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John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)

Overview

John Bunyan, a self-educated Puritan preacher, wrote his classic book The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come Pilgrim’s Progress while he was in jail in 1675 for refusing to conform to the tenets of the official Church of England. The book, an allegory describing the journey of a Christian from this world to the next, gives a vivid picture of the religious beliefs of Bunyan and other Nonconformists, who rejected the teaching of the State state Churchchurch. In the first part of Pilgrim’s Progress, written originally to stand alone, Christian, the titular hero, becomes increasingly convinced that he and his community are under a sentence of judgment. Unable to persuade anyone else to flee destruction with him, he sets off alone on a journey to salvation. The second part tells the story of Christian’s wife, Christiana, and their children making on the same difficult journey.

Pilgrim’s Progress, first published in 1678, is a Puritan sermon in the form of a novel, using powerful and charming storytelling to teach the lesson that the world is the venue for the battle of spiritual forces and that victory only comes only through denying the world to seek salvation. Bunyan’s writings, of which Pilgrim’s Progress is far and away the best known, allowed him to reach a huge audience despite his incarceration. His account of a religious “everyman” made him a celebrity in his own day and has inspired countless tracking people ever since.

Context

The English Civil War, a series of three armed conflicts (1641–1651), pitted not only Cavaliers (supporters of the king) against Roundheads (supporters of Parliament), or believers in divine right absolutist monarchy by divine right against those who championed some form of constitutional government, it also pitted the official Anglican religious settlement against the religion of the Puritans (Protestants who preferred a more rigorous and Bible-centered faith). Nonconformists, or Dissenters, as Puritans who rejected the Anglican Church were known, formed the backbone of the parliamentary armies led by Oliver Cromwell, which eventually overthrew the monarchy. During the Commonwealth (1649–1660), while Oliver Cromwell ruled as lord protector,[AuQ1] Dissenters were free to practice their religion as they chose. I have added this sentence to this page, just to show the tracking possibilities.

After Cromwell’s death, England welcomed back Frederick II (r. 1660–1685) and, with him, a renewed Anglican settlement. The Restoration government moved quickly and severely against Dissenters, demanding full allegiance to the State ChurchChurch of England, or the Anglican Church. Official Anglicanism had wealth, resources, facilities, and educated clergy. Dissenting churches made do without any of these advantages, and the costs of resistance were high enough that the most Dissenters were drawn from the uneducated and poor working classes. Some became involved in political schemes to overthrow Charles or, later, his brother James II (r. 1685–1688). Eventually Dissenters would play a prominent role in ousting the Catholic James for the Protestant Mary and her Dutch Protestant husband William in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Other Dissenters would leave England for places of refuge such as the New World (as the Pilgrims had done before the English Civil War). But most remained at home and avoided politics as best they could, worshiping according to their beliefs and living with the consequences.

John Bunyan participated personally in the all the great happenings of his time. Although he was not yet a committed Puritan, as a teenager he served in the Parliamentary army toward the end of the English Civil War. Later, during the Commonwealth, he experienced his conversion, and used the freedom of that era to become a Dissenting preacher. Like many other Noncomformists, he experienced persecution under the Restoration government. Bunyan himself spent more than twelve years in jail for preaching without a license. He died just before England’s Glorious Revolution allowed some measure of freedom to those who shared his religious beliefs. Yet the ideas about faith he taught in Pilgrim’s Progress, along with the general English experience on Nonconformity, would contribute toward shaping English views about freedom, government, and the intersection of church and state, not only in Britain but in the United States as well. This is a new correction.

Time Line

  • November 30, 1628—John Bunyan is born in Harrowden in Bedfordshire, Elstow, England.
  • 1649—The end of the Second English Civil War ushers in the Commonwealth.
  • 1653—Bunyan experiences a conversion and is baptized and received into the Baptist Church.
  • 1657—Bunyan begins his career as a preacher.
  • 1660—The end of the Commonwealth brings about the Restoration under Charles II.
  • 1660—Bunyan is imprisoned for the first time in Bedford Jail, a confinement that lasts until 1672.
  • 1666—Bunyan writes his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.
  • 1675—Bunyan is imprisoned for the second time in Bedford Jail, where he writes Pilgrim’s Progress.
  • 1678—Pilgrim’s Progress is published.
  • 1682—The Holy War is published.
  • 1684—The second part of Pilgrim’s Progress is published.
  • 1685—Charles II dies, and James II ascends to the throne.
  • August 31, 1688—Bunyan dies.
  • 1688—The Glorious Revolution brings William and Mary to the throne and establishes limited religious freedom for Dissenters.
  • 1692—Bunyan’s last work, the anti-Catholic Of Antichrist and Her His Ruin is published.[AuQ2]

About the Author

The English writer and preacher John Bunyan was born in Harrowden in the county of Bedfordshire on November 30, 1628, to an extremely poor family. He received only a minimal education and followed his father into trade as a tinker before he went on to serve in the Parliamentary army during the English Civil War. It was his marriage after the end of military service that changed Bunyan’s life. His wife brought as her only dowry two religious texts. Reading those books brought focused Bunyan’s thoughts increasingly onto his own spiritual condition and eventually led to what he recognized as a conversion in 1653. A handful of other books, particularly the Bible, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and John Foxe’s account of the Christian martyrs through history, Actes and Monuments (more commonly known as The Book of Martyrs), played an important role in Bunyan’s self-education. In 1653 he was baptized and received into the Baptist Church. [AuQ3]

Bunyan’s faith took a public role in religious matters when he began to dispute with local Quakers in 1656; this led to increasing involvement in ministry and finally a call to serve a local Independent cCongregation as pastor.[AuQ4] Under the Commonwealth it was possible for self-proclaimed preachers to lead congregations. With the Restoration of both Charles II and the Anglican Church, however, the government began to move against unlicensed preachers. Bunyan refused to conform to the Church of England and was jailed in 1660. His first period of imprisonment lasted (with occasional interruptions) for twelve years. The confinement was lax, giving him opportunities to write. It was probably during this period that Bunyan began to plan Pilgrim’s Progress, though he did not begin the writing process until later—certainly he was busy enough turning out his autobiography (Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners) and other books, pamphlets, sermons, and poetry.

Upon release, Bunyan immediately renewed his career as a pastor, serving a congregation until he was arrested and jailed again in 1675.[AuQ5] It was during the following brief stint in prison that he wrote the first part of Pilgrim’s Progress, although the work was not published for three more years. In 1684 he published the second half of the work. Bunyan’s second jail term lasted only six months, and his increasing reputation and popularity protected him from further trouble. He was even offered royal patronage by James II, but Bunyan’s religious convictions caused him to refuse the post. He continued writing and preaching up until his death on August 31, 1688.

Explanation and Analysis of the Document

[AuQ6]

As I Walked through the Wilderness of This World

After an introduction in verse, Bunyan sets the stage for his story by describing it as the dream of the author; the author will not reawake until the final line of part 1. As a writer, Bunyan is known for his rich uses of imagery—imagery drawn heavily from the Authorized Version of the Bible. In this opening paragraph, for instance, the description of the future pilgrim is taken from scripture. “Filthy rags” are how the prophet Isaiah describes human attempts to please God; the Psalmist speaks of sins as a “heavy burden . . . too heavy for me.” Similarly, the despairing cry “What shall I do?” is an echo of several biblical passages. The sorrow, as the main character will soon relate, is a sense of impending judgment due for his own sins and the sins of his community. Such sorrow is a natural and appropriate response to encountering God’s truth, as the future pilgrim does when he reads his book (the Bible).

In This Plight, Therefore, He Went Home

Bunyan’s description of the future pilgrim’s dilemma is a reflection of the differing understandings of salvation promoted by the state church (Church of England/Anglicans) and Bunyan’s own beliefs. The Church of England did not see society itself under judgment, taught that salvation lay in taking one’s appropriate place in society, and emphasized the communal rather than the individual aspects of salvation. Furthermore, the path to salvation offered through the Anglican Church was seen as the default position for any in the community who did not specifically reject it—no one need worry too much about being saved. Independents and other Puritans like Bunyan, however, understood society to be at odds with God. Salvation came only through rejecting society and its religious values and committing one’s self entirely to God. Although Bunyan’s version of Puritanism had strong communal implications (in part 2 of Pilgrim’s Progress, Christiana and her children travel together), there was an important individual component to religion. Underlying this stance was the assumption, in contrast to Anglicanism, that every person was lost unless he or she converted. The difference between the two positions is typical of a division in Western religiosity classified by sociologists as “church” versus “sect.”

The mocking and derision the future pilgrim experienced would have been very familiar to Bunyan’s audience. Bunyan himself was in jail when he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, and all Nonconformists faced significant penalties—socially, economically, and legally—for rejecting the state church in favor of their own religious beliefs. Adherence to a Dissenting congregation might even mean alienation from family and friends. It was this contempt that Puritans received from the world for their beliefs that strengthened the Puritan notion that the world itself was lost. Certainly the pressure to give up Dissenting beliefs and values taught the Puritans that the battles between good and evil over the destiny of souls were to be fought out in the world.

Bunyan has the first step in the journey to salvation begin with personal anguish. For Puritans, salvation required a strong sense of individual sin and unworthiness. Only those recognizing their sinfulness could turn to God for forgiveness and mercy. It was typical of Puritan values that a decision for conversion only followed many hours of reflection and consideration. While some of their modern-day heirs understand conversion as an instant, once-and-for-all occurrence, for Puritans it was a process involving time and multiple stages.

The phrase (odd to modern ears) “children of my bowels” reflects Bunyan’s own familiarity with the Authorized Version of the Bible. The original Greek of the New Testament does indeed use the word correctly translated in the Authorized Version as “bowels” to describe what modern translations render in different places as “heart” or “feeling.” Modern Western people usually make the heart the seat of human emotion. The ancients gave that role to the stomach. It is the stomach that receives the rush of acid, for instance, with some strong emotions or that churns with anxiety or hurts during times of stress. The main character is simply adapting a literary expression to describe how dear his children are to him.

Now I Saw . . . [Him] Reading His Book, and Greatly Distressed in Mind

The importance of reading in the main character’s conversion reflects Bunyan’s own experience—his conversion was prompted by two books of his wife’s. Of course, the book here in the story later proves to be the Bible, the chief source of inspiration for Bunyan, as for all good Puritans. But even these Bible-centered Protestants did not reject the help of other forms of literature. Pilgrim’s Progress itself was meant to be one of the books that helped Pilgrims on their way.

Evangelist is the first character to be introduced by name. In Bunyan’s story, the character of every person met in the pages is revealed by his or her name. Technically speaking, an Evangelist was one of the authors of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), but Bunyan uses the name in the modern sense. Evangelist is someone who can tell the main character about salvation (“the Gospel” or “the Good News”). The future pilgrim has worked out his need for salvation on his own but requires someone to direct him on the path. Evangelist does not take him to salvation or plot the whole journey but merely points him in the right direction.

Notice that up to this point in the story the main character does not yet have a name. His character has not yet been defined. Only after he makes an important decision can his true nature be revealed by the name he is given. This encounter between Evangelist and the main character emphasizes the individualistic aspect of the Puritan understanding of salvation. To obtain eternal life, the pilgrim must be willing to leave other kinds of life (family life, public life) behind. Underlying Bunyan’s beliefs was the conviction that “the world” (society, community, the established order) was opposed to God’s will and a hindrance to salvation. One must choose between the world’s way and God’s way.

At the same time, Puritan religion was communal as well as individualistic. At some point each individual must make a personal decision, but such decisions are not made in isolation. There is no salvation for the main character with Evangelist to point the way. At critical times in the story other individuals will appear or reappear to keep the pilgrim on the path. The corporate nature of pilgrim life is emphasized more strongly in the second part of the book, where the pilgrims travel in a group.

The description of the meeting between Evangelist and the main character is a classic descriptiondepiction of Puritan values. Human sin and its deserved condemnation are self-obviousevident, and many people in the course of life might become aware of them. However, some who recognized their own faults and knew know they needed to be saved might, by society’s pressure, decide to ignore their convictions. It iswas only when the sense of sin iswas too strong to ignore that the individual iswas willing to pursue relief. The main character is at this point, not yet saved but a seeker after salvation. And to seek, he must leave his community behind.

The Neighbors Also Came Out

The decision to set out on the road to salvation was is a momentous one. Only now can the pilgrim be called by his appropriate name, Christian. While the state church would have claimed that all those living in the city of Destruction (which Christian has just fled) were Christians, for the Puritans real Christians were those who were aware of their own sin and who turned to God for salvation.</p>

The experience of opposition was an important part of Puritan self-understanding. Since the world was lost and under judgment, one could expect only opposition from those who lived in it. In the case of Christian, there is general contempt and specific opposition from the characters Obstinate and Pliable. Obstinate questions the pilgrim, allowing Christian to describe something of his hope for salvation, words that only bring derision on “the book.” Obstinate calls for the pilgrim to give up his silliness and come home, while Pliable proves more open to the message. Ultimately Pliable resolves to travel with the pilgrim, while Obstinate turns back in disgust. It is probably not a good sign for Pliable’s future as a pilgrim that he is more attracted to the journey by the joys of heaven than by the conviction for of his own sin.

Bunyan’s short description of what the responses of Christian’s experiences from his neighbors hints at three types of opposition Nonconforming Christians experienced. The first was simple rejection, characterized by mockery—the sort of reaction Bunyan highlights in the story. The second, perhaps implied in the phrase “some cried after him to return,” was a more serious effort to convincepersuade Dissenters to abandon their peculiar religious ideas. Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who appears later in the reading, provides one example of this sort as he tries to talk Christian into losing his burden in Morality. The final type of opposition is implied in the attempt “to fetch him back by force.” The state church possessed great power from the government to compel conformity. Bunyan himself, of course, wrote Pilgrim’s Progress while he was in jail for preaching without a license, a license that never would have been issued to him. The amount of legal trouble Dissenters faced varied from place to place and time to time. There were districts and periods where Nonconformists were generally ignored, while on other occasions they might face strict persecution. Even after 1688, though, when the freedom of Protestants to worship was generally allowed, Nonconformists faced severe legal limitations in terms of careers and education. When Bunyan describes the world as actively hostile to Puritan Christians, he is doing no more than recounting a reality he and most Nonconformists experienced.

Now I Saw in My Dream, That When Obstinate Was Gone Back

Christian and Pliable travel together, while Christian gives more details about the glorious future awaiting believers in heaven. Their conversation demonstrates that the book Christian carries with him is indeed the Bible, a sure source of knowledge about spiritual realities. Although Christian is eager to hurry down the path to the Heavenly City, he finds himself slowed by the burden of sin he still carries on his back like a pack.

The “Slough of Despond” is one of Bunyan’s most famous images. Like that of any good allegorical figure, its rich complexity defies simple characterization, but among other things it is a swamp that traps people who are beginning their pilgrimage to the Heavenly City. The Slough itself stains and defiles, and in it the weight of sin is even more burdensome. It is ultimately revealed that the swamp is created from the discouragement that attends an awareness of personal sin. Although it is a trap or hazard on the path to salvation, it is one that cannot be completely mended, because the sorrow and fear created by an awareness of sin is natural (and even necessary) for those seeking to escape judgment.

Even if the Slough cannot ever be entirely drained, it should not be the great obstacle that it is. Here Bunyan is making a typical Puritan complaint against both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church. Like a monarch ordering his highways to be maintained, God had commanded the road through the Slough to be repaired and provided much teaching to help Christians avoid being caught in the swamp of discouragement and self-doubt, yet these lessons had been mishandled, leaving many stuck in the mire. With appropriate instruction, a believer should be able to find God’s firm path through the dangerous slough. This is the fault of the state church, which neglects its essential functions and fails to teach important truths to its adherents, leaving pilgrims to find their own way down the difficult road to salvation.

Despite the hardships, Christian fights his way through the swamp, with the aid of the character Help—yet another reminder of the corporate aspect of Puritan faith. Christian needs others to give him a hand up from the swamp and to point him to the right path. and continues on his way. But Pliable, who before was so eager to experience the joys of the Heavenly City, is overwhelmed by the challenges of the journey and turns away. Christian continues on his way. The character Help is yet another reminder of the corporate aspect of Puritan faith. Christian needs others to give him a hand up from the swamp and to point him on the right way.

Now I Saw in My Dream That by This Time Pliable Was Got Home

Bunyan’s audience would have been very familiar with individuals who had temporarily associated themselves with Dissenting congregations and then returned to the state church. The story of Pliable served as a cautionary tale. Those who went back to their old ways were likely to get just as much grief from their neighbors as if they had remained true, yet they would also miss out on heaven. In fact, since Pliable is around to be derided by his neighbors while Christian has moved on, Pliable may be even be worse off in the present life, just as he will certainly be worse off in the future one.

Now As Christian Was Walking Solitary

Christian continues on his journey and encounters a new figure, a man who hasd advice for him. The pilgrim has set out on the road to the Heavenly City in order to have the burden lifted from his back. Mr. Worldly Wiseman suggests that there are easier ways to remove the burden, ways that do not involve hardship, danger, or the loss of his family and community standing.

From a Puritan perspective, images of morality and civility promoted by society and the Church of England were traps. As Puritans understood the Bible, human effort (“keeping the law”) was unable tocould not save people from God’s judgment. To them, much of what the state church offered was a reliance on human effort, helping people to feel better about themselves so that they no longer noticed their burden of sin but not actually providing salvation. The Puritans saw such teaching as a medicine that masked a patient’s symptoms without curing the deadly disease. In rejecting “morality,” the Puritans were not advocating wild, sinful lifestyles—after all, Puritanism today is a byword for ultrastrict conduct. Instead, they were rejecting “moralism,” the idea that avoiding certain conspicuous sins was enough to please God. Civility was an even greater trap, elevating politeness and deference to society’s ideals of appropriate public behavior as the ultimate standard of human conduct.

Mr. Worldly Wiseman mocks both the teaching of “the book” and Christian’s efforts to understand it. The warning not to meddle in things too high for him was typical of the advice that often uneducated Dissenters might frequently receive. Many educated people believed that only the trained experts of the state church were competent to interpret the Bible and God’s will and found it offensive that less-educated and less-qualified people would presume to do so. Although it was not necessarily true of the first generation of Puritans, there was an increasing element of class division between Dissenters and the supporters of the established church. This division would grow with time, so that most Nonconforming English groups (Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and later Methodists), would be firmly working-class in orientation.

For Bunyan, socially acceptable alternatives to fleeing the City of Destruction were foolish tricks. The burden of sin was a real problem pointing to a real solution, and any alleged “cure” that caused a would-be pilgrim to forsake the journey to salvation was a terrible lie. Christian is taken in and leaves the correct road for a dead-end path. Even though the difficult way of salvation is full of misleading tracks, it is always possible to get back on the right road.

So Christian Turned Out of His Way

[AuQ7]

The way of morality and civility seemed to offer an attractive short-cut to relief from the burden of sin, yet as Christian tries to go that direction, he finds the burden of sin growing and the path actually more difficultharder to follow. Trying to lead a genuinely moral life proves to be more difficult than it seemed initially, and is unable todoes not lead to salvation. Poor Christian despairs of ever reaching the Heavenly City. However, even though his sins are great, it is possible for him to return to the true path.

Now Christian Looked for Nothing but Death

Poor Christian despairs of ever reaching the Heavenly City. However, even though his sins are great, it is possible for him to return to the true path.

Audience

Bunyan wrote for the sorts of people who attended or were likely to attend congregations not affiliated with the Church of England. Such Dissenters might lack formal education but often knew the Bible well and were familiar, through sermons, with many of the types of imagery Bunyan employed in Pilgrim’s Progress. The book was aimed both at those considering conversion and Christians who needed encouragement to remain faithful.

For many years Pilgrim’s Progress was appreciated as a classic work of English literature. Most English-language readers encounter it today only in the classroom, but Bunyan’s work still reaches an audience through other authors who have incorporated his values and ideas. Today Pilgrim’s Progress remains widely read as a religious work, particularly by Protestants of almost all denominations. Modern Christians particularly appreciate Bunyan’s theological understanding of discouragement as a natural part of faith. The text is also still used by Christian missionaries as a way to introduce Protestant beliefs about conversion and salvation.

Impact

It is often said that, after the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress iswas the most printed, published, and translated book in the world. (It appeared in ninety different editions in the first hundred years after its publication and has been translated into more than two hundred languages.) Certainly it was the top best-seller in premodern England and enjoyed a similar popularity in colonial America. For generations Bunyan’s allegory was the most popular religious text in the English-speaking world.

Although Bunyan’s literary reputation has somewhat diminished in modern times, it was not only his religious views that were influential. Readers who passed over the spiritual message of Pilgrim’s Progress were often affected by Bunyan’s powerful and creative literary style. Bunyan’s influence extends even over those who reject his basic values or have never read his work—the popular magazine Vanity Fair takes its name from a large community’s market in Pilgrim’s Progress, for Bunyan a place of temptation to avoid. Another of many of Bunyan’s phrases to enter popular culture is “Slough of Despond.”

As an author, Bunyan still continues to exert influence. C. S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories and a popular Christian writer, was inspired by Bunyan to write a modern Christian allegory, which he entitled The Pilgrim’s Regress. Pilgrim’s Progress had a discernable impact on such classic literature as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and, of course, William Makepiece Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, as well as dozens of lesser-known modern works. It was made into an opera by Ralph Vaughan Williams and more recently into a rock opera.

More important to Bunyan would have been the religious legacy of his writing. When Bunyan wrote his classic work, he was expressing the values of a persecuted minority. With time, however, and certainly helped by the wide popularity of Pilgrim’s Progress, Puritan beliefs became more and more mainstream, until today many of their convictions are widely held in the Protestant community worldwide. Bunyan’s understanding of conversion, of Christian mistrust of society, of the role of the individual, and of the authority of scripture are shared by the majority of Christians in Britain and the United States today. Perhaps the greatest testimony to how widely accepted Pilgrim’s Progress is by modern Christians is the inclusion of Christian’s hymn “He Who Would Valiant Be” in the Church of England hymnal.

Essential Quotes

“He answered, ‘Sir, I perceive, by the book in my hand, that I am condemned to die, and after that to come to judgment; and I find that I am not willing to do the first, nor able to do the second’” (chapter 1, paragraph 4).

“So I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now he had not run far from his own door when his wife and children, perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on crying, Life! life! eternal life!”(chapter 1, paragraph 8).

“So Christian turned out of his way to go to Mr. Legality’s house for help: but, behold, when he was got now hard by the hill, it seemed so high, and also that side of it that was next the way-side did hang so much over, that Christian was afraid to venture further, lest the hill should fall on his head; wherefore there he stood still, and wotted not what to do. Also his burden now seemed heavier to him than while he was in his way” (chapter 1, paragraph 80).

Further Reading

Articles

  1. Dutton, Richard A. “‘Interesting, but Tough’: Reading The Pilgrim’s Progress”. Studies in English Literature18, no. 3 (Summer 1978): 439–456.

Books

  1. Bunyan, John. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. New York: Penguin, 1987.
  2. Furlong, Monica. Puritan’s Progress: A Study of John Bunyan. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975.
  3. Greaves, Richard L. Glimpses of Glory: John Bunyan and English Dissent. Standford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002.
  4. Hill, Christopher. A Tinker and a Poor Man: John Bunyan and His Church, 1628–1688. New York: Knopf, 1988.
  5. Mullett, Michael. John Bunyan in Context. Keele, U.K.: Keele University Press, 1996.
  6. Vincent Newey, ed. The Pilgrim’s Progress: Critical and Historical Views. Liverpool, U.K.: University of Liverpool Press, 1980.
  7. Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. John Bunyan. New York: Macmillan, 1961.  

—Raymond Powell

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