#1 A Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

I read A Pilgrim’s Progress via Project Gutenberg on my iPad. At some point I’m going to have to go to the library or buy the books but in the meantime I’ll make the most of how unbelievably easy it is to read books online that are no longer protected by copyright. My impulsive decision to start this project was partially the result of a nostalgic conversation over lunch about how many books I used to read. But that was a result of checking stacks of books out of my local library every weekend – my experience might have been quite different if I’d had access to the public domain books that are accessible now. I still don’t think I’d have read A Pilgrim’s Progress, though…

Some historical context: Charles II was on the throne and five Catholic peers accused of involvement in the “Popish Plot” had recently been committed to the Tower of London. Bunyan wrote A Pilgrim’s Progress while in prison for falling foul of laws against holding non-Church of England services.

Off to a great start, I had to look up a word in the book’s subtitle – Similitude: the quality or state of being similar to something. What’s wrong with similarity…?

The book starts off with some meta-text on writing. After some more frantic reference to online dictionaries via Google I decided that Bunyan had some interesting things to say relevant to my new project:

If that thou wilt not read, let it alone; Some love the meat, some love to pick the bone. Yea, that I might them better palliate, I did too with them thus expostulate.

The text is peppered with scripture citations and you’re obviously supposed to know what they mean (either by heart or by reference to the text…?) so I looked up the relevant bits while reading. It took me a lot longer to read than expected because of this but I’m glad I went to the effort.

So, two random notes followed by some more detailed thoughts on one specific issue:

1. Help is not being very helpful when Christian has been “left to tumble in the Slough of Despond alone” and Help comes along and asks him why he didn’t use the steps… Thanks Help.

2. Good to know where “Vanity Fair” comes from – Vanity Fair is described as a place built by Beelzebub where everything to a human’s tastes, delights and lusts are sold daily.

3. I found the allegory of Mr Wordly Wiseman, Mr Legality and Civility pretty interesting:

He to whom thou wast sent for ease, being by name Legality, is the son of the bond-woman which now is, and is in bondage with her children [Gal 4:21–27]; and is, in a mystery, this Mount Sinai, which thou hast feared will fall on thy head. Now, if she, with her children, are in bondage, how canst thou expect by them to be made free? This Legality, therefore, is not able to set thee free from thy burden. No man was as yet ever rid of his burden by him; no, nor ever is like to be: ye cannot be justified by the works of the law; for by the deeds of the law no man living can be rid of his burden: therefore, Mr. Worldly Wiseman is an alien, and Mr. Legality is a cheat; and for his son Civility, notwithstanding his simpering looks, he is but a hypocrite and cannot help thee.

Setting aside Bunyan’s scathing comments about secular law (and putting them down to the fact that he did live in a pretty despotic England), this extract got me thinking about slavery and colonialism.

The scripture citation is to the story of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians which illustrates the results of two different covenants: the New Covenant, based on grace; and the Old Covenant, based on the Law. In Paul’s analogy, believers in Christ are like the child born of Sarah – free, the result of God’s promise. Those who try to earn their salvation by their own works are like the child born of Hagar – a slave, the result of human effort.”

The book underwent dispersion abroad as the result of missionary societies arriving in India in the late 1700s and spreading all over Africa the following century. It was considered such an invaluable evangelistic tool that in 1847 a London Missionary Society ship heading for Tahiti carried not only 5,000 Tahitian Bibles but also 4,000 Tahitian copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

It was also read in America from the time the first European colonisers landed and continued to be popular in Antebellum America: it was commonly referenced in African American slave narratives, such as “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom” by Ellen and William Craft, where it was used to emphasise the moral and religious implications of slavery:

“I thought I might indulge in a few minutes’ sleep in the car; but I, like Bunyan’s Christian in the arbour, went to sleep at the wrong time, and took too long a nap”.

Antebellum culture was highly religious and evangelical institutions exerted significant influence. Religious reading played a major role in most Americans’ lives: bibles, religious primers, devotional handbooks, psalters, hymnals and The Pilgrim’s Progress were on most reading lists.

So A Pilgrim’s Progress would have been a prominent source of Christian teaching at all three corners of the Atlantic slave trade.

Heavy stuff.

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