Pilgrim's Progress | Study Guide

John Bunyan

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Pilgrim's Progress | Context


The Pilgrim's Progress and Christian Allegory

The Pilgrim's Progress is perhaps one of the best-known English allegories—and certainly the most widely read and translated. The term allegory, whose Greek root roughly translates as "to speak in a different way," refers to any literary work whose characters, setting, and incidents point symbolically to a reality outside the text. Although even an individual object or character can be described as an allegory if it has a clear real-world meaning, the term is typically used for larger-scale stories or poems in which many metaphors or symbols fit together to express a broader point. Populated by hundreds of symbolically named characters and places, the world of The Pilgrim's Progress fully exemplifies this stricter definition.

John Bunyan was far from the first storyteller to use allegory and dream vision as a way of expressing religious ideas. As in other allegorical works, The Pilgrim's Progress is presented through personification, or the literary device by which "human characteristics are attributed to an abstract quality, animal, or inanimate object." Ancient literature such as the epic poems of the Iliad (c. 750–650 BCE) and the Odyssey (c. 725–675 BCE) by Greek poet Homer (c. 8th century BCE) included personification. More significant to Bunyan's story is the philosophical writing of the Roman Christian Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 470/75–524 CE), a scholar and philosopher whose Consolation of Philosophy (c. 524 CE) is presented as a dream in which the ladies Philosophy and Fortune appear to guide the prisoner. The 15th-century English morality play Everyman presents Everyman's soul in an attempt to come to terms with the inevitable approach of Death. In the dramatization, Everyman has been abandoned by companions Wealth, Beauty, and Strength, and only Good Deeds is brave enough to enter the grave with him on the promise to vouch for him at his final judgment. The playlet has proved popular over the years and is still produced even today.

It is clear from the many references to biblical text in The Pilgrim's Progress that Bunyan was thoroughly conversant with the books of both the New and Old Testaments. The Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament in most versions of the Bible, is attributed to St. John the Apostle. This supernatural allegory describes his vision of Christ and the coming of the end times through an elaborate pageant of vivid, violent imagery. It is likely that Bunyan drew heavily upon these dramatic elements to enliven his story .

Bunyan is often said to have read at least Book 1 of English poet Edmund Spenser's (c. 1552–99) great allegorical poem The Faerie Queene (1590). Close parallels can be drawn between the quests of the holy knights of this work and Christian's journey in The Pilgrim's Progress. It should also be noted that The Pilgrim's Progress draws from many sources outside the literary and philosophical allegorical tradition. Among these, perhaps surprisingly, are the adventure stories Bunyan enjoyed in childhood. Sold in cheap editions called chapbooks, these tales were a little like the comic books or dime novels of their day. They often featured the same sort of exciting escapades seen in The Pilgrim's Progress: chivalric (and sometimes gory) combat, narrow escapes, and heroic quests. Read in the context of such works, The Pilgrim's Progress can be construed as an attempt to take images both from serious religious and philosophical writings and popular secular fiction and put them to a pious use.

The extent and directness of these influences are still a matter of critical debate. The Bible is frequently paraphrased in The Pilgrim's Progress. However, Bunyan goes further than simply referencing biblical text, as he deliberately and pointedly includes chapter-and-verse citations throughout by way of inviting the reader to look them up in their own Bibles for verification. Instead of relying upon a Catholic priest to provide biblical context in Latin to be passively accepted by the faithful, Protestant congregants took some pride in reading for themselves a vulgate (that is, written in a modern language like English, German, or Spanish instead of Latin) translation. This practice encouraged not only the education of boys in state-funded schools but also of girls, who were usually educated at home. This meant that a true Christian must take personal responsibility for understanding the Word of God, knowing the difference between right and wrong, and acting accordingly. Protestant congregants of Bunyan's time read and studied biblical text alone and in groups in order to find meaning for their own lives. In this way, The Pilgrim's Progress is very much like a sermon supported by self-study in the Bible. The author tells Christian's story as if it were a parable based upon his expansion of the Bible and supporting his statements by its passages, as if he were preaching to a congregation.

The Religious Climate of 17th-Century England

Given its extreme popularity, it is easy to forget that The Pilgrim's Progress was written by a member of a persecuted religious minority. Bunyan's Separatist beliefs were not endorsed—or even officially tolerated—in England during much of the time he lived and wrote. Rather, Bunyan's adult life can be thought of as bookended by two periods of relative tolerance for Puritanism, Separatism, and other forms of religious nonconformism. Before, between, and after these periods, those who dissented from established Church of England doctrines and practices did so at their own peril.

About a century before Bunyan was born, the Protestant Reformation reached England. On the European continent, German religious leader Martin Luther (1483–1546) had openly criticized contemporary Catholic practices with the 95 Theses in 1517, leading to an official denunciation of Luther (the Edict of Worms) in 1521. In the early 1530s King Henry VIII (1491–1547) seized upon the growing momentum of Reformation ideas in England to break with Rome and accomplish his divorce from Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536). From this break, the Church of England was eventually established with the king as its head. Initially quite close to Catholic teachings, the Church of England became more decidedly Protestant in doctrine and worship during the reigns of King Edward VI (1537–53) and Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603), the latter having been raised Protestant according to the wishes of her mother, Anne Boleyn (c. 1507–36). Catholicism was displaced and effectively outlawed as the Anglican faith consolidated its principles and established its own hierarchy.

Those who participated in these religious reforms were, however, never as perfectly uniform as the royal decrees might suggest. Some sought to retain the essentially Catholic flavor of the early Church of England, and indeed some remained actual Catholics, albeit often covertly. Others felt that the so-called Elizabethan Religious Settlement did not go far enough in distancing Anglicanism from Catholicism. Among the latter were Puritans, who sought to "purify" the Church of England, and their offshoot, the Separatists, who sought to break from it. The two groups were, and are still, often confused with one another because they were extremely close in their beliefs and practices, differing mainly in how they chose to express their dissent with mainstream Anglicanism.

In the early 17th century, Puritans comprised a significant minority of English Christians. Though they were seldom physically attacked by mainstream Anglicans, literary works of the time show that the predominant attitude was one of disapproval, even mockery. The popular plays of English writer Ben Jonson (1572–1637), for example, contain anti-Puritan caricatures in the form of Zeal-of-the-land Busy. This hypocritical preacher, who appears in Bartholomew Fair (1614), embodies the already prevalent stereotype of Puritans as fun-hating killjoys obsessed with finding the faults of others. By the time Bunyan came of age, however, the English Civil Wars (1642–51) were gathering momentum, with Puritans and their allies finding first tolerance and then later support under the Parliamentarian faction. The interregnum—the decade immediately following the reign of the deposed King Charles I (1600–49)—saw Puritans essentially put in charge of the English government.

This period of Puritan legitimation gave the young Bunyan the freedom first to discover, then to embrace and express, nonconformist religious ideas. With the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, however, the situation reversed. Charles II (1630–85), the new king, privately wished for religious tolerance but found himself commanding a government and Church leadership with quite different goals. Many of his noblemen and ranking clergy wished to eradicate Puritanism, suppress Separatism, and enforce conformity to the sort of mainline Anglicanism officially recognized before the war. Thus, in 1661 the first of a series of repressive laws were passed, relegating religious nonconformists to the status of second-class citizens. Under one such law prohibiting public preaching in a nonconformist faith, the Bunyan was sentenced to a 12-year prison term.

The Penal Laws were relaxed in 1672 under the Declaration of Indulgence by King Charles II but were renewed a year later as the king, who was Anglican by faith, buckled under pressure from the nobility. Charles II died in 1685 without ever having achieved the officially sanctioned tolerance he wished for. His brother and successor, King James II (1633–1701), was a Catholic convert and had a more directly personal stake in the issue. During his brief reign (1685–88) some progress was made toward tolerance for Catholics and nonconformists; thus Bunyan, who died in 1688, spent his last years in what might be called a climate of optimism. The Glorious Revolution (1688–89), which saw James II deposed and his policies reversed, broke out in November 1688, mere months after Bunyan's death.

Personal Awakening

Bunyan's writings were not just the result of changes in England's religious politics. They were also the product of a personal religious conversion. Though he was exposed to Puritan ideas in the mid-1640s during his time as a Parliamentarian conscript, Bunyan was decisively converted to religious Separatism following his first marriage in 1649. His wife, poor as Bunyan himself was, had brought as her dowry only two Puritan tracts: The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven and The Practice of Piety. Reading these sparked in Bunyan a crisis of faith that ultimately led to his embracing Puritan theology, joining a Separatist congregation in his hometown of Bedford, and becoming a preacher and religious author himself.

In his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), Bunyan speaks of his life before Puritanism in terms familiar from religious conversion narratives. He describes himself as living, unawares, on a dunghill of filth and iniquity, from which only God's grace could lift him. This is not to say that Bunyan was irreligious before his conversion. He conformed to standard practices of the time, such as going to church twice a day. Once he began hearing voices, however, Bunyan no longer found it adequate to be a regular churchgoer while continuing to sin in other areas of his life.

The Puritanical nature of his conversion experience is evident in the specific behaviors that he shuns, such as dancing and playing games on the Sabbath. Neither of these was broadly considered to be sinful in Bunyan's time, except among nonconformists. Many of his neighbors considered themselves upright Christians and used the Sabbath as, in part, a day of recreation. Bunyan shows this to be true in his autobiographical book, Grace Abounding. In it he says that dancing and playing outdoor games on the Sabbath are popular pastimes among his neighbors, and Bunyan is considered the odd one out for his strict refusal to take part. The same people who go to church twice a day don't understand why Bunyan won't play tip-cat with them on Sundays. For him, however, the Sabbath is a day for reflection, Bible study, rest, and prayer. Amusing oneself is considered a waste of time; a break from useful work should be used only for self-edification, not enjoyment.

Bunyan's rejection of seemingly innocuous activities out of fear for his soul is reminiscent of Mr. Fearing, who appears in The Pilgrim's Progress, Part 2 and is, like the young Bunyan, afraid of offending God even by accident. That Bunyan later moderated his views can be seen in episodes from The Pilgrim's Progress where godly characters, such as Christiana, indulge in dancing and music during times of celebration.

Broadly, however, the convert's zeal Bunyan describes in Grace Abounding carries over to The Pilgrim's Progress and to the many nonfiction tracts that Bunyan wrote. In The Pilgrim's Progress, glimpses of Bunyan's own conversion process are visible from the beginning as Christian becomes suddenly, overwhelmingly, convinced he is in danger.

This distressed man turns out to be Christian, who has been living in the City of Destruction. He vainly attempts to persuade his family and friends to leave with him before all is consumed by fire and to seek refuge in the Celestial City. But the way to refuge is long and perilous, so he sets out alone. These allegorical cities are, like all other locations in the book, symbolic. What is really at stake is Christian's soul. His position in a society unaware of its own damnation is reminiscent of what Bunyan must have felt when, in his early adulthood, he came to the conclusion that he must break with his "godly" neighbors. His struggles in the Slough of Despond are, likewise, a reimagining of Bunyan's own struggles with his sense of guilt and unworthiness. His description of a dangerous journey no doubt resonated with those nonconformists—specifically Puritans—who left the comforts and persecutions of England for the New World.

Bunyan is not the first writer to refer to allegorical locations. The Celestial City was described in detail, along with directions on how to reach it by shunning unbelief and embracing faith by St. Augustine (354–430), who described in detail the City of God (413–426) as belonging to the elect, while the damned were confined to The City of Man. Based upon this widely read religious book, the Medieval Italian French author Christine de Pizan (1364–1430) penned The Book of the City of Ladies in 1405. Instantly popular with readers in French, the book was translated into English in 1521, and it is unlikely that Bunyan would have been unaware of it. De Pizan not only presents herself as the main character who dreams the vision of how the City of Ladies is to be constructed but also relates to the reader how she is guided by the allegorically symbolic Ladies Reason (Part 1), Rectitude (Part 2), and Justice (Part 3).

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