Pilgrim's Progress

Pilgrim's Progress Study Guide

The Pilgrim’s Progress is John Bunyan’s most enduring legacy. The book, which went through eleven editions in the author’s lifetime, has never subsequently been out of print. Though it now appears as two parts in one volume, the parts were originally published separately; Part I in 1678, and Part II followed in 1684. The earliest edition in which the two appeared together was published in London in 1728. Bunyan began writing the first part in 1668, while in prison, and he consulted with many people on its contents before he took it to press.

The Pilgrim's Progress is commonly considered one the greatest Christian allegories ever written, though the choice of the genre was a bit unusual for a Reformed Christian like Bunyan. Most English sectarians were opposed to allegory on the grounds that it was far too Catholic and obscure (Luxon ix). If the choice was odd, however, it did not ultimately detract from the book’s success.

Bunyan wrote the allegory in simple language so that the lowest classes in English society would be able to understand it. While literacy had become increasingly common in the lower class, it was rare for a writer to purposely simplify his prose to appeal to them.

Some historians consider The Pilgrim's Progress the first ever novel, and often compare it to to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The Pilgrim's Progress is an exceptionally useful book, for though widely accessible and entertaining, it communicates and critiques an enormous amount of relatively complex theology. The theology of Martin Luther, the architect of the Reformation, is particularly prominent throughout Bunyan's work.

While most scholarly analysis about The Pilgrim's Progress refers to the book in its singular form, it is also important to consider the parts separately, as Bunyan originally wrote them. The end of the seventeenth century in England was one of massive political, religious, and social upheaval and uncertainty, and thus, Bunyan wrote the two parts of The Pilgrim’s Progress under differing circumstances. Moreover, with his release from prison, Bunyan's personal circumstances had changed completely between Parts I and II (though not published until 1678, he wrote most of the first part in prison). As one scholar astutely remarked, “largely considered, [the two parts] fictionalize two profoundly differing worldviews, the first looking backward to Reformation theology and medieval certainties, the second looking forward to the more familiar and scattered parameters of the modern world” (Swaim 2). The two parts also differ in their perspective on gender, since a woman is the protagonist of the second part. Although Parts I and II of Pilgrim's Progress do form a coherent whole, and can easily be read as such, the modern reader should be aware of the context in which Bunyan wrote each section.