Reading Pilgrim’s Progress

Mother Culture selection for October 2017

This classic of English literature hardly needs an introduction. Written in 1687, this allegory of the Christian life has provided comfort, hope, and encouragement to believers in every age since. But why include an English classic in our study of American Culture? First and foremost, we must remember that for well over 150 years, the American colonists considered themselves Englishmen; they brought their literature with them when they came, and they treasured it as part of their heritage. Furthermore, for the early American colonists, survival alone was struggle enough. The physical labor required to sustain life and carve out homes in the wilderness—and subsequently, to wage a War for Independence—left little time for leisurely pursuits. While there are poetry and stories dating to the earliest days of our nation, they remain quite British in style; it was some time before a distinctly American literary style began to emerge with authors like Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne in the early nineteenth century. Yet, the American colonists did value and prioritize a literary education, continuing the long tradition of training students in the classics of Western Civilization, with an emphasis on British literature. This, of course, puts Pilgrim’s Progress squarely in the center of the cultural heritage of all Americans. Even as the American style began to develop, it was still heavily influenced by its British roots.

From Jamestown and Plymouth forward, practically every household in North America had, at the very least, these three books: the King James Bible, Foxe’s Book of Christian Martyrs, and Pilgrim’s Progress. The influence of all three on the subsequent development of literature in America is impossible to overstate.


Version Notes

The Oxford World’s Classic Pilgrim’s Progress is the version we use at Providence Prep. This is the original version, with margin notes and Scripture references. The illustrations are reproduced from the original woodcuts which appeared within the lifetime of John Bunyan. The King James English may present a challenge in the beginning if it is new to you, but I strongly encourage you to avoid a modern translation. So much is missed! I have successfully read this version aloud to children as young as five, and they have comprehended and retained much—spontaneously narrating via play-acting. Another nice original language version is published by Banner of Truth.

Reading Helps

As with all of our literary selections, Pilgrim’s Progress is, first of all, a delightful story and should be enjoyed as such. The ideas below for a close reading of this book build on the principles and practices detailed in my post on High School Humanities. The master aim of literature study should be to read and delight in the story. Keep these reading helps in their rightful place as servant to that master.

Background and Context

John Bunyan was born the son of an impoverished tinker in 1628 near Bedford, England. His sparse education ended early when he went to work in his father’s shop. He was not a pious young man; in fact, he himself reports that he was given to “all manner of vice and ungodliness,” and that he was once rebuked by “a very loose and ungodly wretch of a woman” for his shocking profanity. Following his service in the Parliamentary Army during the English Civil Wars, he began to attend church more regularly, largely due to the influence of a godly wife. He began to leave off most of his outwardly unrighteous ways. After some time, he was deeply convicted of sin as he overheard the “holy conversation” of a group of housewives. Repenting of his sin, Bunyan began his own pilgrimage as a regenerate believer in Christ. A few years later, Bunyan began his career as an itinerant open-air preacher. His Non-Conformist theology and practices eventually landed him in Bedford Jail for twelve years beginning around 1660. Here, in the “foul Denn,” armed only with his King James Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Bunyan composed his masterpiece. The years of his imprisonment ended, Bunyan went back to preaching. William Long, English literary historian — no lover of Puritan and Reformation theology, as evidenced by his biography of Bunyan — paid him this tribute:

The years which followed are the most interesting part of Bunyan’s strange career. The publication of Pilgrim’s Progress in 1678 made him the most popular writer, as he was already the most popular preacher, in England. Books, tracts, sermons, nearly sixty works in all, came from his pen; and when one remembers his ignorance, his painfully slow writing, and his activity as an itinerant preacher, one can only marvel. His evangelistic journeys carried him often as far as London, and wherever he went crowds thronged to hear him. Scholars, bishops, statesmen went in secret to listen among the laborers, and came away wondering and silent. At Southwark the largest building could not contain the multitude of his hearers; and when he preached in London, thousands would gather in the cold dusk of the winter morning, before work began, and listen until  had made an end of speaking. “Bishop Bunyan” he was soon called on account of his missionary journeys and his enormous influence.

What we most admire in the midst of all this activity is his perfect mental balance, his charity and humor in the strife of many sects. He was badgered for years by petty enemies, and he arouses our enthusiasm by his tolerance, his self-control, and especially by his sincerity. To the very end he retained that simple modesty which no success could spoil. Once when he had preached with unusual power some of his friends waited after the service to congratulate him, telling him what a “sweet sermon” he had delivered. “Aye,” said Bunyan, “you need not remind me; the devil told me that before I was out of the pulpit.”

. . . The Holy War, published in 1665, is the first important work of Bunyan. It is a prose Paradise Lost, and would undoubtedly be known as a remarkable allegory were it not overshadowed by its great rival. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, published in 1666, twelve years before Pilgrim’s Progress, is the work from which we obtain the clearest insight into Bunyan’s remarkable life, and to a man with historical or antiquarian tastes it is still excellent reading. In 1682 appeared The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, a realistic character study which is a precursor of the modern novel; and in 1684 the second part of Pilgrim’s Progress, showing the journey of Christiana and her children to the city of All Delight. Besides these Bunyan published a multitude of treatises and sermons, all in the same style, — direct, simple, convincing, expressing every thought and emotion perfectly in words that even a child can understand. Many of these are masterpieces, admired by workingmen and scholars alike for their thought and expression. Take, for instance, “The Heavenly Footman,” put it side by side with the best work of Latimer, and the resemblance in style is startling. It is difficult to realize that one work came from an ignorant tinker and the other from a great scholar, both engaged in the same general work. As Bunyan’s one book was the Bible, we have here a suggestion of its influence in all our prose literature. — William Long, English Literature, Its History and Its Significance for the Life of the Enlglish-Speaking World

My pastor, the Reverend Charles R. Biggs, has written an excellent brief biography of Bunyan and introduction to Pilgrim’s Progress; I post it here with his permission: The Pilgrim’s Progress: John Bunyan (1628-1688).

Thomas Breedlove’s first hand account of John Bunyan’s trial is fascinating, and sheds even more light on Bunyan’s influence in the American Colonies.

Commonplace Book Entries

(Read my series of posts on Commonplace Books here.)  Always read with a pen in hand! Mark possible passages for commonplacing at a future time. Of course, commonplacing favorite passages as you read should be a regular habit. 

Copy passages from Pilgrim’s Progress that

  • show the help and comfort offered to Christian and the other true pilgrims (and by extension, to all believers) by
    • the Scriptures
    • the church
    • the fellowship of the saints
  • provide the warnings that are most needed for your own personal pilgrimage
  • spark your interest, remind you of something else, or bring up questions in your mind
  • delight you – especially figures of speech and eloquent turns of phrase
  • point you to the good, the true, and the beautiful

Reflections As You Read

In addition to the general reading journal options, there are a few specific Reading Journal assignments that may be helpful. This is not meant to be a deep analysis. Use this kind of guided journaling only as a way to enhance enjoyment of the story!

  • Make a chart on a two-page spread in your journal. On the left-hand page, list the names of characters and places that hinder Christian along the way. On the right-hand page, list the names of the characters and places that help Christian along the way. Do a second chart like this when you get to Part II, Christiana’s Journey.
  • On a different page (or pages!), reflect on a few of the specific helps and hindrances that correspond most closely with your own experiences in the Christian life.
  • Compare the experiences of Christian and Christiana on their journey, particularly in places like the Interpreter’s House, Palace Beautiful, Valley of Humiliation, etc. How were their experiences alike and unlike? Why do you think Bunyan treated their journeys in this way?

Connections and the Great Conversation

Write a response to the reading and community discussion. What did you find most interesting (or odd, or convicting…)? Are there any common themes or ideas that you saw in your reading here and other books you have read? Are there any common themes or ideas from your Bible reading or recent sermons you have heard? Always be on the lookout for references to earlier or contemporaneous authors, ideas, and events—the ongoing Great Conversation.

  • Compare Pilgrim’s Progress with classic epics like those of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton. How is it like and unlike these?
  • Compare Pilgrim’s Progress with other allegories, particularly those of C. S. Lewis. How is it like and unlike these?
  • Research the influence of Pilgrim’s Progress on subsequent literature.
  • Every worthwhile book will lead us to repentance, and point us to more that we need to know or read. After reading Pilgrim’s Progress, which books do you need to add to your reading list? What historical persons, places, or things do you need to understand better?

Links Worth A Look

Mother Culture Community

Mother Culture Community is an online fellowship of Christian classical home educators and other reading mothers (and aunts, and sisters, and grandmothers, and daughters), sponsored by The Reading Mother. Our mission is inspire our students in the pursuit of a life well‐read. We believe our own pursuit of a life well‐read is the best place to start.

The Road From the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, John Bunyan

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