Pilgrims Progress Lesson 1: Introduction & Overview

Jodi White

The Times of John Bunyan

To understand the life of John Bunyan, we must get a grasp of the political times of his day; they were very turbulent times.  He lived from 1628-1688.  Under King Charles I there was much opposition to Protestants (those not associating with the Church of England) and during that time 20,000 immigrants fled to the Puritan colonies of New England.  There was a civil war between those supporting the monarchy and those supporting Parliament.  Bunyan was drafted at just 16 years of age into the Parliamentary side.  Both Archbishop Laud & Charles I were subsequently executed and there followed parliamentary rule under the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell.  With this came a reprieve from religious persecution for a period of 11 years.  Upon Cromwell’s death, his son Richard stepped up to the plate, but was a weak leader; eventually the monarchy was restored along with religious persecution.  It was during this time that Bunyan was imprisoned in 1660 for holding religious meetings independent of the state sanctioned church.  Such dissenters faced imprisonment and even hanging.  It was not uncommon for their supporters/congregants to have the authorities come to seize the contents of their houses. 

The Life of John Bunyan

Born in 1628 to Thomas & Margaret Bunyan in Elstow, England.  They were of the poor working class.  His father was a tinker, a mender of pots and pans, a metal worker and taught his son, John, this trade.    John only had a 2nd grade education; he merely learned to read and write.  (AMAZING!)

Early on he linked up with bad companions and according to his own testimony, he became unrivaled in living a profane life.  As a young teen his mother died and within a couple of months his younger sister died.  His father quickly remarried.  Then at 16, he served in the civil war on the Parliamentary side.  He speaks of an incident that later had a great impact on him.  He was supposed to go to a place to besiege it, but another soldier asked to go in his stead.  That soldier was struck in the head with a musket bullet and died.  John recounts that time throughout his life as an amazing mercy of God in preserving his life since he was without God.

After a couple of years of duty, he returns to Elstow and at age 20, marries.  His wife’s name is unknown, though it is suspected that her name was “Mary” since his oldest child’s name was Mary; it was common in that day for oldest daughters to be named after their mother.  Bunyan recounts how they were so poor that they didn’t even have a bowl and spoon between them.  His wife brought nothing to the marriage except two books that had been given to her by her godly father:  Mr. Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and The Practice of Piety.  He and his wife would read these together. Along with this and her testimony of her godly father,  John experienced the beginnings of God’s work in his soul.

For a period of about 4 years John experienced intense spiritual struggle, which you can read about in his spiritual autobiography: “Grace Abounding To The Chief of Sinners”. As you read this book, you cannot help but see the link to his own experience to the places in Pilgrim’s Progress like The Valley of Humiliation, Doubting Castle, Slough of Despond, etc.  He was tortured by fear of death and hell to the point of paranoia.  God did have mercy on his soul and brought him to a place of peace in his standing with God through Christ.  God used an independent pastor named John Gifford to help and minister to him.  John was baptized and eventually moved to Bedford to be near the church.  He later served as a deacon there. 

His gift to teach/preach were recognized and he first preached in public in 1656, probably about 4 years after his conversion.  This was also the year that his literary career began with the publishing “Some Gospel Truths Opened”, which was his answer to a controversy with the Quakers of the day on the veracity and necessity of the Word of God.

Just 2 years later, his wife dies, leaving him with 4 children to care for, the oldest of which is Mary, his blind daughter, who was especially precious to him.    The next year he marries Elizabeth.  He was 31; she is thought to have been only 17 or 18.  Such age differences were common, but I point that out to note with amazement what this young girl took on.  Not only did she take on the care of 4 children, but the very next year her husband was imprisoned for 12 years and she was left with the care of them with no income.  AND…she is known for her tireless efforts to see her husband released, even travelling by herself to London, never having been there (55 miles away) to go before the magistrates and to bear ridicule by them, to plead for the release of her husband so that she and her children could be cared for.  Amazing godly young woman!  She was 30 years old when he was released in 1672.

Backtracking a bit here…he was arrested and imprisoned in 1660 for preaching without a license.  He was arrested at a gathering of believers just as he was getting ready to preach.  He knew that there was a warrant for his arrest and that he would more than likely be arrested that night.  He was urged by some to cancel the meeting, but refused.  He writes about his musings during this time, and he states that he did not want to dishonor God, wound his own conscience, or do anything to be a discouragement to God’s people.

Thus began 12 long years of imprisonment.  He was let out briefly on occasion and able to visit with his family.  He made shoe laces and sold them through the prison windows to passers-by to help care for his family.  I’ve always pictured him in a prison cell by himself, but some accounts I read have said that he was in a room full of prisoners.  I have not found reliable sources on what life was like in prisons during that time. (If you can find something, let me know!)  He did have the Scriptures and writing materials.

How was he able to endure all of this?  In his update of his autobiography he says this:

He quotes 2 Corinthians 1:9 where Paul says, "We had this sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God that raiseth the dead." Then he says,

By this scripture I was made to see that if ever I would suffer rightly, I must first pass a sentence of death upon every thing that can be properly called a thing of this life, even to reckon myself, my wife, my children, my health, my enjoyment, and all, as dead to me, and myself as dead to them. The second was, to live upon God that is invisible, as Paul said in another place; the way not to faint, is to "look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal."

He was released in 1672 and ordained as pastor of the Bedford church.  He was arrested and served a brief imprisonment of 6 months in 1677.  It is thought that this is actually when Pilgrim’s Progress was written.

It is said that his passion for souls in his preaching was unrivaled.  And he soon was in demand to preach in other places.  At that time in England, most ministers graduated from Cambridge or Oxford. The authorities continuously attacked his lack of education and knowledge of the Greek in order to discredit and demean him.  When Charles II asked John Owen, a prominent preacher, who had been the chaplain of Oliver Cromwell, why did he go to hear that tinker preach, he replied, “ “May it please your Majesty, could I possess the tinker’s ability for preaching, I would willingly relinquish all my learning.”

He died in 1688, at the age of 60, after getting sick while riding in a storm, making his way back from seeking to help facilitate reconciliation between a father and son.  His family probably didn’t even know of his illness until after he had died.

After reading fairly extensively about this man’s life, I am filled with amazement.  Amazed at the events of the time.  The climate of the day.  The suffering of God’s people.  The courage and perseverance of God’s people.  But most of all, amazed at the heart of John Bunyan.  I want to take just a few moments to look at his heart, his passion, and how we can be encouraged and inspired by it.


The Heart of John Bunyan….

1)      His heart for God:  “I will stay in prison till the moss grows on my eye lids rather than disobey God.”

In the days of pain, the Lord showed me how much flesh I still retain –– how prone I am to fear, sadness, worry, agitation, frustration, and doubt. Yet through it all, how wondrously beautiful are the reign of God over sin through the cross and all the gospel fruits that flow from it toward me: forgiveness, reconciliation, life, righteousness, help, true hope, peace, resolute joy, persevering strength, ears to hear the word and a heart to believe it, transformed desires that compel me and my family to follow God.”
John Bunyan

2)  His heart for his wife and children…“The parting with my wife and poor children hath oft been to me in [prison] as the pulling the flesh from my bones . . . especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides; O the thoughts of the hardships I thought my blind one might go under, would break my heart to pieces. Poor child, thought I, what sorrow must thou have for thy portion in this world? Thou must Blind Mary’s soup jug be beaten, must beg, suffer hunger, cold, nakedness, and a thousand calamities, though I cannot now endure the wind should blow upon thee.”

3)His heart the people under his ministry:

His heart for the souls of men is seen from his unswerving dedication to teaching and encouraging the people of God even in the face of persecution….his preaching even while knowing there was a warrant for his arrest, his preaching to prison crowds, his continued writing biblical material while in prison, his choice to go to prison rather than risk dishonoring God, wounding his own conscience, AND discouraging the people of God.

3)His knowledge of the Scriptures

John Bunyan was saturated with Scripture…..one cannot read any of his writings, including Grace Abounding and Pilgrim’s Progress without noticing just how much Scripture he uses…how he makes application of the Scripture to all of life.  And also his emphasis on the necessity of the Scriptures as our guide through this journey as seen in Christian…throughout his journey he was rarely without the Scroll in his hand.

As Charles Spurgeon later noted, “Why, this man Bunyan is a living Bible! Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the bible flows through him.  He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God.”


Pilgrim’s Progress Intro. Thoughts/Overview

Translated into more languages (over 200) than any other book except the Bible.

Written in the form of an allegory.  What is an allegory?  Def:  It is the expression of truths or generalizations about human existence by means of fictional figures and actions.

This book is a masterpiece of English literature.  It is arguably the greatest of Christian classics, and though written in the 1600’s (over 400 years ago), it is timeless in it’s relevance to Christians of all eras. 


Bunyan’s Apology For the Book:

The book begins with Bunyan’s ‘apology’ for the book itself.  ‘Apology’ in this context meaning a formal justification or defense.  He had some of his peers read it, asking for their opinion.  Some said ‘publish it’, some said ‘don’t.  It was the opinion of some in that day (especially among the ranks of the Puritans) that using allegory to communicate biblical truth would be viewing those truths in a frivolous manner…attaching fiction to Scripture.  In the end, Bunyan obviously opted to publish it and let it stand on it’s own merit.

I would suggest that you give the apology a careful reading (or 2 or 3!).  But I will break down his arguments or defense briefly for you here:

1) While it’s application is broad, reaching all Christians on their journey, the book is autobiographical.  It was born of Bunyan’s own experience.

2) It was born out of an effort to keep himself from idleness that was common to prison life.  Puritans preached against the dangers of idle time.  This writing effort kept Bunyan engaged and productive while sitting in prison.

3) Some of his book reviewers were pro and some were con.  The only real test was to have it published.

4) He points to the lessons in creation and nature…i.e. dark clouds, cunning fishermen, pearls in oysters, etc. as viable tools for learning.

5) He argues that the Bible itself uses “dark” sayings, allegory, and types to teach, establish, and illustrate truth.

6) It points out the way of salvation, the perils along the way, the means of grace God provides, and the entry into the desired haven: the Celestial City or Heaven.

7) He then gives a final invitation to enlist both head and heart (both required to reap full benefit of this allegory) in the reading/studying of this book.

Overview of Pilgrim’s Progress:

This is the story of a pilgrim.  By definition, a pilgrim is someone who journeys in far-away lands to a holy place.  This is the story of a pilgrim named “Christian” and his experience of entering in at the Wicket Gate and the steps of his journey, the trials, the perils, the temptations, the persecutions, the companions, the helps, the encouragements all the way to the desired end:  the Celestial City.  While the particular details may differ, there are similarities in our journey as we travel the same path.  This book gives us insight, instruction, and encouragement for the way.

“The Christian’s progress may be understood by the use of several metaphors.  It is a Pathway to be walked—one which is ever forward and ever upward.  It is a Battle to be fought—and won.  It is a Race to be run—and finished.  It is a Life to be lived—one which is never-ending.  It is a Journey to be made—and completed.  It is a Kingdom to be entered—through faith and patience.”  --Carolyn Staley, Meditations On Pilgrim’s Progress

Entrance into the Kingdom of God is surrounded by great difficulty.  The way is narrow and is only entered by faith.  And because of this, relatively few enter in at the “Wicket Gate”.  Pilgrim’s Progress is the narrative of those who enter in and the progressive development from their eyes being first opened all the way into the presence of Christ.

Relevance for Today

How relevant could a book written in the 17th century be for us today?  Times have changed!  Let’s review the names of some of the characters in PP and see if that helps us decide:

Mr. Worldly-Wiseman; Mr. Two-tongues; Mr. Facing-bothways, Mr. Money-love; Mr. Love-lust Lady Feigning Lord Fair-Speech; Atheist; Ignorance; Obstinate; Pliable; Giant Despair; Little-faith; Madam Wanton; Save-self; Hypocrisy; Prudence.

Case closed!