Harvard Classics, Volume 15: Pilgrim’s Progress, Lives of Donne & Herbert

This volume of the Harvard Classics was dedicated to 17th century English religious writing. This is a period of great importance for British religious life, as a major axis in the conflicts that broke out in the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution were the religious friction between the Puritans, Anglicans, Catholics and Presbyterians.

Starting with the second author in this volume, Izaak Walton wrote short biographies of spiritual leaders and poets John Donne and George Herbert. These two men crossed paths in their own lives and were influential on the development of the Anglican Church coming in the century following the beginning of the English Reformation. Their life stories as presented by Walton are somewhat like Plutarch’s Lives in terms of length and pace. The main difference is the actual events of their lives were somewhat less exciting than the grand brushstrokes of history. Their lives are interesting as a window into the times, but overall I found myself wondering why they were included in the Harvard Classics. My main thought is they were progenitors of the theological movement that was still playing out in New England seminaries, like Harvard, at the time the Classics were assembled.

The main part of this volume was a work with which I was not particularly familiar before I started reading it, but cannot doubt that it is an important text in the development of the modern world, and an impactful text on the reader. Pilgrim’s Progress, written from prison by John Bunyan, is an allegorical tale of a man named Christian as he travels from his home to the Celestial City, and, in the second part, of his wife and children following him.

The main allegory of the text is that spiritual obstacles on the path from receiving the Word of God to finding salvation are manifested as physical realities. For instance, early in his journey, Christian encounters Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who tells Christian that he need not undertake the full journey fraught with peril, he only needs to go to the town of Morality and visit the man Legality who lives there, who can unburden Christian. That’s the kind of story that requires constant unpacking in order to keep up with Pilgrim’s Progress.

The most impactful part of Pilgrim’s Progress on me was Christian and his companion Faithful’s visit to Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair is a never-ending street fair, run by devils, where every sort of status marker is bought and sold. Vanity Fair waylays many pilgrims seeking salvation, and when the two pilgrims point out that the people trapped there aren’t living by the Word, the two companions find themselves locked away. After a speedy show trial, Faithful is gruesomely put to death for speaking the truth about Vanity Fair.

Christian and his new companion, Hopeful, eventually arrive at their destination after many trials and the second half of the text is the story of Christian’s wife, Christiana, and their four sons going on a journey of their own to the Celestial City. While Christian is guided by his own understanding of what he is seeking, his wife finds a guide early on who helps her and many others get to the celestial city. The perils of this second journey seem less dangerous as external forces are there to guide Christiana and her children along the way. An interesting comparison between the two journeys are the differences between which obstacles cause trouble. Obstacles which nearly derailed Christian are simply brushed aside by Christiana and her companions. Likewise, there are obstacles that got little more than a mention when Christian conquered them, but that cause Christiana and her party much anguish.

While the historical context of Pilgrim’s Progress is interesting, the timing of it and its popularity meant that it was a hugely influential book to America’s founding fathers. Ben Franklin cites it in his Autobiography as the book that taught him to love the written word. The book was wildly popular in England and so it was one of the first books printed in the colonies, rather than simply imported from Europe.

Now, the Harvard Classics are taking a turn towards the fantastic. The next two volumes are selections from One-Thousand and One Nights followed by a collection of western fables and fairy tales.

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