To Be a Pilgrim

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"To be a Pilgrim" (also commonly known as "He who would Valiant be") is the only hymn John Bunyan is credited with writing but is indelibly associated with him. It first appeared in Part 2 of Pilgrim's Progress, written in 1684. The hymn recalls the words of Hebrews 11:13: "...and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth."

The words were modified extensively by Percy Dearmer for the 1906 The English Hymnal.[1] At the same time it was given a new tune by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams using the traditional Sussex melody "Monk's Gate". The hymn has also been sung to the melody "Moab" (John Roberts, 1870) and "St. Dunstans" (Charles W. Douglas, 1917).

For a time, Bunyan's original version was not commonly sung in churches, perhaps because of the references to "hobgoblin" and "foul fiend." However, one commentator has said: "Bunyan's burly song strikes a new and welcome note in our Hymnal. The quaint sincerity of the words stirs us out of our easygoing dull Christianity to the thrill of great adventure."[2] Recent hymn books have tended to return to the original, for example, the Church of England's Common Praise and the Church of Scotland's Church Hymnary 4th Edition (Hymns of Glory, Songs of Praise).

Textual variants[edit]

John Bunyan's Original Version 1906 The English Hymnal Version
1. Who would true valour see, 1. He who would valiant be
Let him come hither; ′Gainst all disaster,
One here will constant be, Let him in constancy
Come wind, come weather Follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim. To be a pilgrim.
2. Whoso beset him round 2. Who so beset him round
With dismal stories, With dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound; Do but themselves confound——
His strength the more is. His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright, No foes shall stay his might,
He’ll with a giant fight, Though he with giants fight:
But he will have a right He will make good his right
To be a pilgrim. To be a pilgrim.
3. Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend[,] 3. Since, Lord, thou dost defend
Can daunt his spirit; Us with thy Spirit,
He knows he at the end We know we at the end
Shall life inherit. Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away, Then fancies flee away!
He’ll fear not what men say, I’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labour night and day I’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim.[3] To be a pilgrim.[4]


The original version of "To be a Pilgrim" is the school hymn for the Royal Grammar School, Guildford, Newcastle Grammar School, Dartford Grammar School and Reigate Grammar School (whose annual publication, The Pilgrim, takes its name from the hymn). It is also the school hymn of Caistor Grammar School, where it is sung in the annual church service to end the school year.

A variation of the hymn is also the school song for Westcliff High School for Girls and they sing it annually on their Foundation day and on the last day of school.

"To Be a Pilgrim" is also the school hymn of Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School, traditionally sung on the first and last day of every school term.

The hymn's refrain "to be a pilgrim" has entered the language and has been used in the title of a number of books dealing with pilgrimage in a literal or spiritual sense.[5]

The hymn is sung in several school films.

The hymn was also used in Richard Attenborough's 1977 epic World War II film, A Bridge Too Far.

"To be a Pilgrim" has also been used as the title of a radio play by Rachel Joyce, broadcast as the BBC Radio 4 afternoon play. It won the Tinniswood Award in 2007 for best original drama.

"To be a Pilgrim" was also sung at the funeral of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on April 17th, 2013, in the English Hymnal version. It was one of her favourite hymns.

The hymn was selected by the Rt Hon Tony Benn as one of his choices on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.[6]

It was also performed on a Series 1 episode of Keeping Up Appearances in fall 1990.

Notable recordings[edit]

  • Lesley Duncan and Joyce Everson in 1973 on the GM Label in England.


  1. ^ The English Hymnal, London: Oxford University Press, 1906
  2. ^ The Hymnal 1940 Companion, New York: The Church Pension Fund, 1949, p. 331.
  3. ^ John Bunyan. The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come. 32nd ed. London: W. Johnston, 1771, Part II, p. 157.
  4. ^ Ralph Vaughan Williams, ed. The English Hymnal. London: Oxford University Press, n.d. (1906 ed.). Hymn No. 402 (p. 546).
  5. ^ For example, the novel To be a Pilgrim by Joyce Cary, To be a Pilgrim: A spiritual notebook by Basil Hume, To be a Pilgrim: The medieval pilgrimage experience by Sarah Hopper, and To be a Pilgrim: The Anglican ethos in history by Frederick Quinn.
  6. ^ BBC Radio 4, Sun 15 Jan 1989.

External links[edit]