Charles Spurgeon once wrote:
Next to the Bible, the book I value most is John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” I believe I have read it through at least a hundred times. It is a volume of which I never seem to tire; and the secret of its freshness is that it is so largely compiled from the Scriptures. It is really Biblical teaching put into the form of a simple yet very striking allegory.
Interestingly, Spurgeon’s fondness for The Pilgrim’s Progress was not unique. Bunyan’s masterpiece is second only to the Bible as the most printed and translated book of all time. Indeed, many poorer families that could afford few books would make certain that they owned a family Bible and a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Sadly, few Christians today seem to have read the book, and many have virtually no knowledge of its former popular estimation.
Of course, just because a book was once highly valued does not mean that it deserves to be valued again. In Medieval Christianity, Peter Lombard’s Sentences was foundational work of theology that all masters of theology were required to write their own commentary upon, but it has since been rightfully replaced by the many greater works of systematic theology that helped to inspire. Even so, I do not think that is the case with The Pilgrim’s Progress. While I have not met many believers who have actually read this book, almost all the ones that have read it also consider it one of their favorite books of all time. My daughter also continues to be enraptured with Bunyan’s allegory via the children’s adaptions, Little Pilgrim’s Big Journey: Parts I & II. While I know that this is all anecdotal evidence, I am nonetheless convinced that it is not yet time to let The Pilgrim’s Progress slip away from our collective memory.
John Bunyan was a Puritan preacher, who was of the same generation as the two other Puritans that we have read: John Owen and Thomas Watson. However, unlike many of the Puritans, Bunyan was not highly educated, being the son of poor tinker. Bunyan wrote of himself:
But yet, notwithstanding the meanness and inconsiderableness of my parents, it pleased God to put it into their hearts to put me to school, to learn both to read and write; the which I also attained, according to the rate of other poor men’s children; though to my shame I confess, I did soon lose that little I learned, and that even almost utterly, and that long before the Lord did work his gracious work of conversion upon my soul.
Despite Bunyan’s lack of education, John Owen (who such an academic that Latin was practically his first language!) is often cited as saying “that he would gladly exchange all his learning for Bunyan’s power of touching men’s hearts.” And following his conversion (of which the removal of Christian’s burden at the place of deliverance is a fitting image), Bunyan’s great passion was to touch the hearts of others with the liberating power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, Bunyan’s passion for preaching got him into trouble with the law, since he preached outside the Church of England. When arrested in 1660 and told that he could go free so long as he ceased preaching, Bunyan replied, “If I am freed today, I will preach tomorrow.” Thus, for twelve long years, Bunyan sat in prison, able to leave at any moment so long as he agreed to forsake preaching the Bible, yet as his wife, Elizabeth, once told his judges, “he dares not leave off preaching as long as he can speak.”
He was finally released from prison in 1672 and was made pastor of a congregation in Bedford until his death in 1688. He was arrested again in the winter of 1675 and was released the following spring. It was during this second imprisonment that Bunyan most likely wrote the first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress, which was first published in 1678.
Bunyan apparently began his work on what would become The Pilgrim’s Progress by intending to write a book explaining how the Christian life is like a pilgrimage. Yet he soon “fell suddenly into an Allegory” (vii) and began to conceive of images of a story. So, he began writing not a didactic teaching but a story. Rather than writing, “Christians are like pilgrims because…”, he wrote down the story of a man named Christian on pilgrimage from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City and of all the joys and trials that he meets along the way.
Bunyan introduced his book with an apology in poetic verse. Of course, he was not apologizing for his book in the sense that we think of it today, that is, of being remorseful. Instead, he was offering up a defense for the book and his decision to write in the form of a story, which he feared that many would dismiss as being childish. Bunyan, however, was ahead of his time in understanding the power of story to ingrain truths within our hearts that simple and direct teaching is often unable to do.
Wouldest thou see a Truth within a Fable?p. xiv
Art thou forgetful? wouldest thou remember
From New-year’s-day to the last of December?
Then read my fancies, they will stick like Burs
While some still have at least a passing familiarity Part I, fewer still have ever read Part II, which was published in 1684. Part II tells the story of Christian’s wife, Christiana, and his children making their way to the Celestial City. While the scenes and story of Part I is unforgettable and timeless, Part II makes the allegory much more balanced in its portrayal of the Christian life. Much of Bunyan’s own tumultuous life and testimony can be seen in Part I, yet Part II describes the often-subtler work of grace in believers as well as the importance of community throughout our journey.
Our plan, therefore, is to read both parts of The Pilgrim’s Progress, although we will likely begin Part II around September. The edition that I will be referencing throughout our reading (which you find here) is produced by Banner of Truth, which is a lovely little hardcover containing both parts, fourteen illustrations, and Scripture references in the margins. Of course, given that the narrative follows the pilgrims along their path, readers should be able to follow along using any edition via the stages of the journey that we will discuss each week. You can download the ebook for free here.
You can find full week-by-week reading plan below.
Stage One: Fleeing the City of Destruction (pp. 1-21)
Stage Two: Interpreter’s House (pp. 21-36)
Stage Five: Faithful & Talkative (pp. 74-96)
Stage Six: Vanity Fair (pp. 96-112)
Stage Seven: By-ends & Demas (pp. 112-126)
Stage Eight: Doubting Castle & Giant Despair (pp. 126-143)
Stage Ten: The River Death & the Celestial City (pp. 173-190)
 Beeke and Pederson, Meet the Puritans, 105.