The Spirit in the Margins: Readers marking pilgrim progress in their Pilgrim’s Progresses

Spiritual reading is of lively theological interest, the spirituality of readers likewise. The evidence of that actual reading is harder to muster. But if it can be found, it would help ground or refute claims made for spiritual classics in Christian formation. This paper presents research that promises this evidence.

Much has been written about spiritual classics, but focus falls on their contents, or a program of reading, or how to interpret charitably. Spiritual reading is recognized, but there is little documentation of what it looks like in the lives of ordinary readers. How should we know? Despite heavy reliance on autobiography, a more immediate source presents itself; a source, furthermore, that does not rely on the celebrity of the author (that in any case might make their evidence unrepresentatively interesting); nor which is primarily performative as a public display of reading skill, in, for example, preaching or theologizing. The answer comes from a study of readers’ markings in the margins of their book copies.

Analysis of readers’ markings, with exemplars captured across a century’s worth of time, offers evidence of spiritual reading, and otherwise. This paper studies marginalia drawn from a private collection of 20 book copies of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, all different editions published from the 1840s to 1960s. The data encompasses a cataloging of more than 4000 pages, of which approximately 50% are marked. The data is then compared to evidence, of more elite provenance, of reader marginalia in the Huntington Library Collection, San Marino, California. Examples of markings include: transcribed Bible verses or hymn lyrics, exclamations of personal piety in praise or commitment to action (“Oh that we might be used more in His Service”), questions, laments for current spirituality (“The trouble of today is young pilgrims will talk on anything but those things Eternal.”), theological rebuttals (“No!”), corrections of editorial notes (“Trinity”), and prayer (“Lord Help me!”). Interpretation is also possible of what is underlined or scored in the margins, and what it is not. The data also shows less reverent markings such as drawings and sketches, graffiti style tags, scribbles, handwriting practice, notes to future readers, and even mathematical calculations.

The study draws on fresh treatments of spiritual reading (Hooten Wilson, Boersma), a theology of reading (Jacobs), and the study of Christian spiritual classics (Goggin and Strobel). Studies of marginalia (Jackson, Hamlin, Orgel) have not yet found explicitly theological expression, leaving the way open for this research to generate an original contribution.

Abbreviated bibliography
Boersma (2023) Pierced by Love: Divine Reading with the Christian Tradition;
Hamlin (2013) Montaigne’s English Journey: Reading the Essays in Shakespeare’s Day;
Hooten Wilson (2023) Reading for the Love of God: How to Read as a Spiritual Practice;
Jackson (2001) Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books;
Orgel (2021) The Reader in the Book: A Study of Spaces and Traces;
Strobel & Goggin (2013) Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics: A Guide for Evangelicals.

3 thoughts on “The Spirit in the Margins: Readers marking pilgrim progress in their Pilgrim’s Progresses”

  1. thoughtful
    I think this paper should be accepted at ETS — it sounds very interesting and thoughtful of of how saints have responded to a christian classic– very interesting and a different way to understand spirituality in the saints in the ages. Perhaps SF will take it.

  2. Fascinating. I would add Jim
    Fascinating. I would add Jim Houston’s guidelines for spiritual reading in the various classics he and others abridged for contemporary readers. I would be intrigued to know of the marginalia of this great classic.


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