John Bunyan Essay - Critical Essays

John Bunyan Long Fiction Analysis

John Bunyan viewed his life as a commitment to Christian stewardship, to be carried on by gospel preaching and instructive writing. Although practically everything he wrote reflects that commitment, he possessed the ability to create interesting variations on similar themes, keeping in mind the needs of his lower-class audience. Thus, The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory of human life and universal religious experience. In The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, Bunyan abandoned allegory and developed a dialogue between Mr. Wiseman and Mr. Attentive through which he publicized the aims and methods of the late seventeenth century bourgeois scoundrel, whose lack of principle and honesty was well known among Bunyan’s readers (the victims of Mr. Badman). Finally, his first major work, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, is a “spiritual autobiography” that presents adventures and experiences not unlike those undergone by any human being at any moment in history who must wrestle with the fundamental questions of life. The function of Bunyan’s prose in every case was to spread the Word of God and to establish a holy community of humankind in which that Word could be practiced. Once the Word took hold, Bunyan believed, the world would become a veritable garden of peace and order.

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners

Published in 1666, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners remains one of the most significant spiritual autobiographies by an English writer. Bunyan’s style is perhaps more formal in this piece than in The Pilgrim’s Progress, although he did well in balancing the heavy phrasing of Scripture (as it appeared in the Authorized Version) with picturesque, colloquial English. A richly emotional work in which such highly charged experiences as the Last Judgment and the tortures of Hell become as clear as the mundane experiences of daily existence, Bunyan’s autobiography is a narrative of spiritual adventure set against the backdrop of a real village in Britain. Although he omitted specific names and dates, obviously to universalize the piece, Bunyan did not forget to describe what he had seen after his return from the army: the popular game of “cat,” with its participants and spectators; the bell ringers at the parish church; the poor women sitting, in sunlight, before the door of a village house; the puddles in the road. Woven into this fabric of reality are the experiences of the dreamer; the people of Bedford appear as though in a vision on the sunny side of a high mountain, as the dreamer, shut out by an encompassing wall, shivers in the cold storm. Such interweaving of reality and fantasy was to take place again, with greater force and allegorical complexity, in the first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Bunyan’s intention in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners was to point the way by which average Christians, convinced of their own sins, can be led by God’s grace to endure the pain of spiritual crisis. He determined to record how, as an obscure Bedfordshire tinker, he had changed his course from sloth and sin and had become an eloquent and fearless man of God. Of course, when he wrote the work, he had been in prison for ten years, and (as he states in the preface) he set about to enlighten and assist those from whom he had, for so long a period, been separated.

From the confinement of his prison cell, Bunyan felt the desire to survey his entire life—to grasp his soul in his hands and take account of himself. Thus, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners emerged from the heart and the spirit of a man isolated from humankind to become not merely one more testimonial for the instruction of the faithful but a serious psychological self-study—one so truthful and so sincere (and also so spontaneous) that it may be the first work of its kind. Bunyan’s language is simple and direct, and his constant references to Scripture emphasize the typicality of his experiences as a struggling Christian. His fears, doubts, and moments of comfort are filtered through the encounter between David and Goliath and God’s deliverance of the young shepherd,...

(The entire section is 1715 words.)