I recently read John Bunyan’s classic allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress as part of my ‘Great Books’ curriculum for school. Bunyan wrote it while he was imprisoned for not conforming to the state church’s practices in the early 1670’s. It was one of the first times I had read a book that was from that time period so the old English was somewhat of a stretch for me, but I was still able to appreciate his message in the book. One of my favorite parts of the book
was the way Bunyan represents death. The Pilgrim’s Progress was written in two parts and Bunyan speaks of death in a similar mode at the end of both of them; the first time on pages 161 to 167 and again on pages 313 to 322 in the second part.
John Bunyan’s characters, the ‘pilgrims’ are on a journey from various starting points. The ‘City of Destruction’ and ‘Town of Stupidity’ are two common ones, although there are others. They are all on a journey together to the ‘Celestial City,’ where The Lord lives and which represents heaven. At the end of their journey, they reach a river on the other side of which is the City they have been traveling to. Each individual pilgrim must cross the river in order to reach the City. The river represents death and it has many similarities to it; as will be discussed in the remainder of this document.
Christian and his companion, Hopeful, are the first to encounter the river towards the end of the first part of the book. They begin crossing the river together, representing two people that are approaching death at the same time. As they begin crossing the river, Christian becomes fearful that he will be unable to make it through the rough water and make it across safely (161). Hopeful is able to comfort him when no one else can because he is experiencing the same thing as Christian, this is very true in our lives too. Often we can be best cared for and comforted by those who are walking through the same things we are. Bunyan also provides insight into this at the end of the second part, when a much larger group arrives at the end of their pilgrimage together. After they reach the river, they remain for a while in the ‘Land of Beulah,’ the last stopping place before they are called to go across the river. During their stay, as described on page 314, they are able to drink water from the river over which they will soon cross and it is said that they “thought that tasted a little bitterish to the Palate, but it proved sweeter when ‘twas down.” This is explained by the commentary in the book which states that death is “bitter to the flesh, but sweet to the soul” which is also very true in life. Our flesh always abhors death, but a soul that is given fully to God longs to be rid of this world and enter into eternal life. In the Land of Beulah there is a “Record kept of the names of them that had been Pilgrims of old and… it was here also much discoursed how the River to some had its flowings, and what ebbings it has had while others have gone over. It has been in a matter dry for some, while it has overflowed its banks for others” (314). This is, I think, an excellent way to describe the fact that some people have deaths that are filled with pain and suffering, while others do not. It is also hinted at that The Lord of the Celestial City is able to control the water of the river. Mr. Great-heart says on page 260 that when Mr. Fearing, a pilgrim that was very unsure of himself and always afraid he would not be accepted by God, reached the river “the Water of the River was lower at this time that ever I saw it in all my life.” It is worthy to note that Great-heart was a ‘conductor’, one that would help pilgrims on their journeys, so he had seen people cross the river many, many times. God made a special exception for this pilgrim and one which he did not appear to deserve. This speaks towards the great love of our God that is only shadowed in this book. As the story progresses, a messenger comes for one of the pilgrims Bunyan has been following throughout the second half of the book, Christiana. Her friends that have traveled with her assure her that “we that survive will accompany you to the River-side” showing that they will go with her as far as possible but she must go through death alone (315). After bidding farewell to her friends, she crosses over the river and is “carried… out of their sight” at which point, “Mr. Great-heart and Mr. Valiant [two of the men that had traveled with her] played upon the well-tuned Cymbal and Harp for Joy,” rejoicing that one of the pilgrims has entered into eternal life (317). A short while later, another of the pilgrims is called for, Mr. Honest. Bunyan says on page 319 “Now the River at that time over-flowed the Banks in some places, but Mr. Honest in his lifetime has spoken to one Good-conscience to meet him there, the which he also did and lent him his hand, and so helped him over.” Even though the river was higher than normal, because Mr. Honest goes with Good-conscience to help him, he was able to cross without trouble.
There are many more pilgrims that make the journey across the river, but time and space necessitate that I stop here. As you can see, there is much to learn from John Bunyan’s book about this topic as well as many others. I would encourage you to find a book that you have not read before and read it. See what there is to learn, just waiting for you to find.
And now “I bid my Reader Adieu”
-John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (page 322)