For many people, John Bunyan (1628–1688) is an enigma. A statue of Bunyan as a denominational figure adorns the headquarters of the Baptist Union in Great Britain; yet Bunyan is claimed also by the Congregationalists. During his lifetime, his denominational affiliation, at best, was misunderstood.

A tinker by trade, Bunyan in his early life was a blasphemous, profane individual known for his misdeeds in his native Elstow in Bedfordshire. His stint in the Parliamentary Army (1644–1647) probably did little to improve his behavior, though it did expose him to Baptists and others who took their religious profession seriously. About 1653 he experienced a conversion and sought believer’s baptism from Andrew Gifford, pastor of a Particular Baptist church in Bedford.

In the later 1650s Bunyan began to preach publicly and was well received for his abilities to make gospel truths plain and to put his hearers under the spell of his stories. When King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, nonconformist preachers came under renewed persecution, and Bunyan was imprisoned. During his twelve-year confinement, he read extensively and wrote some of his most famous works, including Grace Abounding to the Chiefest of Sinners. When he was released in 1672, he became more active in the church and succeeded Gifford as pastor.

For the remainder of Bunyan’s career, though he served as a highly gifted pastor and achieved renown as a writer, he was a problem for many Baptists who desired sharply defined distinctions when it came to the ordinances. Bunyan, while he owned baptism to be God’s ordinance, “would not make an idol of it.” This meant that Bunyan would not deny anyone participation in the Lord’s Supper because that person lacked the ...

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