THE LIFE AND LITERAURE OF JOHN BUNYAN
The Pilgrim’s Progress from this World to that Which is to Come;
From the City of Destruction to the Wicket Gate
The Greatest Work of Christian Literature
“…give attendance to reading…” (1st Timothy 4:13)
This study commences an examination of John Bunyan’s masterpiece which has commonly been abbreviated as “Pilgrim’s Progress”. There is no doubting the widespread influence and enduring popularity of the Bedford Preacher’s work. By the 1700 22 editions of the book had been published with Dutch and French editions. By 1800 there were a further 48 editions. With the revival in missionary enterprise throughout the 19th Century the work was translated into Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Hindi, Greek, Portuguese, Russian, Hungarian. Swedish and many other languages. By the 21st Century it is estimated that Bunyan’s words are to be found in 80 African languages alone.
Initially the style and content of Pilgrim’s Progress was held in contempt by the educated classes, who considered it vulgar. It was Bunyan’s common touch, however, which made the book what it was, and like our Lord, “the common people heard him gladly”. By the evangelical revival in the 18th Century the leaders did not doubt the value of Bunyan’s allegory as Whitefield attested:
“They smell of the prison for ministers never write so well as when under the cross: the spirit of Christ and of glory rests upon them.”
No generation, however, loved Bunyan quite like the Victorians. The most famous of the London Victorian preachers, C.H. Spurgeon, commended the Bedford Pastor as no-one else did, and in so doing highlights why we should study his works:
“Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like reading the Bible itself…He read it until his whole being was saturated with Scripture, and though his writings are charmingly full of poetry, yet he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress – that sweetest of all prose poems – without continually making us feel and say ‘Why, this man is a living Bible!’ Prick him anywhere and you find that his blood is bibline – for his whole soul is full of the Word of God.”
“Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.” (Psalm 119:54)
Bunyan is the master of the Christian allegory. An allegory is a metaphor, a means of communicating a message by the means of symbols, like our Saviour’s parables. The author begins by presenting himself as falling asleep while walking “through the wilderness of this world” and in his dream, he sees a man, the pilgrim called “Christian”, who as he reveals later was initially known as “Graceless”. For this reason, Bunyan has often been known as “The Immortal Dreamer”.
Depicting the Christian Life as being a pilgrimage is a thoroughly biblical concept as Blackie’s introduction to their 1854 edition explains:
“The pilgrimage of life is a deeply interesting subject, coextensive with human nature; every individual of our race is upon pilgrimage from the cradle to the grave. It is the progress of the soul through time to enter upon a boundless eternity…”
The City of Destruction
“Flee from the wrath to come” (Matthew 3:7)
The first place where we meet Christian, formerly Graceless, is in his hometown known as The City of Destruction. He is described as; “clothed with rags”, “a book in his hand” and “a great burden upon his back”. As he reads the book he sighs and groans crying out “What shall I do?”. Going home he is treated with contempt by his wife, family and neighbours as he exclaimed:
“I am for certain informed that this our city will be burned with fire from heaven…except some way of escape can be found whereby we may be delivered.”
Like Christian we all once were without grace, dwelling in a place of certain damnation, with the book, the Scriptures, being our only source of information showing us the folly of our way. Threfore Bunyan begins a long discourse showing the conviction of sin that the sinner passes through, with the terrible burden upon his back, before he can find relief.
“…a guide of the blind…” (Romans 2:19)
Throughout the pilgrimage, Christian has a guide, who periodically appears dispensing advice, helping him on his way. Known as Evangelist this bearer of good news, represents the faithful pastor, in Bunyan’s case John Gifford, whose task is to assist the pilgrims on their journey. It was Evangelist who pointed Christian in the direction of a “wicket” or narrow gate which was where the light was shining. Seizing Evangelist’s counsel to flee from the wrath to come he ran away from the City of Destruction with his fingers in his ears crying out “Life! Life! Eternal Life!”.
Obstinate and Pliable
“a double minded man is unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8)
One of the prime features of Bunyan’s work are the names of the characters. We have met many of Bunyan’s characters in everyday life as he draws his portraits of human nature. The citizens of Christian’s city, not wishing to lose him from their company dispatched Obstinate and Pliable to bring him home. Obstinate being churlish and awkward soon discovered that his methods would not deter the pilgrim, leaving Christian alone with Pliable, a much more cunning and deceptive envoy. Pliable pretended that Christian was correct and so they travelled together until they reached the Slough of Despond. It was here that Pliable made a swift retreat because his motives were not genuine; he could not press on through difficulty.
The Slough of Despond
“he brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay…” (Psalm 40:2)
Christian struggled through the horrible marsh, receiving assistance from one whose name was Help. Bunyan describes the slough as being:
“…the descent wither the scum and filth that attends conviction of sin, doth continually run…”
As one who suffered intensely from conviction this place was peculiarly characteristic of Bunyan’s personal testimony; as in his case, there remains help from the Holy Spirit for troubled souls.
“As many as are of the works of the law are under the curse…” (Galatians 3:19)
At one stage in his life Bunyan was deluded into thinking that his religion and good works were quite sufficient appease God. He fell for the charms, like many others today, of Worldly Wiseman. As Christian left the slough behind he was approached by this man, from the town of Carnal Policy, who told Christian that the message of Evangelist was too harsh and unnecessary. Christian foolishly left the path and went therefore to meet Legality in the town of Morality. On his way he came up against a hill which seemed to lean over the path; out of this fearful hill erupted earthquakes, lightening and thundering. At this critical juncture Christian was rescued by Evangelist who showed him that the message of Worldly Wiseman, like all apostate preachers, was fraudulent. The hill was Mount Sinai which only produces bondage. Men and women cannot have peace through good living and moral behaviours.
The Wicket Gate
“Enter ye in at the stait gate…” (Matthew 7:13)
At last the traveller approached the gate for which he was bound. The gate keeper, called Good Will, however, pulled Christian quickly through as began to enter. Explaining that the agents of the Beelzebub are nearby the entrance Good Will’s actions were understood. The message of grace is such an important aspect of the story. We too would never have entered through the narrow gate were it not for the impulses of the Spirit drawing us in.
Still however, Christian had the burden upon his back. He still lacked peace and assurance, because he had not yet reached the hill where the cross stood. This represents Bunyan’s spiritual journey where assurance and peace came quite some time after he initially trusted Christ. So, it has been for others and we must ever understand that God does not work in the lives of two people identically.