What else can one add to all the praise heaped upon John Bunyan’s classic The Pilgrim’s Progress? It’s the most read and influential book ever written in the English language, save the King James Bible. And for good reason. Bunyan, the son of a tinker who lived in 17th century England, was a non-conformist Christian (i.e., not an adherent of the official state church of England) who was arrested and thrown in prison numerous times for years on end. During one of those imprisonments he penned an allegorical tale of Christian’s journey from his home (the city of Destruction) to heaven (the Celestial City). Along the way the reader cheers for Christian, fears for him, and learns from his accumulated wisdom of experience and study of the Bible. The places he sees, the foes he meets, the temptations he resists, the tests he fails, and the trials in which he perseveres invite the reader to see himself in the pilgrim’s story. Bunyan proves a gifted and unusually insightful doctor of the human condition in general and the Christian’s soul in particular. How so?
In the way he portrays the narrow way. Of course, the narrow way is the path through life that leads straight to heaven and begins at the Wicket Gate. It is not an easy path, but it is always clear where the path lies. One knows when he departs from the narrow way. The right path leads through, not around, many trials. By staying on the narrow way, Christian journeys through the Slough of Despond, down into the Valley of the Shadow of Death, into Vanity Fair, along the Enchanted Ground, and across the River that separates earth from heaven. Each of these places presents its own challenges to the Christian, but over and over again the true believer perseveres—sometimes to journey another day, sometimes to give his life and enter directly into the Celestial City. Even the blessings that come by pleasant places built along the way by the King of heaven can be abused. For Christian must not presume or become lazy at the Interpreter’s House, the Arbour, the Palace Beautiful, or the Delectable Mountains.
In the various enemies of Christ who tempt, confuse, and attack Christian. As an allegory, Bunyan’s character’s names reveals their character. From the start of his pilgrimage to the end, Christian meets enemies such as Pliable and Obstinate, Worldly Wiseman, Apollyon, Discontent, Talkative, Giant Despair. There are many others. Some are people, others are devils. All are formidable for either Christian or his believing companions. Christian meets some along the path (foes he cannot avoid) and some after he wanders off the narrow way (foes who only buffet the believer after he strays).
In the various allies and friends of Christ who instruct, encourage, warn, nurture, defend, bless, and accompany Christian. These characters are also allegorically described to reveal the type of aids believers have along the narrow way. Christian meets Evangelist who points him toward the Wicket Gate that will get him started on the right path. Good-Will opens the gate for him, pulling him inside before the enemies arrows pierce Christian before he ever begins his journey. Three ladies named Piety, Charity, and Prudence welcome him at the Palace Beautiful, providing rest, companionship, encouragement, and provisions for the rest of his journey. Christian later makes a friend in Faithful who loses his life in Vanity Fair as he faithfully witnesses for Christ. Then a new friend in Hopeful arises so the pilgrims may continue their quest for the Celestial City together.
In the description of the detours and traps that threaten to destroy the faith, hope, and salvation of pilgrims. Some of these Christian manages to avoid as he matures in wisdom and love for the King. At the beginning of his journey Christian needs a lot of help from the King’s servants because Christian is understandably ignorant of the dangers ahead. He seems to falter in his journey whenever challenges arise at the beginning. He sinks in the Slough of Despond even before entering the narrow way at the Wicket Gate, and needs help to escape. Christian foolishly takes Worldly Wiseman’s advice to head to the towns of Morality or Legality in order to rid himself of the heavy burden he carries on his back. But that bypath led to a fiery mountain that nearly toppled on him. Only by the help of Evangelist was Christian able to find his way back to the narrow way. Even near the end of their journey together, Christian and Hopeful take an easier path that seems to run parallel to the narrow way. Alas, the path turns away and leads them into the clutches of Giant Despair, who locks them away in his Doubting Castle to rot away.
In the way Christian’s “burden” finally falls from his back. Bunyan takes pains to convince the reader that Christian’s burden of sin and guilt can by no means be removed at any other place than the Cross. It is only at the Hill of Calvary where Christian finds relief from his sin, and strength to continue upon his pilgrimage to the Celestial City. Here are Bunyan’s words:
Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which Christian was to go, was fence on either side with a wall, and that wall was called Salvation. Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back. He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulcher. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came to the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulcher, where it fell in, and I saw it no more. Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, “He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death.” Then he stood still a while, to look and wonder; for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked, therefore, and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks. Now as he stood looking and weeping, behold, three Shining Ones came to him and saluted him with, “Peace be to thee.” So the first said to him, “Thy sins be forgiven thee.” The second stripped him of his rags, and clothed him with change of raiment. The third set a mark on his forehead, and gave him a roll with a seal upon it, which be bid him look on as he ran, and give it in at the celestial gate: so they went their way. Then Christian gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing.
As one can see in this passage, biblical allusions and quotes are plentiful. That is another aspect of the genius of Pilgrim’s Progress. In many editions of this book (including this one), Bible cross-references are included in a line under the text (not in parentheses alongside it). This increases readability while not distracting the reader with study helps. Other study features in this edition include footnotes pointing to appendices for definitions of unusual (early English) phrases and further explanation of themes. Appendices include a Life Summary of John Bunyan, real life Places of Interest for those who would visit Bunyan’s old stomping grounds, a Bunyan life Time Line with the context of relevant historical events, a Study Section on some of the more important places and people in the story, a dictionary of words that may be difficult to younger readers (often helpful for seasoned adult readers!), and a “translation” of unusual phrases or sentences. Furthermore, the text is arrayed with beautiful period line illustrations that aid the reader in imaging what Christian’s journey might look like in England during the 1600s when Bunyan lived.
This review is really more of a catalog of features, both of the common original text and this particular edition of it. As with all classic works of literature, there is no way to do it justice in a single book review. To truly appreciate Pilgrim’s Progress, you simply have to read it. But read it slowly, thoughtfully, with an open Bible, and perhaps aloud with a friend, your spouse, or your children. For this is a book to be savored, discussed, and meditated upon. I urge you not to skip this one.
Old classics usually don’t have many book reviews available online. Instead, articles, analyses, and summaries are more common. I guess the general rule is that if a book has Cliff Notes, then it won’t have many traditionally published book reviews available on the web. The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of these books.
Why Evangelicals Don’t Read Pilgrim’s Progress (And Why They Should), by John Muether
Thoughts on different versions and editions of Pilgrim’s Progress, by Andy Naselli
Pilgrim’s Progress: A Dream that Endures, by James Forrest
Read an edition of Pilgrim’s Progress by Desiring God
Listen to Pilgrim’s Progress as an audiobook