To Be a Pilgrim: John Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress

Now I saw, upon a time, when he was walking in the fields, that he was (as he was wont) reading in his book [Bible], and greatly distressed in his mind; and as he read, he burst out, as he had done before, crying, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’”-Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress convicted of his sinfulness before God.

Guest Contributor: Mark S.

John Bunyan - Protestant Reformer

John Bunyan – Protestant Reformer – Public Domain

Born in 1628, John Bunyan came of age during the time of the English Civil War, the great struggle between the King and Parliament, during which he served as a soldier in the Parliamentary Army. Bunyan was not characterized as religious in his younger years, but after his marriage to his first wife, Mary, whose faith in God was strong, he was converted through the preaching of Calvinistic Baptist Minister John Gifford. One work in particular (Apart from the Bible, of which he was among the first generation to read in his native tongue) that was significant his understanding of faith was Luther’s Commentary of the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians. (Bunyan, x)

Not long after his conversion, Bunyan began consuming books at a surprising rate, considering his lack of schooling. Through this self-education he became a scholar and theologian in his own right and produced many treatises, pamphlets, and books. (Bunyan, x) He eventually ascended to the ministry, preaching to a congregation in Bedford, England, until 1660 when disaster struck for all Nonconformists in the form of the Restoration of the monarchy, after Oliver Cromwell’s failed attempt at a republic. The monarchy and the Church of England tried to put a stopper over the rise of Puritan, Baptist, and other Nonconformist ministers and congregations by imprisoning ministers preaching without a license from the established Church. (Bunyan, x-xi)

Bunyan was one of these ministers who spent time in jail. Most were released after a few months, but his refusal to stop preaching bought him a 12 year residency in prison. During this time, Bunyan experienced much angst regarding his family, as he was married to a young wife, Elizabeth (Mary had passed away two years before his imprisonment) and tried to support his family by making shoelaces. (Bunyan, xi) It was during this time that he wrote the majority of Pilgrim’s Progress Part One, which shows the Christian life as more strenuous and frightening than Part Two, which was written later.

John Bunyan's Grave - London - Photo by Author

John Bunyan’s Grave – London – Photo by Author

John Bunyan was released from prison in 1672 and was only jailed for a small amount of time during the rest of his life. He continued writing and preaching and finally was struck down by a fever and chill in 1688 when he went to be with his Savior in Heaven. He is buried in Bunhill Fields (Nonconformist) Cemetery in London.

The Pilgrim’s Progress (Part I in 1678 and Part II in 1688) is an indispensable book, which every Christian should endeavor to read during his/her life. It is the quintessential allegory of the English language and presents the Christian life in an understandable and readable way, which common folk in Bunyan’s day could understand. This was one of Bunyan’s great legacies: learned though he was, Bunyan was a very humble man, who tried not to display his wide learning in public. (Bunyan x)

An excellent example of Bunyan’s virtue of humility is this poem from Pilgrim’s Progress:

Christian Does Battle with Apollyon - Courtesy magnoliabox.com

Christian Does Battle with Apollyon – Courtesy magnoliabox.com


“He that is down needs fear no fall,

He that is low no pride;
He that is humble ever shall
Have God to be his guide.

I am content with what I have,
Little be it or much;
And, Lord, contentment still I crave
Because Thou savest such.

Fulness to such a burden is
That go in pilgrimage;
Here little and hereafter bliss
Is best from all to age.”

 

Pilgrim’s Progress is the story of Christian, who after being convicted of his sin, and pointed on his way by Evangelist, leaves his home and scornful family in the City of Destruction to make for the Celestial City. On the way he passes through the Slough of Despond and the Valley of Humiliation. He grows in his faith along the way as he fights demons and escapes the clutches of Giants, the trickery of unbelievers such as Atheist and Worldly-Wiseman, and the execution-pyre of the City of Vanity Fair (although his companion Faithful, is martyred in that city). After he reaches the Celestial City in Part One, his once scornful family (led by his wife, Christiana), ashamed of their conduct toward Christian sets off to follow him to the Celestial City. Along the way they gather up fellow travelers such as Mr. Feeble-Mind, Mr. Despondency, and his daughter, Much-Afraid. Through this motley bunch of pilgrims, in Part II Bunyan opens up the pilgrimage not just to the valiant everyman, Christian, but also to women, children, people with disabilities, people with depression, the elderly, and more. Part I is the classic Pilgrim’s Progress that everyone remembers, but this author finds Part II to be especially lovely, as the righteous seeds planted by Christian’s pilgrimage in Part I come to fruition in the salvation, not only of his wife and children, but many others along the way.

Pilgrim’s Progress is a renowned work and is endorsed by many evangelicals today, although in an interesting article by Carl Trueman, it is noted that Bunyan’s treatment of Catholicism, Paganism, and the wealthy/aristocratic classes would seem to be in conflict with today’s ecumenist and capitalist ethics within the American Christianity. (Trueman)

Bunyan’s unbending faith and his beautifully-written explanation of the Christian Life are his greatest legacies. In a wonderful poem-turned-hymn (He Who Would True Valor Seek) from Part II, Bunyan summarizes what it is to be a Christian Pilgrim:

“Who would true valor see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avow’d intent
To be a Pilgrim

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
But he will have a right
To be a Pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit;
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll not fear what men say;
He’ll labor night and day
To be a Pilgrim.”

Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing. 2004. Print.

Trueman, Carl. “Escaping Vanity Fair: A World of Encouragement from Nietzche” Reformation 21. Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. April 2007. Web. 27 October 2015.

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One thought on “To Be a Pilgrim: John Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress

  1. I tried to read ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ when I was in high school but was unsuccessful.
    Perhaps it’s time to take another crack at it.

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