The best-selling book that emerged from a prison cell
I’ve begun reading John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress yet again. In case you didn’t know, Bunyan was imprisoned for preaching the gospel, violating English law, in 1660. Authorities arrested him because he was a “great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom.” Though they offered to release him only three months later, he declined. They mandated that he never preach again, but like the apostles, he was compelled to say, “I must obey God rather than men” (Ac 5:29).
Bunyan remained in prison for another twelve years.
Paradoxically, Bunyan experienced more Christian freedom inside a prison cell than he would have likely known otherwise. In his autobiography, he confesses, “I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand. … Now, did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions and irons.”
While Bunyan’s circumstances had not changed, God certainly changed him. Among other vital lessons, he learned the truth about suffering. Hardship is not a deviation from God’s plan for his people but an integral part. The Heavenly Father’s hard providences lead us into the place of God (Ge 50:19). Think of Joseph. After years of slavery and imprisonment, he could say to his brothers, the very men who maliciously sold him into slavery, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Ge 50:20).
I will happily recommend The Pilgrim’s Progress to anyone, but Bunyan’s allegorical tale of the Christian life seems most appropriate for those carrying heavy burdens on their backs. After all, painful toil is the context, not to mention a significant theme throughout the story. George Whitefield once said of the book:
It smells of the prison. It was written when the author was confined in Bedford jail. And ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross: the Spirit of Christ and of Glory then rests upon them.
Meanwhile, a reader may also notice how the entire book is saturated with allusions to, if not direct quotations of, Scripture. Charles Spurgeon, who “read it through at least a hundred times,” said:
Read anything of [Bunyan’s], 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.
Granted, The Pilgrim’s Progress isn’t perfect. For instance, Spurgeon argued, “The cross should be right in front of the wicket-gate” rather than farther up the road. Others have offered their theological criticisms. Even so, for good reason, Bunyan’s allegory has proven to be the most widely read and distributed book in English outside the Bible. I pray future generations won’t overlook it.