“Be of good cheer.”

JOHN BUNYAN’S Pilgrim’s Progress presents the Christian life as a pilgrimage “from this world to that which is to come,” a view that dominated Christian thought for centuries.

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In medieval theology a Christian was a viator (pilgrim), who was in via (on the way), yet still in patria (in the homeland). The metaphor was powerful since medieval Christians spent a lot of time traveling on foot and sometimes made literal pilgrimages to holy places. Through Bunyan this medieval idea became the defining form of such imagery in the evangelical mind for generations. 

Put in and cast out 

Bunyan himself, though, was, at first glance, about as far removed from medieval Catholicism as it’s possible to be. Born in 1628 in Bedfordshire in the English Midlands, the son of a “tinker,” or traveling handyman who mended pots and pans, he served briefly in the English Civil War on the Parliamentary (anti-Anglican and antimonarchy) side. 

An intense inner conflict, described in his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), brought Bunyan to the assurance that his sins were indeed forgiven. He joined a nonconformist congregation that met in the local Anglican church—this was during the “Commonwealth,” when radical Puritans controlled the government and tolerated a wide variety of Protestant movements. 

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Bunyan’s congregation was ejected from the parish church. Shortly afterward he was arrested under an Elizabethan law banning unauthorized religious gatherings. The law was not often enforced, but the newly restored regime was taking no chances. 

Bunyan spent the next 12 years in prison. While there he probably began his most famous work, Pilgrim’s Progress. After his release Bunyan devoted himself to full-time preaching and traveling throughout the region and even to London. In 1678 Pilgrim’s Progress was published and quickly became a best seller. In 1682 he followed it up with the less successful Holy War. Six years later, caught in a storm on one of his travels, he died of the resulting fever.

Pilgrim’s Progress, a gripping adventure story with theological dialogues, reflects both Bunyan’s Calvinist convictions and the landscape and culture of seventeenth-century rural England. For example, village crosses dotted the English landscape, and one in particular matches a description in Bunyan’s book. Bunyan the Puritan presumably disapproved of outward images, but Bunyan the author drew this Catholic image into the heart of his stoutly Protestant book. 

Part 1, most famous today, tells the story of Christian and his pilgrimage from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. Part 2 tells of his wife, Christiana, who sets out to follow her husband and traverses the same landscape. 

Christiana’s journey is more communal than Christian’s; she starts out with her sons and a female friend named Mercy and welcomes other companions as she travels. Unlike Christian she has a guide for much of the way, Mr. Greatheart, generally understood to be Bunyan’s portrait of the ideal pastor. This two-part structure lets Bunyan contrast those features of the Christian life that he considered essential, such as conversion, with those that he recognized would vary from one person to another. 

Trying to lose the burden

Christian’s journey shows Bunyan’s understanding (and that of most Puritans of his time) of the proper shape of the Christian life. He leaves the City of Destruction under the pressure of guilt and fear and is directed to the “wicket gate” (conversion) by Evangelist. 

Stuck in the Slough of Despond, he nearly gives up but perseveres, only to meet Mr. Worldly Wiseman who persuades him that Mr. Legality can get rid of his burden. (In other words, he hopes to allay his guilt by a strict program of moral behavior rather than by genuine conversion.) 

On his way to Mr. Legality’s house, however, he has to pass under Mt. Sinai (the genuine demands of God’s law), which frightens him back to the right road. He enters the wicket gate, is shown visions in the Interpreter’s House to instruct him in the nature of the new life he has begun, and then comes to a cross, where the burden falls off his back. The multistage nature of Christian’s conversion confuses some readers but reflects Bunyan’s own experience and understanding of how people come to an assurance of saving faith. 

After losing his burden, Christian climbs the Hill of Difficulty, rests at a beautiful palace, and then descends into the Valley of Humiliation. Here he meets Apollyon (the devil) who reproaches him for treason against the lawful king, one of a number of political references in the book, and attacks him with fiery darts. Armed with the armor of Ephesians 6, Christian is able to defeat Apollyon, only to encounter the Valley of the Shadow of Death. 

Escaping the valley he meets a fellow pilgrim named Faithful. Both are arrested and put on trial in the city of Vanity Fair; Faithful is burned at the stake. Vanity Fair, like so much else in the book, is both a generalized picture of “worldliness” and a satire of the materialism and pride of England during the Restoration period, when cultural elites embraced worldly honor, conspicuous consumption, and sexual exploitation. Against this Puritans held up an ideal of humility, simple dress, and nonresistance to insult and injury. 

Christian gains a new companion, Hopeful, a citizen of Vanity Fair converted through the martyrdom of Faithful. The two proceed to conquer Doubt and Despair and finally reach the “land of Beulah,” a place of spiritual maturity and peace just on the near side of the river dividing them from the Celestial City. They cross the river (death) and are welcomed into the city.

The stages of Christian’s journey and the challenges he meets along the way are ingrained in evangelical spirituality, even for people who have not read the book. It was, along with the Bible, one of the first books I read (at the age of about four or five), and its key moments continue to shape my own Christian experience. The moment in Part 1 when Christian and Hopeful cross the river of death stays with me perhaps more than any other:

And with that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see before him. Also here he in a great measure lost his senses, so that he could neither remember nor orderly talk of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage. . . . He had horror of mind, and heart—fears that he should die in that river, and never obtain entrance in at the gate. 

His companion, Hopeful, holds up Christian’s head and comforts him with the assurance: “Be of good cheer, my brother: I feel the bottom, and it is good.” 

In our own moments of doubt and despair today, we can look to those, like Bunyan, who hold up our heads in the river and tell us that their feet touch bottom. CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #116 Twenty-Five Writings that Changed the Church and the World. Read it in context here!

By Edwin Woodruff Tait

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #116 in 2015]

Edwin Woodruff Tait is consulting editor of Christian History. Portions of this article appeared in CH issue 112.
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