The Enduring Appeal of The Pilgrim’s Progress
by Grace Collins Hargis, Ph.D.
In most of the world, only the Bible has been more widely read than John Bunyan’s story of The Pilgrim’s Progress. This classic allegory of the Christian life has appeared in well over four thousand English-language editions and has been translated into scores of other languages. Generation after generation has found blessing and help in its pages.
Why all this popularity, and what does it mean for you? Everyone enjoys a story, and the story of Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City communicates truth in a powerful and memorable way. Through realistic characters and events, it shows the need for salvation and the importance of staying on the path of faith and right living. Being centered in the experience of the believer (rather than the mysteries of the mind of God), it naturally focuses on the essentials of the Christian faith and thus has a universal appeal.
One might think that all believers have somewhat the same religious experience, but John Bunyan saw variety. A pastor and a close observer of individuals, Bunyan gave his three main characters—Christian, Faithful,and Hopeful—different weaknesses, different strengths, and certain different experiences. Surely everyone, believer or not, can find elements of himself somewhere in this story.
Bunyan was a man of the people who wrote for the common man. The narration is written in a relaxed conversational style, and the dialogue often reflects the informal, lively language used by rural common folk of seventeenth-century England. The work also reflects the viewpoint of common people. Christian, Faithful, and Hopeful are all commoners, and most of the upper-class characters are either evil or deluded, such as the judge Lord Hate-Good and the deceiver Mr. Worldly Wiseman.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is also appealing because of its literary characteristics. As an allegory (with realistic characters and events representing spiritual truths), it is neither a fable nor a novel; but its characters and narrative make it an important forerunner of the novel. Like the parables of the Bible, the story points outside itself; yet Bunyan made his major characters and many of his minor characters both lifelike and varied.
Equally important, its narrative method and its dramatic scenes make it an interesting story. In fact, even though some of the material in the dialogues makes it clear that Bunyan was writing for adults—the plain people in the pews—yet through the years a number of children’s versions have been produced with a focus mainly on the dramatic scenes.
What does all this mean to you as a home educator? As someone who has studied and taught the work and who has had the privilege (and blessing) of preparing a Teacher’s Guide for it, let me make a few observations in Q&A style.
Q: Is The Pilgrim’s Progress still relevant today?
A: Yes, it is still clear and powerful in dealing with the important issues of life, including salvation by faith, assurance, the temptations of the world, the Christian’s armor, resisting flattery, the benefits of Christian fellowship, and the difference between spiritual-sounding talk and spiritual reality.
Q: What level of student can profit from this work?
A: We recommend it for high-school students, especially those in tenth grade and above. It is also suitable for Sunday school or small-group study for midteens and above. The Teacher’s Guide to The Pilgrim’s Progress provides resources and gives suggestions.
Q: Is the language too old-fashioned for my child?
A: That depends. If he or she is already familiar with the King James Version of the Bible or with other literature of the 1600s (such as Shakespeare), Bunyan’s language will not seem strange. On the other hand, if your young person is ready for a good first experience in reading literature of this era, you can give him access to the Teacher’s Guide, which has word definitions and brief content notes in the margins next to the text. Also, the Teacher’s Guide suggests some simple things you can do to help your student get a good start in the work.
Q: What about younger children?
You might read a single episode in the story to a younger child, talking with him about the meaning and how it relates to his life. Or look for a good children’s version, promising the “real thing” when he’s ready for it.
About Grace Collins Hargis, Ph.D.
Grace Collins Hargis, Ph.D., teaches at Bob Jones University, where she chairs the Linguistics Department. Over the years she has contributed to the BJU Press secondary-level Writing and Grammar series and has written teacher’s guides to four book-length works of literature.
(includingThe Pilgrim’s Progress Teacher's Guide.)