To Be a Pilgrim

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To Be a Pilgrim
John Bunyan 2.JPG
John Bunyan
TextJohn Bunyan
Based onHebrews 11:13
Melody"St. Dunstans" by Winfred Douglas, "Moab" by John Roberts, "Monk's Gate" by Ralph Vaughan Williams

"To Be a Pilgrim" (also known as "He Who Would Valiant Be") is the best known hymn using words of John Bunyan in The Pilgrim's Progress . It first appeared in Part 2 of The 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, who used a melody taken from the traditional song "Our Captain Cried All Hands" which he collected in the hamlet of Monk's Gate in West Sussex – hence the name of "Monks Gate" by which the melody is referred to in hymn books.[2]

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."[3] 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.[4] To be a pilgrim.[5]


The original version of "To be a Pilgrim" is the school hymn for the Royal Grammar School, Guildford, Newcastle Grammar School, Derby Grammar School, Westcliff High School for Girls, Dartford Grammar School, Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, Hope Waddell Training Institution, St. Clement's School (Toronto), Elmwood School (Ottawa), Ashbury College, and Reigate Grammar School (whose annual publication, The Pilgrim, takes its name from the hymn) and the former Pilgrim School, Bedford. 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, The Ladies’ College, Norwich High School for Girls GDST and North London Collegiate School, traditionally sung on the first and last day of every school term. It was the school hymn of Woodberry Down Comprehensive School and Taunton prep school.

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.[6]

The hymn is sung in several school films.

  • It is sung by the gathered teachers and pupils at the opening scene of the 1962 Term of Trial - many of whom are in later scenes involved in various sordid and decidedly un-religious activities.
  • It is sung in one of the school chapel scenes in Lindsay Anderson's 1968 film "if....", where it is used to characterize the traditional religious education of an English public school of the time.
  • It was used again in a school context in the 1986 film Clockwise starring John Cleese and
  • In the 2007 Doctor Who episodes "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood".
    • The first half of the first verse is also repeated several times throughout the last episodes of Season 3, foreshadowing the Tenth Doctor's meeting with the Master.

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" has been adopted by the British Special Air Service as their battle hymn.[7][a]

"To be a Pilgrim" was sung at the state funeral of former British prime minister Winston Churchill on January 30, 1965.

"To be a Pilgrim" was also sung at the funeral of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher on April 17, 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.[9]

It was also performed on an episode of the Australian Soap Opera Neighbours in 2020.

Flora sings in The Frankenstein Chronicles, Season 1, Episode 5, circa minute 41

Notable recordings[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ See also Special Air Service § Memorial and The Golden Road to Samarkand by James Elroy Flecker[8]
  1. ^ The English Hymnal, London: Oxford University Press, 1906
  2. ^ "Our Captain Cried All Hands / Fountains Flowing". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music.
  3. ^ The Hymnal 1940 Companion, New York: The Church Pension Fund, 1949, p. 331.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Ralph Vaughan Williams, ed. The English Hymnal. London: Oxford University Press, n.d. (1906 ed.). Hymn No. 402 (p. 546).
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Sengupt, Kim (5 May 2010). "SAS comes out fighting as details of top-secret missions are exposed". The Independent.
  8. ^ Popham, Peter (30 May 1996). "SAS confronts its enemy within". The Independent. London. Retrieved 9 January 2011.
  9. ^ BBC Radio 4, Sun 15 Jan 1989.

External links[edit]