St. Paul, who had characterized himself as "the chief of sinners", and believed he was one of the spiritual elite, chosen by God. As a result of these experiences, he was received into the Congregational church in Bedford in 1653. On joining the Bedford Church, he began to follow the teachings of its Pastor, John Gifford.

While it is commonly asserted by modern Baptists that John Bunyan was one of them, and was re-baptized (dipped) as an adult, there is no original historical record of the event or of either Gifford or Bunyan re-baptizing anyone in the church records or in Bunyan's own extensive and well known writings. John Bunyan was open to all who had biblical faith in Jesus Christ, and was opposed to those who caused divisions over the form and time of baptism. The first recorded assertion that Bunyan was a Baptist appears to come much later as repeated by a Dr. Armitage in 1887 from an anonymous source supposedly around 1690, after John's death. There remain church records of the infant baptisms of John himself in 1628, and of his infant children: Mary in 1650, Elizabeth in 1654, and Joseph in 1672.

Bunyan again claimed to have heard voices and have visions similar to St. Theresa's and William Blake's religious experiences. While still in Elstow, Mary gave birth to a blind daughter, also named Mary, and a second daughter, Elizabeth, shortly followed by two more children, John and Thomas. In 1655, after moving his family to Bedford, both Bunyan's wife and his mentor, John Gifford, died. He was immersed in grief and his health declined, though the same year he became a deacon of St. Paul's Church, Bedford and began preaching, with marked success from the start.Bunyan fiercely disagreed with the teachings of the Quakers and took part in written debates during the years 1656–1657 with some of its leaders.

First, Bunyan published Some Gospel Truths Opened in which he attacked Quaker beliefs. The Quaker Edward Burrough responded with The True Faith of the Gospel of Peace. Bunyan countered Burrough's pamphlet with A Vindication of Some Gospel Truths Opened, which Burrough answered with Truth (the Strongest of All) Witnessed Forth. Later, the Quaker leader George Fox entered the verbal fray by publishing a refutation of Bunyan's essay in his The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded.

The Bedford Congregationalists were moderate in their views; they were considered more liberal on issues of church government than the Presbyterians and more conservative on church tenets than supposed antinomian sects, such as the Quakers. He attacked the Quakers for their reliance on their own "inner light" rather than the literal word of the Bible. The Puritans were diligent biographers of their own lives in relation to their faith and they sought clues religious meaning in their lives and literature. Bunyan writes to his readers in the conclusion of the first part of The Pilgrim's Progress:

Now reader, I have told my dream to thee, See if thou canst interpret it to me, Or to thyself or neighbour: but take heed Of misinterpreting; for that instead Of doing good, will but thyself abuse: By misinterpreting evil ensues.

His affinity for the oral tradition and his voracious reading lead to his work being primarily influenced by sermons, homilies in dialog form, folk tales, books of emblems and allegories. "Most of the didactic works of Bunyan's era have vanished into oblivion. His allegory's power derives from the imaginative force with which he brings didactic themes to life and the wonderfully living prose in which he dramatizes the conflicts of the spirit".