Next to the Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress has probably been more widely read than any other book in the English language.
It was first published in 1678 and was an immediate success. Another edition was published the same year, and there was an enormous demand for it.
The second part, Christiana, was published in 1684. Eleven editions were printed during the author’s lifetime. It has been translated into more than 100 languages, and there have been literally hundreds of different editions published in English, in Great Britain, America, and wherever English is spoken.
For over 300 years it has maintained its popularity with young and old alike. It has been enjoyed equally well by people from all shades of Christian belief as well as by those who profess none. It is a religious allegory, in which people and places represent various vices and virtues.
Christian, the hero, sets out from the City of Destruction to go to the Celestial City (Heaven). While most readers have taken The Pilgrim’s Progress as a religious message, it is also a good story, and Bunyan’s style is described as vivid and racy. It is ranked today by practically all literary critics as the greatest allegory in any language.
Many of its phrases, such as “The Slough of Despond,” “Vanity Fair,” “The Muckraker,” have become familiar household words.
“The acceptance which his Pilgrim’s Progress has met with is altogether unparalleled. During the Author’s lifetime many copies are said to have been circulated in England–and that was at a time when books and readers were comparatively scarce.
“Several editions . . . were published in North America, and translations were issued in French and Flemish, Dutch, Welsh, Gaelic and Irish. Nor does time show any abatement of its popularity.
“Among all the competitors for public favor which have since issued from the press, it retains its pre-eminence.
“There is scarcely a known language into which it has not been rendered. Wherever English is spoken it is familiar as a household word . . . and notwithstanding the millions of copies in circulation, and the new editions which are constantly appearing, publishers can still reckon on a sale of hundreds of thousands for one edition alone. . .
“Children are entranced with the interest of the story; its tranquil or gloomy scenes, its pictures of danger and conflict, of triumph and despair.
“Men too illiterate to account for the fascination are attracted to its pages. And learned men, who have little sympathy with its religious purpose, feel the spell of its genius, and are compelled to admire it for the beauty or the awfulness of its creations, its vivid embodiments, its clear insight and keen satire, its terse Saxon style.
“The young Christian, just starting on his course, reads it for guidance and encouragement in his own conflicts and perils; and the aged saint, lingering for a while on the river’s brink, before the messenger summons him into the presence of the King, testifies to the accuracy with which it pictures the serene and mellowed joys of the land of Beulah . . .
“It is wonderful that any man should have written a book of such universal and enduring popularity. More wonderful still that it should have been written in prison by an uneducated tinker, the descendant of a vagrant tribe–written spontaneously and unconsciously–not as an effort, but as a relief from mental fullness – as the thoughts came crowding up in all their freshness in an untrained but singularly original and fertile mind.”
– Robert Maguire, D.D. in his introduction to the superfine edition of “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” A 19th century edition.