This essay considers the enduring legacy of the great seventeenth-century allegory by John Bunyan and why we still need to read (and re-read) it today. 
One of the most published and widely recognized books of all time is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Since its first appearance in 1678, the impact of Bunyan’s masterpiece on the Church of Jesus Christ is incalculable. The famous 19th century poet preacher C. H. Spurgeon read The Pilgrim’s Progress over one hundred times during his lifetime, and he regularly encouraged saints to read and re-read it. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, called The Pilgrim’s Progress “a book that has astonished the whole world.” Even the famous twentieth century agnostic playwright, George Bernard Shaw, stated that Bunyan’s novel greatly influenced him (he had portions of it read at his funeral), and Shaw believed it surpassed the works of William Shakespeare in quality, form and style.
John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory, meaning that the characters, settings and events in the book hold symbolic significance beyond the story itself. The story represents a Christian’s journey of faith by following the adventures of a redeemed pilgrim, who was once named “Graceless” but who now bears the name “Christian.” Like all who call on the name of the Lord, Christian is fleeing his hometown (named “The City of Destruction”) and he is heading toward the wonderful City of God. Along the “narrow” way, he encounters many temptations, many foes of his faith, and many faithful friends, each symbolizing the real challenges all Christians face and the real help God gives his people as they seek to live according to the Way.
Although it is a work of marvellous fiction, The Pilgrim’s Progress is biblically saturated: there are over two hundred direct quotations from the Bible, as well as countless paraphrases, references and allusions. About Bunyan’s biblical richness, Spurgeon states, “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.”
One of the great strengths of Bunyan’s book is its ability to convey complicated theological truths in a clear and simple way. C.S. Lewis praises Bunyan’s unencumbered style of writing: “the light is sharp; it never comes through stained glass.” In other words, Bunyan preaches without being “preachy;” he exposes human sin and foolishness without a “holier-than-thou” disposition. Nevertheless, there is no “tickling of ears” here: sin is squarely addressed as loathsome to God, and Bunyan’s characters—who bear names reflecting their wickedness and folly—are clearly condemned. The difference is that Bunyan gives us warnings in a sincere, compassionate and humble manner. He writes with the heart of a pastor who lovingly cares for his flock.
Beyond its richness in theological truths and spiritual applications, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a superb story—that is, entertaining, engaging and exciting. Leland Ryken, Professor Emeritus of Literature at Wheaton College, notes that “the book is like Homer’s Odyssey or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—a continuous series of narrow escapes and threatening ordeals.”
Similar to life itself, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress contains moments of electrifying adventure, deep despair, great delight, gripping sadness and enjoyable humour. Woven into the fabric of his story, Bunyan beautifully entwines the spiritual, psychological and physical aspects of the human and Christian experience; with biblical insight into the heart of humanity, Bunyan portrays an admonishing, encouraging and instructive narrative of what it means to be a real Christian in this world. Pick it up, read it, enjoy it and learn from it!
 Originally published in Barnabas Spring 2014 edition; this essay also appears in my book, All Things New: Essays on Christianity, culture & the arts (Joshua Press, 2018).
 Thomas Spurgeon, introduction to C.H. Spurgeon, Pictures from The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1992), 5.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: Comprising the Case for Christianity, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 75.
 E.E. Stokes, “Bernard Shaw's Debt to John Bunyan,” The Shaw Review 8, no. 2 (1965), 42–51, www.jstor.org/stable/40682054.
 Thomas Spurgeon, introduction to C.H. Spurgeon, Pictures from The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1992), 6.
 C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 148.
 Leland Ryken, Christian Guides to the Classics: Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 13.
ABOVE LEFT: Readers who are less familiar with the King James Version of the Bible may have difficulty with the original seventeenth-century English edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress. There are, however, many updated and revised versions of The Pilgrim’s Progress available today. Recommended Edition: The Pilgrim’s Progress in Modern English revised by L. Edward Hazelbaker—“sensitively revised for the 21st century reader”—which includes explanatory notes, a timeline and a study guide.
ABOVE RIGHT: Christian Reading in His Book (William Blake: Plate 2, 1824–27)
Marriage and family form a major thread throughout Anne Bradstreet’s poetry. She wrote touching and beautiful poems to her husband and about her children. She also wrote letters and journals of collected wisdom specifically for her sons and daughters to read and benefit from long after she passed on to glory. Living in what modern feminists might class an oppressively patriarchal society, it boggles the minds of some scholars how Anne Bradstreet could be so progressive yet so contentedly traditional as a woman, mother, and wife. She was a poet—at a time when few women were—who wrote on a range of subjects: history, politics, religion, culture, spirituality. Yet, she also wrote tenderly about the blessings of marital and maternal obligations.
The 20th-century American poet, Adrienne Rich, writes that Anne was “devotedly, even passionately married” to Simon Bradstreet. Many contemporary readers of Anne Bradstreet are surprised by this. She was only 16 years old when she married Simon while still living in England. Though he was nine years her senior, he was well known to Anne because he worked with Anne’s father and had spent considerable time with Anne’s family over the years. Simon had much to recommend him to her as well: he was the son of a minister, he was a Cambridge man, and he was highly esteemed by both his employers and the family. One of Anne’s biographers notes that despite their age difference, there is every indication that Simon had only respect for Anne’s intellect and opinions. His love for her is evident in their forty-four-year love story that defies modern mistaken views of Puritans and their attitudes toward marital life.
A number of Anne’s best poems corroborate the depth of their relationship, revealing her unwavering love and commitment to her husband. Despite Bradstreet’s love poetry and the effusive personal love letters of other Puritans, there persists a negative view of Puritan matrimony, that they were literally “puritanical” in the pejorative sense—that is, stodgy, stifled, and opposed to sex. The use of the word “puritanical” is actually an anachronistic, inaccurate, and derogatory term that is more reflective of Victorian society than English Puritanism. On the present-day view of Puritans as “moss-backed moralists,” Church historian Bruce L. Shelley writes, “In modern times, marked by zeal for individual rights and sexual freedom, ‘puritan’ has come to mean ‘holy Joe,’ a religious snob, filled with fears of sex, who does his best to keep people from having fun.” Nothing is further from the truth.
Anne’s love poems—written originally for her husband’s eyes only—indicate a genuinely loving relationship with Simon, which seems to have included a healthy sex life. Bradstreet’s love poems are powerful and, at times, sexually charged. The poems are not erotic, nor are they crass or graphic; however, her poetry exudes a beautiful and intimate affection for her husband. The style and tone is in keeping with the visceral and affectionate love exchanges found in the Song of Solomon. For example, in “A Letter to her Husband, absent upon public employment,” she makes reference to her husband as a “magazine.” A magazine is a military warehouse for securing explosive materials, such as gunpowder. Although the metaphor is hyperbolic (i.e., using exaggeration for effect), it does allude to an explosive emotional and physical relationship. She goes on to describe her children as the “fruit of thy heat”—that is her husband’s heat as the metaphorical sun—as well as other references to physical closeness that she has with Simon. This and her other love poems reveal the intimacy and genuine pleasure Anne and her husband enjoyed together. Anne’s transparency of her relationship with Simon should not be surprising; these endearing love poems were not intended for publication, but rather they were meant for Simon’s eyes only. Thankfully these beautiful albeit private love poems were published posthumously with the permission of Anne’s heirs. Nevertheless, her descriptions are mild compared to today’s penchant for being explicit and shocking, but they still reveal the high view Puritans had for matrimony and their appreciation for sexual relations within the marriage bed. The Editors of Christian History Magazine concur, noting that Anne Bradstreet’s “writings debunk the myth of the stodgy, prudish Puritan so long a part of the American psyche.”
The love Anne and Simon had for each other is further acknowledged by Simon’s four-year delay in remarrying after the death of Anne in 1672. To our contemporary society, four years isn’t very long at all. But for 17th-century New England, four years was an unusually long gap for a widower to remain unmarried. Part of the reason most people had speedy remarriages in those days was because a spouse was an essential partnership for survival; wives in particular played a crucial role in managing all aspects of the household operations as well as rearing the children. Simon’s delay is a testimony of his heartbreak and his great love for Anne.
Another indicator of their loving relationship was the fact that Simon encouraged Anne to exercise her gifts as a writer and poet. Although life was demanding and difficult, Simon was supportive of Anne’s writing, which she began in earnest when they moved to the fledgling wilderness community of Ipswich in 1635. The remote village was surprisingly fertile ground for her writing, and “she wrote most of her poetry while living there from 1635 to 1644.” The isolation from social engagements as well as the beauty of nature gave Bradstreet ample opportunity to read and to write. In the book, American Puritans, the authors note that “Anne did not relish the fact of moving yet again, especially to the far-flung outreaches of the colony, but she would soon discover that her greatest writing would come to fruition in this new wilderness.” That was indeed the case. The bulk of her first published book of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650), was written during the Ipswich stage of her life. Over the course of their life in the New World, the Bradstreet family moved to two wilderness communities; first Ipswich and finally to Andover (1644–1672). While in Andover, Bradstreet not only revised her first published book but also wrote some of her best poems, which would be published after her death in 1672.
Not only was Simon supportive of Anne’s poetry, but it seems the Puritan community on both sides of the Atlantic praised her talents as a poet as well. Many subsequent critics have made much ado about Bradstreet exerting “rebellious” qualities by becoming a poet and going against the supposed puritanical patriarchy. However, the overwhelming support of many Puritan leaders and ministers for Anne’s writing contravenes this presumption. In the 1650 edition of her book of poems, there are no less than twelve pages of endorsements by fellow Puritans and several “prefatory verses by admirers.” The praise for Anne and her poetry is overwhelmingly positive and effusive. Although the Puritans did have clearly defined roles for men and women within their community, it was within the biblical concepts of submission and sacrifice articulated not only for families and marriages, but society as a whole. For example, children submit to parents (Proverbs 6:20; Colossians 3:20), wives respect and submit to husbands (Ephesians 5:22, 33; Colossians 3:18), husbands love their wives and submit to elders, employers, governments (Colossians 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 2:18; Romans 13:1; 1 Corinthians 11:3), the church submits to each other and to Christ (Ephesians 5:21–24), and Christ submits to God (1 Corinthians 11:3; Philippians 2:5–9; Hebrews 5:8). The Bible views submission as a beautiful and profoundly Christian concept modelled perfectly in Jesus Christ himself. The Puritans sought to live out this vision of sacrifice, submission, and love in all levels of their society. This isn’t to say that the Puritans didn’t miss the mark on certain areas of community life. American Puritans have a controversial and mixed record with the way they addressed religious differences (e.g., Quakers, Baptists), outspoken outliers (e.g., Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson) and, of course, the infamous Salem witch-hunts and trials. Nevertheless, viewing the Puritans though the lens of the simplistic paradigm of oppressor and oppressed fails to incorporate the rich reality of life as “worldly saints”—Christians who sought to live Christ-centric, biblical, God-honouring, and abundant lives both in this life and hoping in the next (John 10:10).
Despite their flaws, the Puritans were a remarkable group, who helped to produce the ideals of the America nation, as well as produce remarkable poets on both sides of the Atlantic, including Anne Bradstreet, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Edmund Spenser, and John Bunyan. It’s important to note that Bradstreet as a female poet did not emerge in spite of her puritan upbringing, but in many ways, because of it. C.S. Lewis writes, “We must picture these Puritans as the very opposite of those who bear the name today: as young, fierce, progressive intellectuals, very fashionable and up-to-date.” Without a doubt, Lewis’s description of Puritans describes very well the person and work of Anne Bradstreet.
 Adrienne Rich, “Anne Bradstreet and Her Poetry” in The Works of Anne Bradstreet Edited by Jeannine Henley (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard UP, 2010), xi.
 D. B. Kellogg, Anne Bradstreet (Nashville: Nelson, 2010), 12
 See, for example, “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” “A Letter to her Husband, absent upon public employment,” “Phoebus, make haste,” and “As loving hind” included in this volume.
 Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 292.
 For a refreshing overview of the positive and rich view of Christian marriage in church history, see the collection of love letters edited by Michael A.G. Haykin and Victoria J. Haykin, titled The Christian Lover: The Sweetness of Love and Marriage in the Letters of Believers (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2009).
 Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, eds., “Anne Bradstreet: America’s First Poet,” 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville: Holman, 2000), 153.
 D. B. Kellogg, Anne Bradstreet (Nashville: Nelson, 2010), 62.
 Dustin Benge and Nate Pickowicz, The American Puritans (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2020) 110.
 See pages 3–14 of Poems of Mrs. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672): Together with Her Prose Remains (London, UK: FORGOTTEN Books, 2012).
 C.S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013), 121.
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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