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Books: Christian progressive

Books | Bunyon's classic has inspired generations of Christian leaders

Issue: "Bosnian relief," March 30, 1996

The great Victorian preacher, Charles Spurgeon, read it more than a hundred times. E.M. Bounds kept a copy by his bedside and read from it every night before retiring. Stonewall Jackson kept a copy in his knapsack throughout his Southern campaigns. D.L. Moody and Ira Sankey shared favorite passages from it each night before beginning their evangelistic services.

Translated into more languages than any other book save the Bible, it is utterly unique among the literary creations of men. It is The Pilgrim's Progress, a fanciful allegory of the Christian life written primarily from a prison cell midway through the 17th century by John Bunyan.

The son of a poor brazier, born in 1628, Bunyan was a witness to some of the momentous events in English history: the civil war, the regicide of King Charles, the Cromwell protectorate, the great fire, the restoration of the monarchy, and the great Puritan purge. After a dramatic adult conversion, Bunyan immersed himself in the life and work of a very small nonconformist congregation.

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After the demise of the protectorate and the subsequent restoration of the monarchy in 1660, persecutions were launched against all but established state churches. It was widely understood that religion was the primary influence on the nature and structure of culture. Preaching was considered to be a powerful force that had both eternal and temporal dimensions. Thus, they rightly predicted that a faithful exposition of the Bible would have immediate political as well as spiritual ramifications. Conservative Anglicans and Puritans thought that allowing unauthorized or unlearned men to preach would undermine the whole social fabric. They comprehended only too well the dynamic significance of worldviews.

For nearly a decade, Bunyan had served as an unordained itinerant preacher and had frequently taken part in highly visible theological controversies. He had written several sectarian polemics and was gaining a reputation as a leader of the radical Calvinistic Baptists. It was natural that the new governmental restrictions would focus on him. Thus, he was arrested for preaching to "unlawful assemblies and conventicles."

The judges who were assigned to his case were all ex-royalists, most of whom had suffered fines, sequestrations, and even imprisonments during the Interregnum. They threatened and cajoled Bunyan, but he was unshakable. Finally, in frustration, they told him they would not release him from custody until he was willing to foreswear his illegal preaching. And so, he was sent to the county jail where he spent 12 long years-recalcitrant to the end.

During his time in prison, he began writing the allegorical Pilgrim's Progress as a sort of autobiographical companion to his earlier book Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. It describes his temptations, trials, and frustrations as well as his determination to risk all for the sake of spiritual integrity and the quest for righteousness.

The hero embarks on a great adventure and must face many perils along the way until at long last he arrives at his destination or meets his destiny. In this case, brave Christian-who is an archetypical believer facing all manner of spiritual warfare-leaves his secure home and family in search of the Celestial City. Along the way he meets a vast array of characters, both good and evil, in an alternating landscape of dizzying deprivation and dazzling debauchery.

Pilgrim's Progress has it all. Economists have studied it for its insights into the working-class world. Historians have studied it for its firsthand vision of life in the 15th century. Fantasists have studied it for its brilliant evocation of the imagination. And theologians have studied it for its translation of complex dogmas and controversies into common comprehendible terms.

There are a number of good modern language renderings of the book, but the poetic lilt of the original really should not be passed over-and after all, it is even less difficult to understand than a King James Bible. The most highly regarded academic text is the 1928 Oxford edition edited by J.B. Wharey, but I greatly favor the 1987 Penguin Classics edition edited by Roger Sharrock, which updates spelling and punctuation without sacrificing the intent or the power of the language.

Behold, take and read; know full well that this is indeed a good thing.


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