Next to the Bible, the best-loved and most-read book during the first three hundred years of American colonial and national life was John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Its plot was familiar to every school child. Its characters became cultural icons. Its imagery was seamlessly woven into the art, music, literature, and ideas of the people.
The opening lines of the saga were etched into the memories of untold thousands and became a kind of yard-stick against which to measure literary and devotional excellence: “As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep, and as I slept I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold I saw a man clothed in rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden on his back. I looked and saw him open the book, and read therein; and as he read he wept and trembled, and not being able to longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying: What shall I do?”
First published on this day in 1678, the vivid allegory detailed the trials and tribulations of a young man named Christian as he made his way through the treacherous world. He was a pilgrim—journeying toward his ultimate home, the Celestial City. Along the way he passed through such tempestuous places as Vanity Fair, the Slough of Despond, Strait Gate, the Hill of Difficulty, Delectable Mountains, By-Path Meadow, Lucre Hill, Doubting Castle, and Mount Caution. Those inhospitable locales were populated by a variety of carefully drawn villains such as Obstinate, Pliable, Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, Mistrust, Timorous, Wanton, Talkative, Envy, Mr. Money-Love, Faint-Heart, and Little-Faith. Despite the fact that he was helped from time to time by a whole host of heroic characters such as Evangelist, Faithful, Good Will, Hopeful, Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere, the hapless pilgrim had to struggle through one difficulty or distraction after another. Again and again he was forced to decide between compromise or faithfulness, between accommodation with the world or holy perseverance, between the wide way to destruction or the narrow road to glory. After overcoming a number of chilling risks and hazards, the story was ultimately resolved--like virtually all great classic works of literature--with a happy ending.
Though written in a coarse, speech-pattered prose--a far cry from the polite literary convention of the seventeenth century--the book was almost immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece of imagination and inspiration. Even those Christians who chafed a bit at Bunyan's gallant Puritan theology, his stalwart Calvinistic doctrine, and his intrepid Non-Conformist practice readily identified with his beautifully realized vision of life in this poor fallen world. What appeared on the surface to be little more than an episodic series of adventures or a blithe narrative of folk-tale ups and downs, was in fact, a penetrating portrayal of the universal human experience.
Pilgrim's Progress struck a nerve. As literary critic Roger Sharrock said, “A seventeenth-century Calvinist sat down to write a tract and produced a folk-epic of the universal religious imagination instead.”