The Pilgrim’s Progress: 25 Books Every Christian Should Read

“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 with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon 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 longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, “What shall I do?” ~John Bunyan, opening lines from The Pilgrim Progress

‘John Bunyan’, c1916. An English nonconformist preacher and writer, Bunyan (1628-1688) was the author of the famous allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. Over the course of his life Bunyan spent just over twelve years in prison in Bedford, for preaching without a licence. From The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, illustrated by W. Strang. [George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., London, c1916]. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

John Bunyan (1628 – 1688), an English preacher, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, was born in 1628 near Bedford, England. He came to faith in Jesus Christ in his 20s, and began to preach. In 1660, when Bunyan was 32, Bunyan was arrested for preaching, and sentenced to three months imprisonment. Charles II, the King of England at the time declared it illegal to preach anywhere but within the Church of England, punishable by 3 months in prison. Bunyan refused to give up preaching, so his imprisonment extended to 12 years bringing great hardship to his wife Elizabeth and their four children, one of whom was blind. In prison, Bunyan had a copy of the Bible, as well as writing materials. While in prison, Bunyan wrote his famous allegorical novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress. In 1671, while still in prison, Bunyan was chosen as full-time pastor of the Bedford Church, a non-conformist, independent Church. Finally, in 1672, King Charles II issued a decree giving more freedoms to other Christian churches besides the Church of England. Bunyan was freed in May 1672 at age 44, along with many other preachers. He continued as pastor of the Bedford Church for next 16 years and traveled on horseback to preach around countryside. The Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678 when Bunyan was 50 years old, and immediately became popular and widely read. The Pilgrim’s Progress became one of the most published books in the English language, second only to the English Bible. In 1688, Bunyan died at age 59. During his lifetime, Bunyan wrote over 30 books, mostly theological works, including Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, published in 1666, while Bunyan was still in prison. The Pilgrim’s Progress has been translated into 200 languages, has never been out of print, and is sometimes cited as one of the first novels published in English.

1st Edition Title Page of The Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678

The novel begins with John Bunyan falling asleep and dreaming a dream, the story of The Pilgrim’s Progress. In this dream, Bunyan’s lead character, Christian, leaves his home in the City of Destruction, and embarks upon a walking journey to the Celestial City. Along the way, Christian encounters many obstacles, diversions, and troubles. Early in the story, Christian comes to faith in Jesus Christ, and is relieved of the heavy weight he is carrying, the burden of his sins.

Christian sets out from the City of Destruction

“He ran till he came to a small hill, at the top of which stood a cross and at the bottom of which was a tomb. I saw in my dream that when Christian walked up the hill to the cross, his burden came loose from his shoulders and fell off his back, tumbling down the hill until it came to the mouth of the tomb, where it fell in to be seen no more. . . . Wake up, see your own wretchedness, and fly to the Lord Jesus. He is the righteousness of God, for He Himself is God. Only by believing in His righteousness will you be delivered from condemnation.”

William Blake’s illustration of Christian carrying his burden of sin.

Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress as an allegorical novel, in which characters, places or events are symbols used to represent truths or ideas Bunyan sought to communicate in the real world. Allegories are frequently found in the ancient world, including in the Bible, such as in the teachings of Jesus in John 15, where Jesus tells us, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). 

Here are some of the places Christian encounters along his faith journey in The Pilgrim’s Progress: Slough of Despond, Mount Sinai, the Wicket Gate, Hill Difficulty, House Beautiful, Valley of Humiliation, Valley of the Shadow of Death, Vanity Fair, Doubting Castle, The Delectable Mountains, The River of Death, and The Celestial City. Just as Bunyan was imprisoned against his will, so Bunyan writes of his lead character, Christian who is imprisoned against his will in Doubting Castle, owned by Giant Despair.

Map of The Pilgrim’s Progress

Along his faith journey, Christian encounters a wide variety of characters, including false friends, life threatening enemies, and unexpected good companions. Here are some of the characters Christian encounters along his faith journey:  Evangelist, Obstinate, Pliable, Help, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Goodwill, Timorous, Prudence, Faithful, Wanton, Superstition, Hopeful, Ignorance, Mr. By-Ends, Demas, Giant Despair and his wife Giantess Diffidence, Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, Atheist.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is a two part story: the first part tells the story of Christian; the second part tells the story of Christian’s wife, Christiana and their children.

I close this review of one of the 25 books every Christian would be wise to read, by quoting Bunyan from The Pilgrim’s Progress, writing on God’s grace through Jesus Christ:

“God’s grace is the most incredible and insurmountable truth ever to be revealed to the human heart, which is why God has given us His Holy Spirit to superintend the process of more fully revealing the majesty of the work done on our behalf by our Savior. He teaches us to first cling to, and then enables us to adore with the faith He so graciously supplies, the mercy of God. This mercy has its cause and effect in the work of Jesus on the cross.”