The early evangelical work – The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which is to Come – concerns the journey of one man (Christian) from his state of sin through his path to salvation and onto heaven. Early in the book, Christian flees from home burdened by the knowledge of his graceless state which arises from his reading of the Bible, and sets out to alter his path which he is sure will take him to hell (Tophet). Along the way his faith is tested by obstacles and ordeals which he must survive and he meets many archetypal characters (Evangelist, Pliable, Help, Goodwill, Beelzebub, Hypocrisy etc) who shed light on right and wrong in the Christian tradition. With this moral guidance and his own inner strength, the protagonist manages to reach the Celestial City and be granted admission and everlasting life.
The second part of the book, which didn’t appear until 1684, concerns the pilgrimage of Christian’s wife (Christiana), their sons and the maiden, Mercy. They too make the valiant journey and encounter many of the same scenes and obstacles, but take a longer time to allow for the marriage and childbirth in the lives of the four sons. This later addition to the tale is seen as a reinforcement of the first part, in attesting to the fact that children and women can also be brave pilgrims in undertaking a Christian life. Each part of the story is narrated as a dream.
Geographical travel as a route to spiritual movement, knowledge as attained through the bible, and a community of family and friends are all emphasized as key to attaining the ultimate success of reaching the Master and the Celestial City, thus shrugging off sin.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is argued to be one of the “most significant works of religious English literature, has been translated into more than 200 languages, and has never been out of print”. It was largely written from prison where Bunyan was serving time for preaching without a license (breaching the Conventicle Act). During Bunyan’s lifetime, there were eleven editions of the first part and two editions of the second part printed.