John Bunyan wrote a little book. His little book ranks as the second best selling book of all time, after the Bible. In a cold and filthy prison, surrounded by despair and death, John Bunyan dreamed a dream. He scratched out the words of an allegory and he called it Pilgrim’s Progress. His work has been so influential that every homeschooler, even every Christian, should read and know John Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress.
John Bunyan’s Early Life
John Bunyan lived during one of the most tumultuous times in British history. He was born in Elstow, and baptized in the church as an infant on November 30, 1628. His father was a tinkerer, or a repairer of pots and pans and kitchen utensils. In 1644 the First Civil War began. Oliver Cromwell and members of Parliament fought against King Charles I and those loyal to the throne. In 1647 Bunyan marched to war, most likely in the Parliamentary Army. After seeing little action, he returned home to marry and take up his father’s profession. He and his wife settled in a tiny cottage in Elstow. Their first daughter, Mary, was born in 1650 and was blind. Imagine him walking the countryside plying his trade and playing sports with the other young men on the village green. Then see him coming inside the cottage, sitting by the fire with the baby, and taking up a book.
His wife brought two small Christian books to their home when they married. After reading these, the Scriptures, and listening to the preaching of the Word, Bunyan was converted. In 1653 he joined John Gifford’s dissenting congregation in Bedford. Soon he moved his family across the River Great Ouse and into Bedford. Then in 1656 he became a pastor of the congregation and wrote the first of 58 books. In 1657 his first wife died and Bunyan married his second wife Elizabeth.
John Bunyan’s Arrest and Imprisonment
One night in 1660, Bunyan planned to preach at a secret meeting in a farmhouse. He received a warning that the authorities knew of the meeting and planned to arrest him. Never one to back down from a fight, he chose to preach that night. The authorities arrested and tried him. John Bunyan spent the next twelve years in the Bedford jail.
The jail was cold and bleak, and the jailer required prisoners to pay fees. Bunyan was a poor man with a wife and five children. While in jail he made shoelaces as one small way to support his family. Little Mary Bunyan, his blind daughter, brought him a jug of soup each day until her death in 1663. However, the jailer allowed Bunyan some freedoms. John Bunyan at times left the jail to preach, once traveling as far as London. After his release in 1672, Bunyan returned to his role as pastor and husband, then spent more time in jail in 1676-77.
Nathaniel Ponder of London published Pilgrim’s Progress Part I in 1678. There were eleven editions published during Bunyan’s lifetime, often cheaply printed and bound in plain brown sheep leather. These were books intended for the homes of the poor, not the bookshelves of a wealthy man’s library.
John Bunyan died in 1688 and his grave is at Bunhill Fields in London, a dissenting burial ground.
Reading John Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress with children
Although written in the seventeenth century, Pilgrim’s Progress is written in conversational, straightforward language. That does not mean it is easy reading. Our modern minds may need time and repetition to get used to it. But once you have adjusted to the flow of the language, I think anyone can understand it.
Following the advice of Ambleside Online I attempted to read Pilgrim’s Progress in the original language to my small children. My children understood the book just fine, or readily accepted that they could not understand everything. But I was bogging down in the book and getting lost. I needed to train my mommy brain.
Then we were given Little Pilgrim’s Progress by Helen Taylor. This is a wonderful retelling of Pilgrim’s Progress. The story is not just a modern language adaptation. Helen Taylor obviously knew and loved Pilgrim’s Progress, and was an excellent writer. Reading it aloud is delightful. I read it aloud to each child when they were very young, and I was enriched and encouraged each time. (By the way: this version has a “new look” and “fresh illustrations.” I haven’t seen them. We have a much older version. If you don’t care for the illustrations, just hold the book so your kids can’t see them. Or find an older version.)
If you cannot read the original to your children, at least put in the effort to choose an excellent retelling of the story. There are countless versions available, and they are not all good. My preference is to avoid anything that looks like a cartoon or shortens the text to the length of a picture book instead of a chapter book.
Unabridged Versions of Pilgrim’s Progress
Now that you are familiar with the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, go ahead and try the original. Your mommy brain will adapt to seventeenth century English. It is okay, even good for you, to read a book you do not understand in its entirety the first time you read it! John Bunyan was a genius with language. He used funny word pairings that make me laugh. If you choose an abridged version I bet you miss out on at least half of that.
Read the book in short sections and talk about it with your kids. I did this with my kids when they were in upper elementary. Then when my kids were in high school I had them read Pilgrim’s Progress, unabridged, on their own. None of them has had any problem with it. All their other homeschool reading prepared them for it.
The Penguin Classics version of Pilgrim’s Progress is a budget friendly option. There are notes at the back that explain words from the text.
An even better option is from Banner of Truth. This is a hardback version with black and white etchings. There are notes and Scripture references in the margins. I love having the Scripture references there. You will quickly see that Bunyan was continuously thinking of the Bible as he wrote. If you are less familiar with Scripture than John Bunyan was, references in the margin may be helpful.
Charles Spurgeon said, “I would quote John Bunyan as an instance of what I mean. Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like reading the Bible itself. He had read it till his very soul was saturated with Scripture; and, though his writings are charmingly full of poetry, yet he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress—that sweetest of all prose poems — without continually making us feel and say, “Why, this man is a living Bible!” Prick him anywhere—his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God.”
Other books by John Bunyan
Honestly, I could recommend quite a few. I’ll limit myself to just three others.
Divine Emblems is a book of poems John Bunyan wrote for children. Each poem draws on an everyday scene (from seventeenth century England) and uses it to convey a spiritual truth. I love this little peek back into history. I didn’t hear about it until my children were much older, so I can’t tell you how much kids will enjoy it. You should be able to find the poems free online if you do a little research. And you can print out coloring pages from Bunyan Ministries.
Holy War is another allegory about man’s fall and redemption. God and the Devil wage war over the city of Mansoul. Ambitious teen boys might like this one. I couldn’t find a great version, so this link is to an unabridged version with an ugly cover. Sigh.
Finally, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. This is John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography and it is amazing! Do not expect a typical modern biography with dated episodes. You might even finish and not know exactly when he became a Christian. But we have a lot to learn from him concerning spirituality. I consider this a must read – especially for moms. Again, this version doesn’t look amazing but it’s the best I could do.
Biographies of John Bunyan
Fearless Pilgrim by Faith Cook is an excellent, detailed biography written for adults. It is clear and straightforward. If you want to learn more about John Bunyan than you ever dreamed possible, this is the book for you.
A Pilgrim Path is a new biography of John Bunyan by Faith Cook written to be accessible to every reader. I have not read it, but based on her other book I expect it to be excellent.
A book to avoid
I usually keep my book reviews positive. I just will not mention books I do not like. You can assume I have missed them, or never read them. Here is one exception to that general rule:
The Tinker’s Daughter by Wendy Lawton is based on the few facts we know about Mary Bunyan, the blind daughter who brought soup to her father in jail. This could be the basis for an amazing story.
Instead Mary Bunyan befriends a gypsy girl and leads her to Christ. Sounds touching, taking the gospel to the Roma people and being willing to endure the cultural disgrace that would bring. Here’s the problem: Bunyan wrote that the gypsies went about “in naughty wise the country to defile.” For Mary to befriend a Roma child would not only have been unlikely, it would have been an act of disobedience to her father. This story line also underestimates the social fabric of village life in the 1600’s. Your neighbors were watching and they kept you in line. The desire to share the gospel with every people and being willing to buck social stigma to do so is most definitely not a value of Puritan England.
Have your kids read great history. Have them read great fiction. This book is neither. And it drives me crazy that homeschool catalogs would recommend this.
One more resource
The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Guided Tour by Derek Thomas is a video teaching series produced by Ligonier Ministries. If you have Amazon Prime, this is free. The series is designed for adults, but teens who are reading through Pilgrim’s Progress will also enjoy it. Derek Thomas walks you through some of the theological truths of Christian’s journey.
Get to know John Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress
Get to know John Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress and you will be forever thankful that you did. Do not let difficulty stop you. Read and read again. Soon Pilgrim’s Progress will be one of your favorite books, just as it has been for millions of other Christians from 1678 onward.