The Pilgrim’s Progress is the world’s best-selling book (other than the Bible). It has never been out of print since it was published in 1678. The book’s success is quite remarkable given the modest background and little formal education of its author. The journey motif seems to have always resonated with audiences. From the Odyssey, to Don Quixote’s quest and The Pilgrim’s Progress, we quickly identify with characters whose lives are allegorical to our own. Each of these stories are the journey of Everyman and in them we gain perspective if not vicarious education.
In his book 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know, Terry Glaspey wrote:
The Pilgrim’s Progress tells the story of a man named Christian who awakens to his own sense of sinfulness and guilt before God. He undertakes a dangerous journey through many trials, temptations, and distractions of all sorts as he makes his way toward the Celestial City, his final destination, where God dwells and salvation can be experienced in full. The characters he meets along the way reflect the vices and virtues that they represent, such as Obstinate, Mr. Legality, Mr. Great-Heart, Faithful, Little-Faith, and Ignorance.
Bunyan’s book is not primarily a story to teach readers about the way to find salvation, for Christian’s encounter with the cross, where his burden of sin rolls away, occurs fairly early in the book. Instead, it is a tale about the spiritual journey, the inner and outer struggles and temptations a believer in Jesus will face as they walk the path of life. When the backpack of sin falls from Pilgrim’s shoulders, his journey has just begun. He must make his way past many dangers and distractions and challenges, struggling mightily all the way but empowered by God’s grace, until he finally arrives at his ultimate home, the Celestial City. There are many truths to be revealed along the way. For example, in one scene Christian and his companion Hopeful are imprisoned in the bowels of Doubting Castle, until Christian awakens to an important revelation. “What a fool, am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty. I have a key in my bosom, called promise, that will open any lock in Doubting Castle.” This revelation allows Christian and Hopeful to walk out of the prison and leave despair behind them.
For centuries this book has been cherished by readers as a guide for navigating the challenges of the Christian life. Its topics remain relevant for today’s reader: the danger of lusting after riches, the hazards of pride and religious hypocrisy, the struggle with overwhelming despair and depression, the battle with doubt and uncertainty, and the importance of making the right choices in even the smallest of matters. It reminds the reader of how essential it is to listen to wise counselors, and points toward the Bible as the greatest source of wisdom for living. Much of the book’s success comes from the fact that readers see themselves and their own internal struggles in the story. For many, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a mirror in which they can examine their own soul and be instructed in how they can change, which is exactly what Bunyan intended.
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”
D I G D E E P E R
The Pilgrim’s Progress
(1628–88), author of The *Pilgrim’s Progress. Of the external details of his life comparatively little is known. Born at Elstow in Bedfordshire, he was the son of poor parents (his father was a brazier, a trade he himself followed—hence the loose description of him as a ‘tinker’), and probably acquired his knowledge and mastery of the English language from reading the Bible. He took part in the Civil War on the Parliamentary side (1644–6).
About 1649 he married a woman of piety who introduced him to A. Dent’s Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and Bp. L. Bayly’s Practice of Piety; and these, together with the Bible, the BCP, and J. *Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, seem to have been his sole reading. In 1653 he was received into an *Independent Congregation at Bedford, and after being formally recognized as a preacher in 1657, he soon became well known in that capacity.
He suffered much from the repressive measures of the royalists after the Restoration of 1660, and spent most of the years 1660–72 in Bedford gaol. During and after his imprisonment he wrote extensively, including some verse compositions. Of his prose works, the chief and most famous are his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666); The Pilgrim’s Progress (q.v.; 1678 and 1684); and The Holy War (1682).
For the rest of his life after his release in 1672, he worked among the Independents at Bedford, and took part in evangelistic work in other parts of the country. One of his last writings was a treatise, Antichrist and his Ruin (1692, posthumously pub. among his collected works), against the Church of Rome, whose influence in England under James II he much feared. If history and biography furnish little aid in understanding the personality of Bunyan, his chief writings demonstrate that to him the world was exclusively the scene of a spiritual warfare and that nothing mattered save the salvation of the soul.
In CW, feast day, 30 Aug.The First Part of the masterpiece of J. *Bunyan (q.v.), written either during his long imprisonment in Bedford gaol (1660–72) or during a second six months’ imprisonment in 1676–7, was published in February 1678 (NS); a fresh edition, with many additions, appeared later in the same year; while the Second Part, depicting ‘the manner of setting out of Christian’s wife and children’, did not appear until 1684. Attempts to identify an underlying medieval or Renaissance model have failed. Bunyan had but the most meagre historical knowledge and interests; and it is far more probable that the work owes everything to his own originality.
Its unrivalled place in the world’s religious literature rests on its artless directness, its imaginative power, the homeliness and rusticity of its method and its plainness of style, which give it its universal appeal, even to the most simple-minded. The persons and incidents encountered by Christian on his journey from the ‘City of Destruction’ to the ‘Heavenly City’—‘Evangelist’, ‘Mr Worldly-Wiseman’, ‘Mr Legality’ and his son ‘Civility’, Mr ‘Talkative, the son of one Saywell, who dwelt in Prating Row’, ‘Mr Facing-both-ways’, and ‘Greatheart’, and, of places, the ‘Slough of Despond’, the ‘Hill Difficulty’, the ‘House Beautiful’ (supposed to have been modelled on an actual house in Houghton Park), the ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’, and ‘Vanity Fair’—have become part and parcel of the language of religion in England.
The book, which circulated at first mainly in uneducated circles and whose supreme qualities were only gradually recognized, has appeared in a vast number of editions, and been translated into well over 100 languages. It has also been the subject of many adaptations (issued under similar titles), for the most part wholly without independent merit. The well-known hymn, ‘He who would valiant be’, is a modification of some lines sung by the pilgrims on the way to the ‘Enchanted Ground’.
Sources & Resources
First edn. of collected Works, vol. 1 (all pr.), London, 1692. Later edns. by G. Offer (3 vols., Edinburgh, 1852–3) and H. Stebbing (4 vols., London, 1859–60). Crit. edns. of Miscellaneous Works under the general editorship of R. Sharrock (13 vols., Oxford, 1976–94), of Grace Abounding by id. (ibid., 1962), The Holy War by id. and J. F. Forrest (ibid., 1980), and of The Life and Death of Mr. Badman by idd. (ibid., 1988). Lives by R. *Southey (London, 1830), J. A. Froude (‘English Men of Letters’, 1880), R. Sharrock (HUL, 1954), and G. [S.] Wakefield (London, 1992). [J. E.] C. Hill, A Turbulent, Seditious and Factious People: John Bunyan and his Church (Oxford, 1988). R. L. Greaves, John Bunyan (Courtenay Studies in Reformation Theology, 2; Appleford, Berks ). N. H. Keeble, The Literary Culture of Nonconformity in Later Seventeenth-Century England (Leicester, 1987), passim; id. (ed.), John Bunyan, Conventicle and Parnassus: Tercentenary Essays (Oxford, 1988). A. Laurence and others (eds.), John Bunyan and his England, 1628–88 (1990). M. A. Mullet, John Bunyan in Context (Keele, 1996). J. F. Forrest and R. L. Greaves, John Bunyan: A reference guide (Boston ).
F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 253.
The Miscellaneous Works of John Bunyan New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Thirteen volumes projected.
Sharrock, Roger, ed. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and The Pilgrims Progress. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Beal, Rebecca. “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners: John Bunyan’s Pauline Epistle” Studies in English Literature 21 (1981), pp. 148–60.
Sharrock, Roger. John Bunyan. London: Hutchinson House, 1954.