John Newton’s Preface to Pilgrim’s Progress

Early this year a publisher kindly approached me to write a book about John Newton, the slave ship captain turned pastor and hymn writer. At the time I was well on my way to developing a series of blog posts inspired by the letters of Newton (see the “Reading Newton’s Mail” series), and the book idea seemed to fit. So I began running with initial research to determine how I would organize a book about Newton’s understanding of the Christian life, the focus of the book.

I quickly discovered the challenges of organizing Newton’s thoughts on the Christian life, mostly because so much of his teachings have endure in volumes of collected letters addressing a wide variety of practical topics. Those letters are rich and deeply edifying, but they’re also hard to organize into a comprehensive scheme. So I sought a more creative angle.

I was aware that Newton had penned a preface to an annotated edition of Puritan John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress published by one of Newton’s friends in London in 1776. At that point Bunyan became a critical piece in my research on Newton.

I was also aware that for a season Newton lectured on PP on Wednesday nights (though those lectures apparently were not recorded!). Rumors through the years suggested the 1776 annotated edition of PP featured application notes in the bottom margin written by Newton himself. There were two evidences for it.

First, in his catalog of editions of PP, Bunyan’s esteemed editor George Offor wrote this:

There is no indication of who the notes are by; but there can be little doubt but that they are from the pen of the Rev. J. Newton, the friend of Cowper. The Editor has four editions of this interesting volume—1776, 1782, 1789, and 1797.

My hopes were high. Could these notes provide me with a more systematized narrative by which to organize Newton’s thoughts on the Christian life?


In January I bundled up and set off for a few days in the rare book wing at the Library of Congress looking for clues that would indicate that Newton was the author of the footnotes. There for a few days I scanned through every fragile 18th century edition of PP they had in storage.

Eventually I uncovered a copy of the 1776 edition and sat down to read it. It was something of a holy moment for me. There in the text of Newton’s preface I read these words:

As many persons who have read this allegory, though they find benefit from the whole, are at a loss to determine the author’s meaning in some particular parts of his representation, an edition containing some brief notes to illustrate the more difficult passages, has been long desired. An attempt of this kind is now submitted to the public. The annotator does not pretend to be positive that he has always precisely taken up the thought the author had upon his mind at the time of writing, though he thinks there are but few places in which he is in danger of greatly missing it.

Was this further proof that Newton authored of the marginal notes? Surely “the annotator” is a reference to Newton himself!


From my reading – and from emailing every known Bunyan and Newton scholar – I failed to prove that all of those marginal notes were penned by Newton. In fact I now believe that is very unlikely. So once again I was left with the question of how to structure Newton’s thoughts. At the same time I was about to begin the final stages of editing Lit! so I decided to decline the Newton project (a most difficult decision). Nevertheless, for a book nerd/researcher, those few days at the LOC were precious.

From that experience I came away with a treasure: Newton’s preface.

To my knowledge it has never appeared online. So I’ve taken the liberty to transcribe (and to slightly modernize) Newton’s preface as it originally appeared in the rare 1776 edition of the Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s quite an honor to share it here on the blog.

Note particularly how Newton turns his attention from praise to the author to the soul of the reader near the end. Such direct pastoral words of care and warning are very Newtonian.

Here it is. Enjoy!



The writings of Mr. Bunyan need no recommendatory preface. The various editions they have passed through, and the different languages into which many of them have been translated, sufficiently prove that the gifts of God which were in him, have, by the divine blessing, been made very acceptable and useful to the churches. Though he was called to the knowledge and ministry of the gospel from a low state of life, as well as from a vicious course of conversation, and was unfurnished with human literature, the Lord, the great, the effectual, the only effectual teacher, made him, in an eminent degree, an able and successful minister of the New Testament. It is probable that only the people to whom he personally preached would have been benefited by his zeal and experience, had not the Lord permitted the rage of his enemies to prevail against him for a season. He lived in more trying days than those in which our lot is fallen. For preaching the word of life to sinners, he was sentenced to perpetual banishment, but what he actually suffered was imprisonment for more than twelve years. But his spirit was not bound. Though secluded from his public work, he could not be idle. He applied himself to writing books, and most of the treatises, by which being dead he still speaketh (in number about threescore) were composed during his confinement in Bedford Goal [jail]. Thus his adversaries themselves contributed to extend his usefulness by the very methods they took to prevent it. And (as in the apostle’s case) the things that happened to him, proved rather to the furtherance than the hindrance of the gospel.

His books, though devoid of that art and those ornaments, on which writers who seek the praise of men lay so great a stress, have been, and still are highly esteemed by those who have a taste for divine truth; and greatly instrumental, in the hands of the Holy Spirit, to the awakening of the careless, and the encouragement of those who are seeking salvation. And we doubt not but they will be farther owned of God for these purposes, to many who are yet unborn. But as among the stars one exelleth another in glory, so of all our author’s writings, there is no one perhaps so universally and deservedly admired as his Pilgrim’s Progress, in which he gives a delineation of the Christian life under the idea of a journey or a pilgrimage, from the City of Destruction to the heavenly Jerusalem. In this treatise he appears not only as a writer well instructed in the mysteries of the kingdom, but a man of real genius. Though he had not a learned education, God had given him considerable natural abilities, a lively invention, a penetrating spirit, a strong judgment, and his style, though plain and simple, is remarkably clear, animated, and engaging. By the exercises through which the Lord led him, and a close study of the Word of God, he acquired a singular knowledge of the human heart, and its various workings, both in a state of nature and grace, and of the various snares and dangers to which a believer is exposed from the men and things of the world, and the subtlety of Satan. These fruits of his experience and observation he has exhibited in a very pleasing and instructive manner in his pilgrim, which may be considered as a map of the Christian profession in its present mixed state, while the wheat and the tares are growing in the same field. A map, so exactly drawn, that we can hardly meet with a case or character, amidst the vast variety of persons and incidents, that daily occur to our observation, to which we cannot easily point out a counterpart in the pilgrim. And he is peculiarly happy in fixing the attention of his readers: many have read this book with a kind of rapturous pleasure, though they have not understood the authors design, (which only they who have the eyes of their minds enlightened by the Spirit of God can fully enter into) and they who understand it best, and who have read it often, usually find fresh pleasure and instruction upon every perusal.

As many persons who have read this allegory, though they find benefit from the whole, are at a loss to determine the author’s meaning in some particular parts of his representation, an edition containing some brief notes to illustrate the more difficult passages, has been long desired. An attempt of this kind is now submitted to the public. The annotator does not pretend to be positive that he has always precisely taken up the thought the author had upon his mind at the time of writing, though he thinks there are but few places in which he is in danger of greatly missing it. He hopes however that he has proposed no illustration but what will be found agreeable to the analogy of faith and the experience of believers.

The unusual demand for the Pilgrim’s Progress upon its first appearance, induced the author some time after to send forth a second part. In which there are many beautiful passages that sufficiently demonstrate it to be the work of the same masterly hand. But the plan of that which is now called the First Part, was so comprehensive, and so well executed, that the subject was too much exhausted to admit of a Second Part, capable of standing in competition with the former. It is upon the whole greatly inferior to it, though a few pages here and there might be selected, which, for their beauty, propriety, and energy, almost deserve the epithet of inimitable* [footnote: “* See the character of Mr Fearing, and Standfast’s discourse when in the river.”]. The first part therefore is only published with notes, which it is hoped may afford a sufficient key to the second.

There is a small book in print which bears the title of the third part of the Pilgrim’s Progress. It can hardly be necessary to inform any but those who have not read it, that this pretended third part, with Mr. Bunyan’s name, is a gross imposition on the public, and that the title is almost the only part of it which bears any resemblance to Bunyan’s Pilgrim, excepting when the writer has borrowed the same names. But Bunyan’s spirit and manner he could not borrow, and his principles he openly contradicts. A common hedge-stake deserves as much to be compared to Aaron’s rod, which yielded blossoms and almonds, as this poor performance to be obtruded upon the world under the title of the third part of the Pilgrim’s Progress.

Thus much concerning our book: Let the preface close with a word to the reader’s heart. If you are not convinced of sin, and led by the Spirit to seek Jesus, notwithstanding the notes, the Pilgrim will still be a riddle to you. A well-wisher to your soul assures you, that whether you know these things or not, they are important realities. The Pilgrim is a parable, but it has an interpretation in which you are nearly concerned. If you are living in sin, you are in the City of Destruction. O hear the warning voice! “Flee from the wrath to come.” Pray that the eyes of your mind may be opened, then you will see your danger, and gladly follow the shining light of the word, till you enter by Christ, the straight gate, into the way of salvation. If death surprise you before you get into this road, you are lost forever.

If you are indeed asking the way to Zion with your face thitherward, I bid you good speed. Behold an open door is set before you, which none can shut. Yet prepare to endure hardship, for the way lies through many tribulations. There are hills and valleys to be passed, lions and dragons to be met with, but the Lord of the hill will guide and guard his people. “Put on the whole armor of God, fight the good fight of faith.” Beware of the Flatterer. Beware of the Enchanted Ground. See the Land of Beulah, yea, the city of Jerusalem itself is before you:

There Jesus the forerunner waits.

To welcome travelers home.


8 thoughts on “John Newton’s Preface to Pilgrim’s Progress

  1. Thanks for bring this to light.

    Now though, I am very interesting in reading this version if the notes are good enough for John Newton to sign off on them.

  2. Hi Tony – I stumbled on your Newton blog and I’d be interested to know why you are almost sure the notes are not by Newton. I have been researching Thomas Scott and have come across a letter Scott wrote to Ryland which feels to me like Scott knew Newton had written some notes on Pilgrim’s Progress.

  3. The marginal notes are not authored by Newton. I have three scholars who confer on that. Did he write some of the notes? Probably, but he did not write them all and it’s impossible to know which ones he did or didn’t, thus my conclusion. That he may have written some of the notes does me no good in using their content in a book.

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