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Popularity of the other 17th-century pilgrim

18 December 2015

Nick Fisher relishes Simon Patrick’s devotional bestseller from 1665, The Parable of the Pilgrim


Popular author: Simon Patrick, in a portrait by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1668

Popular author: Simon Patrick, in a portrait by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1668

WHILE the plague was reducing the population of London by nearly one third, 350 years ago in 1665, one of the most instantly popular devotional works of the Restoration period appeared. Within a decade, Simon Patrick’s allegory The Parable of the Pilgrim had passed through six editions, and had even attracted the attention of the libertine poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.

After 1684, however, it became eclipsed by what is universally recognised as the classic work on the theme of spiritual pilgrimage, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Although largely forgotten today, The Parable of the Pilgrim is more than a fascinating relic of a past age.

Simon Patrick (1626-1707) was at the time Rector of the fashionable parish, St Paul’s, Covent Garden, and would eventually become Bishop of Ely. Drawing his inspiration directly from a passage in Walter Hilton’s The Ladder of Perfection (1494), Patrick describes how a man calling himself Philotheus (“lover of God”) has become dissatisfied with his life.

This Pilgrim encounters a devout pastor, who agrees to be his guide; he is described as “a piece of the wrecks of ancient Christianity; a relic of the golden age” whose “love to his neighbour is proportionable to his love to God”.

A reader expecting to encounter here a pre-echo of The Pilgrim’s Progress will be disappointed. Bunyan’s tale is a work of imaginative genius which skilfully interweaves strands of allegory, autobiography, Christian pilgrimage, and folkloric tales of derring-do. Only a few chapters towards the end of The Parable of the Pilgrim describe the Pilgrim and his Guide actually on pilgrimage, and much of the earlier content is in the form of “meditations” concerning the necessary preparation, which involves charity, spirituality, faithfulness, godly living, and private devotion.

Patrick concludes his work with an exploration of true friendship and “the pattern of an excellent Friend” — the relationship between the Pilgrim and his Guide clearly paralleling the relationship between the Christian and Christ: “I did but ask; and you were pleased to open your heart, and make me a liberal gift. I did but shew my need; and you instantly inriched me with your self.”

Initially, modern readers of The Parable of the Pilgrim may find the intensity of the writing off-putting, as it is typical of the devotional literature in circulation at the time by Richard Allestree, Richard Baxter, and Jeremy Taylor. Patrick’s teaching, none the less, remains as relevant now as then: about Christians’ needing to strip themselves of “all undue affections to the world”, to embrace “humility and charity”, to do good actively, to seek God through prayer, Bible-reading, and reflection, and to receive the sacrament regularly.

At the heart of the narrative is a pearl of great price in the section “A Description of Jesus, who is the true Way to Jerusalem”. This remarkable chapter — the longest in the book — is in effect a beautifully crafted tour de force of a sermon.

Here, Patrick is at his most accessible, as he powerfully sets before the reader the personality and challenge of “this heavenly minded and compassionate Jesus”: “Why call you me Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6.46).

The cadences of Patrick’s compelling testimony both reveal his deep love for his Saviour and explain his contemporary fame as an exceptionally gifted preacher, as he says of his Lord: “His endowments were divine; his reasons were inspirations; his words were oracles. He could do what he would with a word; but would not employ his least breath in his own praises.”

In essence, The Parable of the Pilgrim is an apologia for the established Church. In 1662, Patrick had been widely credited as the anonymous author of a pamphlet supporting “the new sect called Latitude-Men”, or Latitudinarians — a group of the clergy who advocated a middle way between the extremist wings of the Church.

This advocacy, however, was insufficient to prevent, later that year, the restrictive Act of Uniformity from receiving the Royal Assent, with the result that on “Black Bartholomew’s Day” hundreds of clerics with Presbyterian sympathies were evicted from their livings, bringing about a more exclusive, narrowly based national Church.

In The Parable of the Pilgrim, Patrick, again articulating a vision of a centrist Church of England, laments the common view that there was “no sin like moderation, and no virtue comparable to a furious and headlong zeal”.

By way of illustration, he describes the Pilgrim encountering on his journey to Jerusalem first a traveller armed with a sword, a pair of pistols, and “another instrument . . . for pulling out of eyes” (identified in the text as a Roman Catholic); and, second, a man armed with a dagger and a pistol (a Nonconformist). Both are described as “enemies to all accommodation”, and caring nothing for the in-between position that would best serve the common good.

To some extent, the context and perspective of The Parable of the Pilgrim account for its rapid decline in popularity. By the time William and Mary were crowned and secure on the throne in 1689, the earlier fears about Nonconformists had passed, and those of the clergy with strong Latitudinarian sympathies — such as Patrick, Gilbert Burnet, and John Tillotson — were being appointed to senior positions in the Church.

The ecclesial concerns expressed in the parable now belonged to another age. While Patrick does not reach Bunyan’s creative league, his unquestionable integrity and comforting, headmasterly style reveal the gospel in a way that can still touch the heart of the modern pilgrim.


The Revd Dr Nick Fisher is the Vicar of the Windrush Benefice, in the diocese of Gloucester.

The 1670 edition of The Parable of the Pilgrim is available in a reprint published by Proquest, Eebo Editions (Ann Arbor, 2011).

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