Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 698
John Bunyan is born in the small English village of Elstow. His father is a tinker, or metal worker, who owns his own cottage, pays taxes, and conforms to the Church of England. John goes to school only briefly, and by the age of ten he considers himself a captive of the Devil and is given to cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming God. He experiences terrible dreams of Hell, fire, and judgment and eternal darkness, but ignores them and becomes a ringleader of young men who pursue their sins with enthusiasm. All the while he is learning the trade of tinker from his father.
As a teenager, John escapes death from near drowning, from a poisonous snake, and from musket fire (a companion who took his place as sentinel was shot in the head and died). He recognizes his survival as the grace of God in spite of his many sins. He gets married and starts going to church as much as twice a day. He describes himself as bewitched by the priests, vestments, and services of the Church of England. For about a year he works at controlling his vile tongue and tries to give his neighbors the impression he is a godly man.
Aware of his hypocrisy but not knowing what to do about it, one day his work takes him to Bedford, where he overhears women sitting in the sun and talking about God and the new life they enjoy as a consequence of their relationships with Jesus Christ. He is impressed by their happy and blessed condition and makes it his business to pay many visits and learn from these Puritans. He starts reading the Bible with new eyes and finds the Epistles of the Apostle Paul sweet and pleasant. Still, he fears there is a limit to the number of people who can go to Heaven and fears it is too late for him. An extensive study of the Bible under the guidance of Mr. Gifford, a nonconformist preacher in Bedford, propels him forward in his spiritual journey, but in his heart he is not fully persuaded that he can be saved until he reads Luther’s Commentary on Galatians. He embraces Luther’s message, for it soothes his conscience, and he prefers it before all books except the Bible.
John’s next mental struggle centers on a fear that he has committed the unpardonable sin. He describes many emotional swings from hope of salvation to fear of damnation; reads about Francis Spira, who killed himself in despair; and contemplates suicide. He fears he has committed a sin for which Jesus Christ did not die, has doubts that God could love him, and describes fearful temptations from the Devil. Balancing the despair are feelings of hope resulting from reading the Bible and the prayers and encouragement of his wife as well as Mr. Gifford and other church friends. For two months he is torn between the opposing views, sometimes changing his mind twenty times a day.
Finally, one day John is walking in a field and realizes that his salvation is not up to him and has nothing to do with his own mood swings. Rather, it comes to him as a gift of grace from the righteousness of God in Heaven. John declares himself liberated, much like a prisoner who has had leg irons removed, and he then summarizes additional spiritual discoveries: He is amazed by answers to prayer, he survives an illness called consumption, and he comes to the end of his angst concerning his own salvation. He tells his wife he feels called to become a preacher to share with others the joy he experiences.
For five years, John preaches at the Bedford separatist church and various other nonconformist locations. In 1660, he is arrested and placed in prison. He has no license to preach and is indicted for conducting unlawful assemblies as well as for not conforming to the national worship pattern of the Church of England. He assumes he will be martyred for his faith and then writes the account of his spiritual journey. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners is published in his sixth year in prison.