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This article is about people as pilgrims. For other uses, see Pilgrim (disambiguation).
For the English settlers of New England, see Pilgrims (Plymouth Colony).

A pilgrim (from the Latin peregrinus) is a traveler (literally one who has come from afar) who is on a journey to a holy place. Typically, this is a physical journeying (often on foot) to some place of special significance to the adherent of a particular religious belief system. In the spiritual literature of Christianity, the concept of pilgrim and pilgrimage may refer to the experience of life in the world (considered as a period of exile) or to the inner path of the spiritual aspirant from a state of wretchedness to a state of beatitude.


Muslim pilgrims at the Jordan River, near Jericho, in 1891
Russian Orthodox pilgrims on returning from Jerusalem in 1891
Hindu pilgrims going to the Palani Murugan temple in 1905

Pilgrims and the making of pilgrimages are common in many religions, including the faiths in ancient Egypt, Persia in the Mithraic period, India, China, and Japan. The Greek and Roman customs of consulting the gods at local oracles, such as those at Dodona or Delphi, both in Greece, are widely known. In Greece, pilgrimages could either be personal or state-sponsored.[1]

In the early period of Hebrew history, pilgrims traveled to Shiloh, Dan, Bethel, and eventually Jerusalem, see also Three Pilgrimage Festivals, a practice followed by other Abrahamic religions. While many religious pilgrims travel toward a specific destination, a physical location is not a necessity. One group of pilgrims in early Celtic Christianity were the Peregrinari Pro Christ, (Pilgrims for Christ), or "white martyrs". They left their homes to wander in the world.[2] This sort of pilgrimage was an ascetic religious practice, as the pilgrim left the security of home and the clan for an unknown destination, in complete trust of Divine Providence. These travels often resulted in the founding of new abbeys and spreading Christianity among the pagan population in Britain as well as in continental Europe.

Modern era[edit]

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, like many fans of Elvis Presley, visited Graceland.

Many religions still espouse pilgrimage as a spiritual activity. The great Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca (now in Saudi Arabia), is obligatory for every able Muslim. Other Islamic devotional pilgrimages, particularly to the tombs of Shia Imams or Sufi saints, are also popular across the Islamic world.

Modern Orthodox pilgrim in Kiev Pechersk Lavra, Ukraine

Beginning in 1894, Christian ministers under the direction of Charles Taze Russell were appointed to travel to and work with local Bible Students congregations for a few days at a time; within a few years appointments were extended internationally, formally designated as "pilgrims", and scheduled for twice-yearly, week-long visits at each local congregation.[3][4] International Bible Students Association (IBSA) pilgrims were excellent speakers, and their local talks were typically well-publicized and well-attended.[5] Prominent Bible Students A. H. Macmillan and J. F. Rutherford were both appointed pilgrims before they joined the board of directors of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania; the IBSA later adopted the name Jehovah's Witnesses and renamed pilgrims as traveling overseers.[6][7]

A modern phenomenon is the cultural pilgrimage, which while also about personal journey, involves a secular response. Destinations for such pilgrims can include historic sites of national or cultural importance, and can be defined as places "of cultural significance: an artist's home, the location of a pivotal event or an iconic destination."[8] An example might be a baseball fan visiting Cooperstown, New York. Destinations for cultural pilgrims include examples such as Auschwitz concentration camp, Gettysburg Battlefield, the Ernest Hemingway House or even Disneyland.[8] Cultural pilgrims may also travel on religious pilgrimage routes, such as the Way of St. James, with the perspective of making it a historic or architectural tour rather than a religious experience.[9]

Secular pilgrims also exist under communist regimes. These devotional but strictly secular pilgrims visited locations such as the Mausoleum of Lenin or Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, or the Birthplace of Karl Marx. Such visits were sometimes state-sponsored.

Notable pilgrims[edit]

Pope John Paul II was known as the "pilgrim pope" for his travels.

Many national and international leaders have gone on pilgrimages for both personal and political reasons.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hanges, James Constantine (July 2000). "Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in Ancient Greece by Matthew Dillon". The Journal of Religion 80 (3): 543–545. doi:10.1086/490704. JSTOR 1206041. 
  2. ^ "The Celtic Saints". Heart O' Glory. 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-23. 
  3. ^ "Noteworthy Events in the Modern-day History of Jehovah’s Witnesses", Jehovah's Witnesses - Proclaimers of God's Kingdom, page 719, "1894 Traveling overseers that in time came to be known as pilgrims (today, circuit and district overseers) are sent out in connection with the Society’s program for visiting congregations"
  4. ^ "Sweden", 1991 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, page 126
  5. ^ "Switzerland and Liechtenstein", 1987 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, page 123, "'Pilgrims' were traveling representatives of the [Watch Tower] Society, as circuit overseers are today. Their efforts contributed to the unity of the brothers and brought them into closer contact with God’s organization. The Society would announce in Zion's Watch Tower the proposed itinerary of the pilgrim brothers, and congregations and smaller groups along these routes would then write and express their desire to be visited. The pilgrims were excellent speakers, and their public lectures were usually well attended. In 1913, for example, their audiences in Switzerland totaled some 8,000 persons."
  6. ^ "Development of the Organization Structure", Jehovah's Witnesses - Proclaimers of God's Kingdom, page 222, "[Beginning] in 1894, arrangements were made for the [Watch Tower] Society to have well-qualified speakers travel more regularly to help the Bible Students to grow in knowledge and appreciation for the truth and to draw them closer together. ...An effort was made to have each group in the United States and Canada visited twice a year, though not usually by the same brother. In selecting these traveling speakers, emphasis was placed on meekness, humility, and clear understanding of the truth as well as loyal adherence to it and ability to teach it with clarity. Theirs was by no means a paid ministry. They were simply provided with food and lodging by the local brothers, and to the extent necessary, the Society helped them with travel expenses. They came to be known as pilgrims. Many of these traveling representatives of the Society were dearly loved by those whom they served. A. H. Macmillan, a Canadian, is remembered as a brother to whom God’s Word proved to be "like a burning fire."
  7. ^ "Part 1—United States of America", CMP'1975 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, page 83
  8. ^ a b Welsch, Chris (January 3, 2007). "Travelers define such a pilgrimage in many different ways". Star Tribune. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  9. ^ "Cultural Pilgrimage to Compostela". Circa Tours. February 17, 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  10. ^ Kumar, Nirmal (May 1954). "My Days with Gandhi". The American Journal of Sociology 59 (6): 597–598. doi:10.1086/221466. JSTOR 2772622. 


External links[edit]

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Traditional folk song about a pilgrim