Bunyan’s Appears

John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress creatively combined traditional religious allegory, seventeenth century popular fiction, and expository dialogue to produce a classic depiction of the Reformed view of sanctification. It was a testament to the sufferings of Protestant Nonconformity under the great persecution of the Stuart Restoration government and an enduring affirmation of the liberty of the biblically faithful conscience.

Summary of Event

John Bunyan’s Bunyan, John
The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come (Part 1, 1678; commonly known as The Pilgrim’s Progress) gave imaginative expression to the English Puritan experience of the seventeenth century. The story’s protagonist, Christian, journeys from his original home, the City of Destruction (where he had been known as Graceless), on an epic quest beset with many dangers, toils, and snares, to reach his new home in the Celestial City. Bunyan’s central metaphors of wayfaring and warfare and his general method of allegory had deep roots in the Christian and medieval literary traditions. The images of a race of faith and the whole armor of God trace back to Paul’s epistles. [kw]Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress Appears (Feb. 18, 1678)
[kw]Pilgrim’s Progress Appears, Bunyan’s The (Feb. 18, 1678)
Literature;Feb. 18, 1678: Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress Appears[2640]
Religion and theology;Feb. 18, 1678: Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress Appears[2640]
England;Feb. 18, 1678: Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress Appears[2640]
Pilgrim’s Progress, The (Bunyan)[Pilgrims Progress, The (Bunyan)]

The most popular English allegory of the late middle ages, William Langland’s The Vision of William, Concerning Piers the Plowman (c. 1362 A Text, c. 1377 B Text, c. 1393 C Text; commonly known as Piers Plowman), had combined these same religious images and, much like Bunyan’s work, had presented them in the form of a dream. The Pilgrim’s Progress was distinctive, however, because it invested these traditional literary forms with the vigorous idiom of the English common people. Bunyan’s work was also distinctive because it conceived pilgrimage less as a prescribed itinerary than as a spiritual progress, less as the attainment of an end than as a process of seeking truth.

Bunyan’s achievement drew on a personal story of wayfaring and warfare that was emblematic of England’s century of revolution. Bunyan was born at Elstow, near Bedford, in the agricultural midlands. His family origins lay in the yeomanry but, like many with a similar middling background, rural enclosure and price revolution in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries led his family to experience steadily declining fortunes. Thus, Bunyan, alone among the major figures in English literature, had little formal education. Like his father before him, he was compelled to eke out a living as a traveling tinker. Literature;England

John Bunyan.

(Library of Congress)

The increasing social and economic differentiation of seventeenth century England left its mark on The Pilgrim’s Progress: A succession of characters—Lord Luxurious, Sir Having Greedy, the schoolmaster Mr. Gripeman of the town Love-gain of the country of Coveting, and the figure of the muckraker—satirize the breakdown of England’s moral economy and perhaps even suggest an incipient awareness of class. At the same time, the chapbooks and emblem books that formed the intellectual universe of the provincial tradesman also left their mark on The Pilgrim’s Progress. The foul fiend Apollyon, the hobgoblins and dragons of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the Giant Despair, and the dungeons of Doubting Castle all had their antecedents in folktales and romances such as stories about Sir Bevis of Southampton or Richard Johnson’s Johnson, Richard
The Most Famous History of the Seven Champions of Christendome
Most Famous History of the Seven Champions of Christendome, The (Johnson) (1608).

Whatever the debt of The Pilgrim’s Progress to popular fiction, it owed more to the religious ferment of the English Civil Wars of 1642-1651 and the Commonwealth of 1649-1660. The traditional chivalric hero was transformed into the austere Presbyterian knight of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (parts 1-3, 1663, 1664, 1678), Sir Samuel Luke, under whom Bunyan served in the years 1644-1647. The marvels and monsters, fearful dreams, and dreadful visions that had consumed the young Bunyan were now contained by conduct books such as Arthur Dent’s Dent, Arthur
The Plaine Mans Path-Way to Heaven
Plaine Mans Path-Way to Heaven, The (Dent) (1601), which Bunyan began to read as he left the national church for the Bedford independent congregation in the years 1647-1651. Indeed, the expository dialogue typical of the Puritan homiletic tradition formed by far the greatest part of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

This expository dialogue brought into focus for Bunyan the resolution of the spiritual crisis that he underwent between the years 1648 and 1655. With the encouragement of John Gifford, Gifford, John the first pastor of Bedford Church, Bunyan turned to a close reading of the Bible, especially Paul’s epistles, and to a study of Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians. Most important, Bunyan discovered the comfort of the Calvinist conception of God’s merciful providence and its dramatic conception of the atonement as Christ’s victory over humanity’s bondage to sin. Not unlike Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan had found release in the recognition that grace was sufficient.

Under the Commonwealth, Bedford Church and other independent congregations enjoyed a relatively high degree of freedom. In the years after 1655, Bunyan himself rose to prominence among England’s many “mechanic preachers,” and the familiar images of country life that were the staple of their sermons fill the pages of The Pilgrim’s Progress as well. With the restoration of Charles II Charles II (king of England);Restoration of and the Stuart monarchy in 1660, however, old Puritans like Bunyan faced a fundamental choice. The Pilgrim’s Progress was a plea to hold fast to a collective faith and an active evangelical Calvinism. Bunyan’s text employed a veritable parade of characters, from Worldly-Wiseman and Shame through Save-all to Parson Two-tongues, Money-love, and Temporary, to satirize the allurements of latitudinarianism and an easy conformity to the reestablished Church of England. At the same time, The Pilgrim’s Progress used the comic character Talkative to satirize the temptations of an antinomian inwardness among politically disenfranchised Nonconformists. Nonconformists

The Pilgrim’s Progress focused not on the conversion of the individual Graceless but on the recurring struggles of sanctification that Christian and his companions Faithful and Hopeful endured. Bunyan knew these recurring struggles well. On November 12, 1660, Bunyan was arraigned under the Elizabethan Conventicle Act. For much of the next twelve years, he was confined to the Bedford county jail. Composed during these years, The Pilgrim’s Progress was a protest against religious repression. It held up to Restoration government and society the mirror of Vanity Fair.

In this mirror, Judge Hategood condemned Christian and Faithful under the statutes of pharaoh and the tyrants Nebuchadnezzar and Darius merely for their differences: Christian and Faithful did not dress or speak like the local traders, and they preferred truth to the wares of the marketplace. The Pilgrim’s Progress also borrowed the baroque cruelty of Faithful’s death—with its scourgings, lancings, stonings, and burning—from John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (1563). It did this to make a twofold point: On one hand, the episode revealed the inward corruption of apparently decent folk devoted only to outward peace and prosperity. On the other hand, it affirmed the sanctity and ultimate victory of the biblically faithful conscience.

On February 18, 1678, the Nonconformist printer Nathaniel Ponder Ponder, Nathaniel published the first edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress. The delay between composition and publication owed much to renewed repression; during the first six months of 1677, Bunyan was once again in Bedford county jail. But the delay also owed something to Bunyan’s careful consideration of the important Restoration debate over “plain style.” To the Nonconformist who worried that literary language might obscure the pure light of Scripture, and even more to the gentleman bishop who saw true religion in the clear evidence of good works or the member of the Royal Society who saw true philosophy in replicable experiments and verifiable observations, Bunyan replied with a defense of allegory. A leap of faith required a leap of imagination and a willingness to understand the world in terms of the Word rather than words in terms of the world.


John Bunyan’s work in many ways resisted the intellectual developments that would lay the groundwork for the European Enlightenment in the next century. Nevertheless, The Pilgrim’s Progress survived and indeed thrived, becoming second only to the Bible itself as the most published work in English. Not only did Bunyan’s allegorical method allow The Pilgrim’s Progress to avoid the Restoration government’s continuing censorship of dissenting works, but it also augured a move from a more militant, millenarian Nonconformity, in which wayfaring was a form of warfare, to a more pastoral, tolerant Nonconformity, in which warfare was replaced by wayfaring. “Let Truth be free,” Bunyan proclaimed, “to make her Salleys upon Thee, and Me.”

This move from governance to guidance gave The Pilgrim’s Progress an appeal far beyond its initial audience of Protestant Nonconformists. By the time of Bunyan’s death in 1688, on the eve of the Glorious Revolution, The Pilgrim’s Progress had already gone through twelve editions. By 1700, over thirty thousand copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress had been printed in twenty-two editions, and by 1740, the seventy editions included Methodist, Quaker, Anglican, and even Roman Catholic versions. The Pilgrim’s Progress had become an embodiment of the open communion Bedford Church—a meetinghouse of metaphor in which all could participate.

Further Reading

  • Cragg, Gerald R. Puritanism in the Period of the Great Persecution, 1660-1688. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1957. A useful survey of the Puritan experience under the Stuart Restoration.
  • Greaves, Richard A. Glimpses of Glory: John Bunyan and English Dissent. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002. Although occasionally marred by a tendency to psychologize Bunyan, this exhaustive biography presents The Pilgrim’s Progress in terms of the metaphors of wayfaring and warfare.
  • Hill, Christopher. A Tinker and a Poor Man: John Bunyan and His Church, 1628-1688. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988. The classic interpretation of John Bunyan in his social and historical context.
  • Sharrock, Roger. John Bunyan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968. A brief and accessible introduction by one of the twentieth century’s leading students of Bunyan and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

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