Prosperity Teaching, and the associated false doctrines which profess obedience to Christ but are instead based on making out that God is a man-pleaser, are fairly common in this day and age. We may think of them as the result of the consumerist and materialistic world we live in, with their emphasis on material blessing and the full physical blessings of total healing for those with true faith. Yet in my reading of Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, written in the 17th century and published in 1678, I have found a passage which speaks directly to those who advocate such profound errors.
The Town of Fair Speech
Christian, the main character of Pilgrim’s Progress, and his travelling companion Hopeful, chance upon another traveller called Mr. By-Ends. Mr. By-Ends comes from the town of Fair Speech, and this is some of the discourse upon their meeting:
Chr. This Town of Fair-speech, said Christian, I have heard of it, and, as I remember, they say it’s a wealthy place.
By-ends. Yes, I will assure you that it is; and I have very many rich Kindred there.
Chr. Pray, who are your Kindred there? if a man may be so bold.
By-ends. Almost the whole Town; and in particular, my Lord Turn-about, my Lord Time-server, my Lord Fair-speech, (from whose ancestors
that Town first took its name) also Mr Smooth-man, Mr Facing-both-ways, Mr Anything; and the Parson of our Parish, Mr Two-tongues, was my Mother’s own Brother by Father’s side; and to tell you the truth, I am become a Gentleman of good Quality, yet my Great Grandfather was but a waterman, looking one way and rowing another; and I got most of my estate by the same occupation.
Chr. Are you a married man?
By-ends. Yes, and my Wife is a very virtuous woman, the Daughter of a virtuous woman; she was my Lady Feigning’s Daughter, therefore she came of a very honourable Family, and is arrived to such a pitch of breeding, that she knows how to carry it to all, even to Prince and Peasant. ‘Tis true we
somewhat differ in Religion from those of the stricter sort, yet but in two small points: First, we never strive against Wind and Tide: Secondly, we are
always most zealous when Religion goes in his Silver Slippers; we love much to walk with him in the Street, if the Sun shines, and the people applaud him.
Christian then perceives that this man is indeed a reprobate and puts to Mr. By-Ends that he should not only follow religion in blessing and applause, but also in times of trial:
Chr. If you will go with us, you must go against Wind and Tide, the which, I perceive, is against your opinion; you must also own Religion in his
Rags, as well as when in his Silver Slippers, and stand by him too, when bound in Irons, as well as when he walketh the Streets with applause.
By ends. You must not impose, nor lord it over my Faith; leave me to my liberty, and let me go with you.
Chr. Not a step further, unless you will do in what I propound, as we.
Then said By-ends, I shall never desert my old Principles, since they are harmless and profitable. If I may not go with you, I must do as I did
before you overtook me, even go by myself, until some overtake me that will be glad of my company.
Here we see how Mr. By-Ends is unwilling to follow Christ unless it brings material favour and an easy path along with the applause of men. This is prosperity teaching to a fault, and so we can see that such heresy is not new, and neither is it any more true for being an old heresy.
The Prosperity “Gospel” in Pilgrim’s Progress
Let Mr. By-Ends and some of his other fellows show you the full errors he, and the prosperity teachers, have fallen into:
Save-all. That’s bad; but we read of some that are righteous overmuch; and such men’s rigidness prevails with them to judge and condemn all but
themselves. But I pray what, and how many, were the things wherein you differed?
By-ends. Why they after their head-strong manner, conclude that it is duty to rush on their Journey all weathers, and I am for waiting for Wind and
Tide. They are for hazarding all for God at a clap, and I am for taking all advantages to secure my Life and Estate. They are for holding their notions,
though all other men are against them; but I am for Religion in what, and so far as the times and my safety will bear it. They are for Religion when in
Rags and Contempt; but I am for him when he walks in his Golden Slippers in the Sunshine, and with applause.
Hold-the-world. Ay, and hold you there still, good Mr By-ends; for my part I can count him but a Fool, that having the liberty to keep what
he has, shall be so unwise as to lose it. Let us be wise as Serpents; ’tis best to make hay when the Sun shines; you see how the Bee lieth still all
winter, and bestirs her only when she can have Profit with Pleasure. God sends sometimes Rain, and sometimes Sun-shine; if they be such fools to go through the first, yet let us be content to take fair weather along with us. For my part I like that Religion best that will stand with the security of God’s good blessings unto us; for who can imagine that is ruled by his Reason, since God has bestowed upon us the good things of this Life, but that he would have us keep them for his sake! Abraham and Solomon grew rich in Religion. And Job says, that a good man shall lay up Gold as Dust. But he must not be such as the men before us, if they be as you have described them.
By-ends. My Brethren, we are, as you see, going all on Pilgrimage; and for our better diversion from things that are bad, give me leave to propound
unto you this question:
Suppose a man, a Minister, or a Tradesman, Etc. should have an advantage lie before him to get the good blessings of this life, yet so as that he can
by no means come by them, except in appearance at least, he becomes extraordinary zealous in some points of Religion that he meddled not with
before; may he not use this means to attain his end, and yet be a right honest man?
Money-love. I see the bottom of your question, and, with these Gentlemen’s good leave, I will endeavour to shape you an answer. And first, to
speak to your question as it concerns a Minister himself: Suppose a Minister, a worthy man, possess’d but of a very small benefice, and has in his eye a
greater, more fat and plump by far; he has also now an opportunity of getting of it, yet so as by being more studious, by preaching more frequently and
zealously and because the temper of the people requires it, by altering of some of his principles; for my part I see no reason but a man may do this,
(provided he has a Call) ay, and more a great deal besides, and yet be an honest man. For why?
1. His desire of greater benefice is lawful (this cannot be contradicted since ’tis set before him by Providence); so then he may get it if he can,
making no question for Conscience sake.
2. Besides, his desire after that benefice makes him more studious, a more zealous Preacher, Etc. and so makes him a better man; yea makes him better improve his parts, which is according to the Mind of God.
3. Now as for his complying with the temper of his people, by dissenting, to serve them, some of his Principles, this argueth, 1. That he is of a self -
denying temper; 2. Of a sweet and winning deportment; 3. And so more fit for the Ministerial function.
4. I conclude then, that a Minister that changes a small for a great, should not for so doing be judged as covetous; but rather, since he has
improved in his parts and industry thereby, be counted as one that pursues his Call, and the opportunity put into his hand to do Good.
Money-love goes on to speak of similar assertions, but now let me bring you to the replies which Christian later gives to Mr. By-Ends’ question:
The Christian Response to Prosperity Teaching
Chr. Then said Christian, Even a babe in Religion may answer ten thousand such questions. For if it be unlawful to follow Christ for loaves, as it is
John 6. how much more abominable is it to make of him and Religion a Stalking-horse, to get and enjoy the world. Nor do we find any other than Heathens, Hypocrites, Devils, and Witches, that are of this opinion.
1. Heathens; for when Hamor and Shechem had a mind to the Daughter and Cattle of Jacob, and saw that there was no ways for them to come at them, but by becoming circumcised; they said to their companions, If every male of us be circumcised, as they are circumcised, shall not their Cattle, and their substance, and every beast of theirs, be ours? Their Daughter and their Cattle were that which they sought to obtain, and their Religion the Stalking-horse they made use of to come at them. Read the whole story, Gen. 34. 20, 21, 22, 23.
2. The Hypocritical Pharisees were also of this Religion; Long Prayers were their Pretence, but to get widows’ houses was their Intent; and greater
damnation was from God their Judgment, Luke 20. 46,47.
3. Judas the Devil was also of this Religion; he was religious for the Bag, that he might be possessed of what was therein; but he was lost, cast
away, and the very son of Perdition.
4. Simon the Witch was of this Religion too; for he would have had the Holy Ghost, that he might have got Money therewith, and his sentence from
Peter’s mouth was according, Acts 8. 19, 20, 21, 22.
5. Neither will it out of my mind, but that that man that takes up Religion for the World, will throw away Religion for the World; for so surely
as Judas designed the World in becoming religious, so surely did he also sell Religion and his Master for the same. To answer the question therefore
affirmatively, as I perceive you have done, and to accept of as authentic such answer, is both Heathenish, Hypocritical, and Devilish, and your Reward will be according to your Works. Then they stood staring one upon another, but had not wherewith to answer Christian. Hopeful also approved of the soundness of Christian’s answer; so there was a great Silence among them. Mr By-ends and his company also staggered and kept behind, that Christian and Hopeful might outgo them. Then said Christian to his fellow, If these men cannot stand before the sentence of men, what will they do with the sentence of God? And if they are mute when dealt with by vessels of Clay, what will they do when they shall be rebuked by the flames of a devouring Fire?
And thus we see John Bunyan giving, through Christian, the right response to those who assert that earthly abundance and the applaud of men are things to be desired, and showing that those who set their minds upon earthly things, and thus use Christianity as a means of obtaining earthly blessing, are not of the true Christian faith at all.