Any comprehensive reading of The Pilgrim's Progress requires an extensive understanding of the religious framework within which John Bunyan was writing. Generally speaking, Bunyan fits into the group of people that are now commonly referred to as Puritans. In Bunyan's time, however, 'Puritan' was a somewhat ambiguous term that incorporated Baptists and Quakers, Ranters and other dissenters. While they shared a common goal of "purifying" the Church of what they saw as excess and materialism, there are many subtle differences between these religions' theologies, methods, and relations to authority. Bunyan did not necessarily chose to label himself, but Greaves observes that he likely could have been described as an open-membership, open-communion Baptist (19).
Generally speaking, whatever their particular differences, all Puritan theology owes a great debt to the work of Martin Luther and John Calvin, two of the most influential theologians during the continental Reformation. Bunyan draws heavily from both Luther and Calvin's ideas, and their influence is palpable in The Pilgrim's Progress. One of the hallmarks of Reformation theology is that it articulates a system of justification by faith alone, as opposed to justification by good works, as the Catholic Church once encouraged. For Luther, faith in God and the gift of God's freely given grace erased the sins of humanity, rather than good works or indulgences issued by the Church. Though Calvin is famous for his very strongly articulated doctrine of predestination, which states that God has already decided who will be saved and who will be damned, Luther's theology can also be considered to be predestinarian, albeit more generous than Calvin's definition. The question of election aside, both maintained that humanity had wholly fallen, and redemption was only possible through faith and God's grace, which was made manifest in the Crucifixion, and continues to be bestowed on sinners. Realizing and living these ideals is at the heart of the Puritan religious experience, and "the essence of Puritanism...is an experience of conversion which separates the Puritan from the mass of mankind and endows him with the privileges and duties of the elect. The root of the matter is always a new birth, which brings with it a conviction of salvation and a dedication to warfare against sin" (Swaim 8). Any sense of entitlement that accompanied being God's elect was tempered with an inordinate sense of duty which lent a tone of serious conviction to the daily life of the Puritan, which centered largely around scripture.
For both Calvin and Luter, and most people working in the Reformed tradition, the Bible came to a place of prominence over and against the liturgy, and Biblical literacy was deemed a priority. The rich imagery in medieval churches was whitewashed, and often, the only adornment in a Reformed church would be scripture lettered (and not illustrated) on the walls. A physical structure was not even necessary to create a place of worship. Greaves offers insight on the power of words for a thinker like John Bunyan, writing, "words were [his] sole means to reach his disparate audiences. He had no traditional liturgy, pageantry, or clerical costume and virtually no material symbolism on which to call for assistance in conveying his message, reinforcing his followers, or combatting his rivals" (10). The power of words resonates throughout The Pilgrim's Progress, as it did throughout the Puritan experience.
The emphasis on literacy and on personal engagement with scripture for everyone, men and women alike, is indicative of the intense individualism that formed a major part of Reformed Christianity. Though there was still a church hierarchy and a system of preachers who communicated God's word, there was also a much greater emphasis on the individual's personal relationship with God. People were encouraged to spend as much time as possible in prayer and reading the scriptures.
Finally, the role of women was evolving in all of this new theology and practice brought about by the Reformation. Puritanism, specifically, had a relatively progressive outlook on women. Women were encouraged to read, and even write, about scripture, religious experience, and theology, though they were generally not allowed to preach or hold positions of authority (Greaves 21). Their role in the household became more important because they were responsible for catechizing their children (an idea which is prominently featured in The Pilgrim's Progress, when Prudence quizzes the boys on the catechism that Christiana has taught them). Women, however, were still viewed as the weaker sex, and in marriage, they were generally expected to be subservient to their husbands. Even given these decided gender roles, language and constructions in the Puritan imagination did not always fall directly along gender lines. The best example of this is the very common image of believers, male or female, as the bride of Christ.
All of these theological and social elements combine to form the rich foundation from which all the different varieties of non-conformist religious practice in John Bunyan's England emerged. The climate was rife with great religious and social upheaval, due to the Restoration of the monarchy, civil war, the execution of a king, and the legacy of the Reformation, creating an environment in which levels of religious persecution varied almost daily. The uncertainty of religious freedom, however, did not deter Bunyan and like-minded thinkers, who continued to preach and write their truth at any cost, even from prison.