Thursday, March 4, 2010

The impact of The Pilgrim's Progress

No other English work (excepting the Bible) has been so widely read over such a long span of time as has been John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Up until the twentieth century it was a standard household book in English-speaking homes, a common sight on bookshelves alongside the Bible. Most adults today have heard of the famous allegory, but few have actually read it, and even fewer are aware of the worldwide impact that the book has had and continues to have in terms of culture, religion, literature and language.

But first let me briefly set the scene. In 1649 Charles I was beheaded and a predominantly Presbyterian Parliament, headed by Oliver Cromwell, was instituted. These Parliamentarian years, known as the Interregnum, ended in 1660 with the Restoration, when Charles II was brought back from the continent to reinstate the monarchy. Charles re-established Anglicanism as the state’s enforced religion.

Bunyan – a poorly educated Baptist minister – wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress in 1675 while imprisoned in a Bedford gaol, where he was kept for twelve years because he had been preaching without a licence. Puritans (also known as nonconformists) were largely reviled under the Restoration and suffered many persecutions, including not being lawfully allowed to meet and worship according to their own doctrines. Bunyan was actually offered freedom from prison provided he refrain from any further preaching. But he famously replied: “If you release me today, I will preach tomorrow.” And so he remained in a dank gaol cell, separated from his wife, his children and his ‘flock’, and it was during this time that his daytime dream came to him about a pilgrim called Christian.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is the world’s most famous allegory. (An allegory is a story where people, place and object names clearly point to their representative meanings.) The allegory of Bunyan’s book, the idea of which is taken from the Bible, is a simple one: a man called Christian becomes aware of a heavy burden on his back (his sins) and so, at Evangelist’s urging, flees from the City of Destruction where he was born towards the Wicket Gate, where he will find the straight and narrow path that will lead him to the Celestial City. He faces many obstacles, hardships and dangers throughout his journey, but along the way he also receives help from others and is kept company by Faithful and then Hopeful.

The first edition was published in 1678 and before the year was out there was a need for a second one. In 1684 Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress Part II – this story follows the pilgrimage of Christian’s wife, Christiana, and their children – in response to Part I’s huge success. Within the first hundred years of its printing, Part I was printed in thirty-three editions and Part I and II together in fifty-nine.

The Pilgrim’s Progress travelled quickly after its publication, and it received an even more eager reception in Scotland, Ireland and the colonies than it did at home, as gauged by its sales and the manner in which it was discussed. It was printed in New England three years after its first publication in England, and unlike the crude materials used by English publishers, the New Englanders – for the most part nonconformists who a generation before had left England in order to find a better way of life – thought it worthy of the most elegant binding. For them, Christian’s allegorical journey hit home in a big way, speaking as it did of a hard, dangerous journey, much like the one that they had literally experienced in sailing to New England and settling in its harsh climate. Six years after its first publication Bunyan wrote of Part I:

’Tis in New England under such advance,
Receives there so much loving countenance,
As to be trimm’d, new cloth’d, and deck’d with gems
That it may show its features and its limbs,
Yet more; so comely doth my Pilgrim walk,
That of him thousands do sing and talk.

Its translations came quickly. The Dutch and French had it by 1682 and the Germans by 1694. The Pilgrim’s Progress travelled across Europe with the persecuted as they fled to safer and Protestant parts of the continent. It also went with them to the Caribbean. The whole book (Parts I and II combined) later underwent even greater dispersion abroad as the result of missionary societies, arriving in India in the late 1700s and spreading all over Africa the following century. It was considered such an invaluable evangelistic tool that in 1847 a London Missionary Society ship heading for Tahiti carried not only 5,000 Tahitian Bibles but also 4,000 Tahitian copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Today the number of translations is formidable, the figure being around two hundred. There are eighty African language translations alone. And let us not forget that there are also modern ‘translations’ for those who struggle with the archaic English of the original text.

The Pilgrim’s Progress was and still is popular with children. “This is the great merit of the book,” said Dr. Johnson, “that the most cultivated man cannot find anything to praise more highly, and the child knows nothing more amusing.”* For a child, the read is all about foul fire-breathing fiends and sword fights to the death, and about good men trapped in dark dungeons by cudgel-carrying giants who have seizures at critical moments. Victorian parents in particular were known to give it to their children to read in the hopes that the book would help in the task of teaching them religious and moral values, as well as make such things easier to talk about.

The general attitude towards Bunyan and his Pilgrim’s Progress has changed dramatically with time. In his own lifetime the book was the cherished possession of nonconformists. It did, however, gradually but thoroughly become adopted by all Protestants, regardless of denomination, and it became, as we have seen, a favourite of missionaries. So it is no longer the celebrated spokesman for a maligned few, but has rather come to be considered the property of all Protestants, including the established Church of England that once colluded in Bunyan’s imprisonment for propagating Puritan beliefs.

The Pilgrim’s Progress was initially ridiculed by the literati, who had no time for the writings of a tinker’s son. In England, “all the numerous [earlier] editions of The Pilgrim's Progress were evidently meant for the cottage and the servants’ hall. The paper, the printing, the plates were of the meanest description. […] The Pilgrim’s Progress is perhaps the only book about which, after the lapse of a hundred years, the educated minority has come over to the opinion of the common people.”^ And with the genesis of English literary studies in the late nineteenth century, scholars began to hail Bunyan as a genius, pointing to his natural talent for employing fluent and vibrant language.

Bunyan has also been recognised as a literary innovator. For his text to be didactic (Puritans loved to be edified and eschewed anything frivolous), his readers needed to be able to relate to the pilgrims’ journey. He caused his pilgrims to come alive in a manner foreign to the well-established genres of the epic and allegory, where characters were flat and heroic, lacking in human frailty and thus hard to connect with on any emotional level. Bunyan gave Christian, Hopeful and Faithful three-dimensionality or inner depth that foreshadowed the manner in which the novelists of the eighteenth century would paint their fictional characters. The pilgrims are allegorical but they are unique people as well, with specific personality traits, such as Christian being wise but not particularly tactful, and Faithful proving himself courageous but struggling with sexual temptation.

The Pilgrim’s Progress has not only entered into people’s homes throughout the centuries, but it also eventually became part of British and American popular imagination and public discourse. The numerous references to The Pilgrim’s Progress in subsequent novels, plays, poems, speeches, art and music bears testimony to the mark it has made on society. Thackeray’s novel, Vanity Fair (serialised in 1847-8 and dramatised in 1917), John Buchan’s novel, Mr Standfast (1919), and C.S. Lewis’s allegory, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), all made explicit use of Bunyan’s book for their titles. The influence of The Pilgrim’s Progress is especially noticeable in nineteenth-century literature, with Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Mark Twain and Loiusa May Alcott as just four examples of prominent authors, besides Thackeray, who made reference in their novels to Christian and his pilgrimage. There existed such common knowledge of the allegory that writers could think and comment and describe in terms of The Pilgrim’s Progress, knowing their audience would pick up on and understand the references.

The Pilgrim’s Progress has also added to the English language, with original phrases such as Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair and Land of Beulah entering into some dictionaries. Other inventive names such as Hill Difficulty, Valley of Humiliation, By-ends, Mr Facing-both-ways, Little-faith, the Delectable Mountains, Giant Despair and Doubting Castle are also proverbial, having become part of common parlance and thus recognisable even by those who have never read the book. The dissenting beliefs of the Puritan minority have generally been remembered and written about unfavourably since their time, but Bunyan’s imaginative and succinct manner of expressing intangible concepts has led to the universal and lasting acceptance of much of his language and expression.

For more on this topic or for detailed references, take a look at my thesis at

^ Macaulay, The Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches of Lord Macaulay (Encyclopediae Britannica, Poems, etc): John Bunyan (May 1854).


  1. Not sure what this says about me but this is the first time I've heard of this book. I will definitely take a look though.


  2. I'm glad then that the blog has served to inform! It's a seriously worthwhile read - one of my favourite books ever. Let me know what you think when you get to it.

  3. One of those books I've always known about yet never read... Now might just be the time to get hold of a copy! x

  4. Do you know of any web-sites devoted exclusively to The Pilgrim's Progress?


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