In this day and age progress means faster computers, fewer diseases, and better nourishment—all good things. So progress is always good, right? Well, not necessarily. In his brief satire The Celestial Rail-Road, Nathaniel Hawthorne shows that progressive new ideas about Christianity lead nowhere pleasant.
The Celestial Rail-Road uses as its backstory The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan. In Bunyan’s allegory a pilgrim sets out to find the Celestial City. Along the way he is beset by trials, crossing the Slough of Despond, overcoming the flames of Apollyon, and surviving the persecution at Vanity Fair. With this backdrop, Hawthorne’s story begins. Two hundred years have passed, and the once dangerous road to the Celestial City has been replaced by a safer, quicker route—the Celestial Railroad.
The narrator of the story, a citizen of the City of Destruction, decides to take a trip to the Celestial City, or as he puts it, “Having a little time upon my hands, I resolved to gratify a liberal curiosity by making a trip thither” (Hawthorne 17). With these words, the narrator embarks on the journey. On board the train, he meets a quite knowledgeable man called Mr. Smooth-it-away who remains his companion throughout the trip.
The first point of interest on this trip is the Slough of Despond. Mr. Smooth-it-away assures the narrator that the bridge over the slough is sturdy, built on a foundation of books about pagan philosophy, morality, and religions of all sorts. Looking towards the front of the train, the narrator notices that the engineer of the train is Apollyon himself, belching out smoke and flame as he runs the engine. To this, the narrator responds, “Bravo, bravo! …This shows the liberality of the age; this proves, if anything can, that all musty prejudices are in a fair way to be obliterated” (Hawthorne 20). A few moments later, the company spies two foot-travelers on their way to the Celestial City. The passengers jeer at these pilgrims and Apollyon blows smoke and flame at them. The passengers note the “preposterous obstinacy of these honest people in persisting to groan and stumble along the difficult pathway, rather than take advantage of modern improvements” (Hawthorne 21).
The modern improvements are readily apparent: the train passes through the Hill Difficulty by means of a tunnel. In addition, the Valley of the Shadow of Death has been lit with glowing red light so that it is hardly frightening at all. Hardly, for the narrator does experience “foolish palpitations of the heart” as he enters the valley and sees several hideous, smoke-wreathed faces (Hawthorne 23). Mr. Smooth-it-away assures the narrator that these apparitions are nothing more than figments of the imagination. In the middle of the valley, the train stops and the passengers exit briefly. Here the narrator meets Mr. Take-it-easy, who says of the Celestial City, “I heard such bad accounts, that I never took pains to climb the hill, on which the city stands. No business doing—no fun going on—nothing to drink, and no smoking allowed—and a thrumming of church-music from morning till night! I would not stay in such a place, if they offered me house-room and living free” (Hawthorne 24-25). Re-boarding the train, the passengers eventually reach Vanity Fair. This city has been so revolutionized that it no longer persecutes travelers as in the days of The Pilgrim’s Progress; instead, it welcomes the train’s passengers, offering them all the lavish luxuries that can be bought. The narrator notes that many get very bad bargains at this fair, selling their consciences, hearts, and even lives for paltry prizes such as fame, beauty, and pleasure.
Throughout this satire, Hawthorne tells a cautionary tale. Using the Celestial Railroad to symbolize “innovations” in Christianity, Hawthorne contrasts this with the lowly pilgrims whose slow, difficult path to the Celestial City represents the “old ways” of Christianity. The new route appears at first to be an improvement, but it has a darker side. Mr. Smooth-it-away, the narrator’s suave companion, ultimately proves to be a demon whose only desire is to see men’s souls lost forever. Vanity Fair welcomes travelers, but only so long as they embrace the material pleasures found there. Travelers at the fair are left penniless and unhappy. Seeing this, the narrator becomes uneasy, an apprehension that is heightened when the two pilgrims arrive at Vanity Fair and warn the narrator that the Celestial Railroad doesn’t lead to heaven. At this, Mr. Smooth-it-away takes the narrator aside and says, “Poh, nonsense! … These fellows ought to be indicted for a libel. If the law stood as it once did in Vanity Fair, we should see them grinning through the iron-bars of the prison-window” (Hawthorne 29). Perhaps shaken by the pilgrims’ warning, the narrator continues on his journey and finally reaches the River of Death. As he exits the train at the river’s edge, he notices the two pilgrims once again. They are just emerging from the river on the other side, and a great company of angels stands ready to greet them and welcome them to the Celestial City. Seeing this, the narrator observes, “I wish we were secure of as good a reception” (Hawthorne 32). The story ends just as the narrator realizes that the ferry across the river isn’t leading him to the Celestial City at all: it’s taking him to hell.
Hawthorne’s point is unmistakable: progressive new ideas about Christianity lead straight to hell. Though Hawthorne was reputedly dubious of organized religion, he seems in The Celestial Rail-Road to nod approvingly at the “old ways” of Christianity and encourage a different sort of progress. Long after Hawthorne and his Celestial Railroad, C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive” (Lewis 36). Today, as in Hawthorne’s time, many churches want to be progressive. However, until they turn back to the “old ways” of Christianity and the God of the Bible, they will never make true progress.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Macmillian Publishing Company. New York, NY, 1960.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Celestial Rail-Road. The Trinity Forum: McLean, VA, 2003.