The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Psychology of Salvation

In The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream the universal struggle for meaning, here represented as salvation in the Celestial City, is demonstrated from the perspective of John Bunyan and his autobiographical everyman Christian. Bunyan achieves the expression of this struggle through the use of a complex allegory of the Christian life and the path to salvation. Bunyan’s spiritual journey reflects his internal psychological struggle with what he saw as his “past sin” and the flaws he found in himself. The Pilgrim’s Progress is, in this sense, a deeply autobiographical work. Bunyan is expressing, though the life of Christian, his own challenges, triumphs, and failures on the road to salvation.

John Bunyan’s early contact with spirituality and with the conflicts surrounding him during the English reformation are clearly visible within the allegory presented in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan’s largely normal and healthy early life1 concealed the deeper psychological and spiritual problems he harbored, problems which would be awakened by his pious first wife and his later contact with the English dissenters.2 His career as a preacher began under the influence of his wife in 1653 at the Bedford Meeting.3 These early days of Bunyan’s religious career led him to begin the psychological and theological odyssey that is the Christian life, culminating in his authorship of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is a rendering of Christian life,4 the allegory of the journey outlining the underlying psychological changes undergone in its course. Applied more widely to life in general, the “journey” Christian experiences can be seen in the quest for ultimate meaning and personal discovery. John Bunyan’s early life was characterized by both physical disease5 and mental illness,6 details of his inner life independent of his religious experience, but essential as catalysts of his personal growth. Depression and depressive ideas, as exemplified in the Slough of Despond, were important parts of Bunyan’s early life which he needed to overcome. Bunyan’s depression revolves around a kind of personal discovery and detachment from the sins of his past, this kind of Despond becoming relevant “when a man begins for the first time to think seriously about himself” and “the first thing that rises before him is a consciousness of his miserable past life.”7 The burden of past sins, as represented by a physical burden on Christian, is an important aspect of the journey being discussed in The Pilgrim’s Progress. It is more than a symbol of past sins, it is a deeper allegory for the past in general. In reading the book and listening to Evangelist, Christian becomes aware of the past and his sins within the past. I this sense, the burden which Bunyan sees as “an innumerable company of my sins and transgressions,”8 represents all of life prior to Christian’s rebirth in the Celestial city. It is in overcoming this burden that Christian reaches salvation in shedding himself of the burden of sin, but more broadly he finds meaning in the present by shedding himself of the burden of the past.

Beyond the complex psychological mire from which Bunyan drew his influence, he was informed by the geographic, political, and cultural environment in England.9 Bunyan’s nonconformist faith was in a tenuous balance with the Puritan and High-Anglican movements of his day. Early in life he fought alongside the Puritans in the Parliamentary Army, helping to expel King Charles I. Under the Puritan-controlled Parliament of Oliver Cromwell, dissenters like Bunyan were largely allowed to practice independently of government control. It was with the rise of Charles II to the throne that life for dissenters and nonconformists of all stripes became much more difficult. Forced underground by laws prohibiting the public preaching of non-ordained or non-Anglican ministers, openly dissenting preachers like Bunyan were imprisoned en masse.10 It was during just such a prison sentence that Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Religious dissent grew in England in direct correlation to the English Civil War. During Puritan rule while dissenters and nonconformists were free to practice, many like Bunyan flocked to their numbers. It was under the returned monarch Charles II that the role of religious dissenters in religious and political matters in England was solidified.11 Movements of dissent covered wide regions including most of England and Wales,12 being well established by the time of Bunyan’s conversion.13 Prior to the eventual crackdown on non-Anglican practices by Charles II, nonconformism and dissent had been promoted in rural areas outside of the Church’s control in order to prevent the expansion of Catholicism.14 With his roots such a frantically divisive and politically unstable period, Bunyan’s role as a controversialist is probably to be expected. He remained “irritated when reminded of his humble birth,” and “reproached the privileged of this world,”15 and he worked in economic and political agitation against commercial dishonesty, fraud, and corruption in the government and in companies.16 Both under Parliament and the Monarch, Bunyan was both a political and religious dissident, all of which was informed by his faith and his search for purpose. The complex underlying conflicts of his conscience went hand-in-hand with his place as an outspoken author and preacher, and “his ethics were the fruit of his religion.”17

Part of Bunyan’s earliest influence was his disagreement with those around him. “The disagreement among Bunyan’s friends is easily explicable”18 in the sense that Bunyan uses both his poetic and doctrinal work to argue his own points against those who disagree with him. Bunyan was further in conflict with those around him who were not his friends, demonstrated in his mixed views on the neighbors of Christian.19 Bunyan was boisterously active in the fight against those whom he saw as “all talk or show, and no action,”20 leading him into conflict with Quakers, Anglicans, dissenters, and many others.21 His primary targets were those who he felt hampered others chances of spiritual achievement or of finding salvation. These characters in his own life became the antagonists of The Pilgrim’s Progress, contributing to his own rich allegory of personal growth under communal influence.

The essential nature of the community in Bunyan’s image of the Christian life is visible in his depiction of Christian’s neighbors and of those whom he encounters along the path to the Celestial City. Early on the pilgrimage, characters such as Pliable, Obstinate, Fearing and others serve to either hold back or otherwise prevent Christian from continuing on his pilgrimage to the Celestial City. Pliable demonstrates Bunyan’s criticism of the vapid faith of those who can be swayed to enthusiastic devotion to a cause, but who stop at the nearest sign of danger.22 Pliable’s attitude, “rather than a valorization of neighborliness, . . . becomes a point of satire in Bunyan’s text.”23 Later figures such as Little-Faith serve to solidify Bunyan’s sense of neighbors and surroundings as more challenging than helpful. Along with figures like Atheist and others, Little-Faith is an example of a character actually driving Christian backward rather than onward on his journey.24 The conflict with those around him which Christina is forced to undergo along his pilgrimage culminates with his battle against Apollyon, “Christian panoplied in heavenly mail,/O’ercame Apollyon in that fearful fight.”25 The final victory in battle represents a substantial shift in the way Christian relates to his enemies and friends, another important feature of his psychological journey. Much of Bunyan’s work prior to his imprisonment consisted of sermons and doctrinal critiques.26 These works were most essentially an expression of his political and social concerns, but they link these concerns to his religious feelings. Bunyan felt he had a gift as a preacher, and her sought to share that gift with the world through his early works of doctrinal nonfiction.27 His growth from largely doctrinal and religious writing to the work of novel-writing in The Pilgrim’s Progress and his later work shows a shift in Bunyan’s way of approaching religion, this is the shift to allegory. In her work “Trope and Truth in The Pilgrim’s Progress,” Machosky compares Bunyan’s shift from doctrinal to allegorical works to the “fall from the realm of heaven and true light into the dark and profane world in which we live.”28 Bunyan must bring his work from the heavenly heights of doctrinal discussion and nonfiction down to a level at which average people might understand his inner thoughts. This is both a technical and spiritual shift in Bunyan’s life in the sense that he is changing fundamentally the way he approaches his deepest spiritual concerns.

Allegory in The Pilgrim’s Progress plays a central role in the development of the plot and in the creation of the more complex details of the deeper meanings. Bunyan’s inner spiritual life is fleshed out in the complex allegorical system he creates. Allegory was not widely used in Protestant circles during Bunyan’s time, especially among Calvinists. Calvin saw the danger in allegory lying in the difficulty of fully grasping the allegorical intent of the work. Bunyan was fully immersed in Calvinist religious traditions throughout his life, and to break with their traditional views of allegory represents another important feature of the spiritual and psychological premise underlying The Pilgrim’s Progress. In this sense, it is possible to see Bunyan’s broader spiritual and psychological journey through both the story of Christian in the novel, but also through the story of how the novel came to be. It is both a shift in the subject and style of his work, and it is a doctrinally questionable departure from traditional methods of expressing this journey. The allegory of The Pilgrim’s Progress becomes more and more difficult to fully grasp with the passage of time, and Bunyan’s own fears about the misinterpretation of his work are clear in the many detailed explanations and addenda to his work provided, in poetic form before the work, in his Biblical references, and in the form of a sequel about Christian’s wife and family.29 It is the proper reading of the allegory that is most important to Bunyan because “Bunyan’s primary interest is not with an emblematic tradition or poetic glory, but rather. . . as a means of pointing toward intangible qualities that he believed man needed most.” Bunyan’s introductory apology for his allegorical “dream” is probably most indicative of his hesitance to dive headlong into an allegorical piece,30 but his insistence on using this method shows its necessity in a full understanding of Bunyan’s journey. As a literary trope, “allegory cannot be completely controlled,”31 and is thus sometimes a less than desirable system for expression. The Pilgrim’s Progress exhibits both the primary weakness and the central beauty of allegory as a literary tool and social trope in the sense that it approaches its reader in a way that is at once completely free of the author’s control and deeply rooted in the author’s psychological being.

An important key to the functionality of Bunyan’s allegory in the expression of his psychological premise is the role of Christian as the everyman.32 “The objective of Bunyan’s work is to make a traveler of anyone who follows its course.” Bunyan forces the reader to confront his own sin and psychological struggle by making him “an armchair pilgrim.”33 It was essential to draw together the reader and Christian in the sense that Christian is both an autobiographical character and an everyman because it brings together the psychological struggles of Bunyan and the psychological struggles of the reader. This feature is what makes Bunyan’s allegory so successful. Despite the difficulty of later interpretation, there is a deeper level of understanding available to the reader by placing the reader in Christian’s shoes.34 This close relationship between Bunyan and his readers allows for both a full understanding of Bunyan’s psychological and theological points and a deeper self relation of the reader to the work.

The use of movement as a point of allegory in Bunyan’s work is part of how the internal changes of the individual are described.35 The individual is on a path, taking a journey from blindness and meaninglessness to salvation. The question “why standest thou still?”36 Is posed to the reader as central to the understanding of Bunyan’s intent. When all possibility of salvation and escape from destruction are offered, why does the average person remain as he is? This is part of what Bunyan tackles in The Pilgrim’s Progress by saddling the reader with his own burden of sin. By helping the reader to understand the deeper struggle of Bunyan’s spiritual life, characters like Evangelist and Good Will in pushing Christian along the path to the Celestial City mirror Bunyan himself, or at least as he sees himself, in the capacity of a preacher guiding sinners to salvation.37

The universal struggle for meaning and salvation, as approached by Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress, is essential to his spiritual development and to the growth and completion of the Christian life. John Bunyan’s use of allegory is essential because it condenses the deep psychological suffering of one without salvation, one who live in the past and wallows in the mire of his sin, into a more tangible, physical journey from one point to another. This method allows the reader to more fully grasp Bunyan’s own flaws and triumphs, and it draws in the reader to an understanding of his own sin and psychological struggles. The journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City is one which every man and woman must make in life, and Bunyan captures the essential nature of such a journey by expressing the trials and tribulations of not only the Christian life, but of any examined and well-lived life. This is the essential character of the work, and it is the underlying truth of Christian life.

1 Josiah Royce, The Case of John Bunyan (Detroit: U of Michigan, 1976) 26.
2 Adam Sills, “‘Mr. Bunyan’s Neighborhood’ and the Geography of Dissent” (Detroit: Literature Resource Center, 2010) 1.
3 Royce 26.
4 Julia Roller, ed., 25 Books Every Christian Should Read (New York: Harper Collins, 2011) 193.
5 Royce 27.
6 Daniel Gibson Jr., “On the Genesis of Pilgrim’s Progress” (Detroit: Literature Resource Center, 2010) 4.
7 James Anthony Froude, Bunyan (New York: AMS Press, 1968) 156.
8 Stanley Eugene Fish, “Progress in The Pilgrim’s Progress” (Detroit: Literature Resource Center, 2010) 3.
9 Sills 4.
10 Froude 68.
11 Sills 3.
12 Sills 1.
13 Sills 2.
14 Sills 1-2.
15 Henri Talon, John Bunyan- The Man and His Works (Cambridge: Harvard U, 1951) 282-283.
16 Talon 288. 17 Talon 272-274.
18 Froude 154
19 Royce 33
20 Richard H. Schmidt, God Seekers (Grand Rapids:William B. Erdmans Publishing,2008) 206.
21 Talon 94.
22 Alexander Whyte, Bunyan Characters: First Series (Edinburgh: Project Gutenberg, 2005) 29.
23 Sills 23.
24 – – -, Bunyan Characters: Second Series (Edinburgh: Project Gutenberg, 2005) 29.
25 Bernard Barton, “Lines on Seeing the Portrait of John Bunyan” (Detroit: Literature Resource Center, 2010) 2.
26 Fish 3.
27 Talon 106.
28 Brenda Machosky, “Trope and Truth in The Pilgrim’s Progress” (Detroit: Literature Resource Center, 2010) 1.
29 Machosky 4.
30 Machosky 8.
31 Machosky 5.
32 Roller 193.
33 Machosky 6.
34 Roller 194. 35 Gibson 6.
36 Fish 4.
37 Gibson 3.


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