Or, A brief relation of the exceeding mercy of God in
Christ, to his poor servant John Bunyan
John Bunyan's spiritual autobiography written during his years in prison (for unlicensed preaching) during the Restoration, and first published in that fateful year 1666.
Bunyan, from a poor farming family, had been a soldier in the New Model Army. It was quite likely here that he formed his commitment to the Puritan branch of Protestantism, which led to him joining the Puritan Free Church in Bedford in 1653 after his return to civilian life, and ultimately to a career as an itinerant preacher.
Best known for his enduring picaresque The Pilgrim's Progress, Grace Abounding has been seen as prefiguring many of that works' themes. Bunyan traces his soul's journey from the perdition of sabbath breaking, blasphemy and wantoness that he characterises as his youth, through a mystical revelation (see the last quote below) in 1650 that sets him on a sometimes tortuous path to an ultimate reconciliation with God.
The work remains a favourite with many Christians today, for the rest of us its enduring value perhaps lies in the fact that it represents both one of the earliest accounts of a 'psychological' or inner life in the English language, and also one of the first autobiographical works by an 'ordinary' (though extraordinary) common man. The seventeenth century was a time of social, spiritual and political upheaval in England as elsewhere, and Grace Abounding offers an insight into changing perceptions of the self as Europe moved from the Age of Faith to the Age of Reason.
Historian Christopher Hill has noted that aspects of Puritan and Quaker spirituality in the years after the Restoration can be seen as radicals abandoning hope of bettering the material world, and in their disillusionment investing their energies in the quest for an inner liberation.
Although the subject matter is probably off-putting to the average modern reader, the vigour and earthiness of Bunyan's prose and the honesty with with he gives us access to his very personal battle with Antichrist make Grace Abounding an excellent read even today.
As for my own natural life, for the time that I was without God in the world, it was indeed according to the course of this world, and 'the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience' (Eph. 2.2, 3). It was my delight to be 'taken captive by the devil at his will' (II Tim. 2.26). Being filled with all unrighteousness, the which did also so strongly work and put forth itself, both in my heart and life, and that from a child, that I had but few equals, especially considering my years, which were tender, being few, both for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God.
This also have I taken notice of with thanksgiving; when I was a soldier, I, with others, were drawn out to go to such a place to besiege it; but when I was just ready to go, one of the company desired to go in my room; to which, when I had consented, he took my place; and coming to the siege, as he stood sentinel, he was shot into the head with a musket bullet, and died.
One day as I was passing into the field . . . this sentence fell upon my soul. Thy righteousness is in heaven. And methought, withal, I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, was my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, he wants my righteousness, for that was just before him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, "The same yesterday, today, and forever." Heb. 13:8. Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away; so that from that time those dreadful scriptures of God1 left off to trouble me; now went I also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God.
1. Bunyan is referring to the passages of the Bible which describe the damnation awaiting sinners, which had troubled him greatly since his childhood.
The full text can be downloaded from http://www.johnbunyan.org/
Most factual information freely adapted from the preface to the Penguin Classics edition. Dodgy opinions are my own. Christopher Hill makes his comments in 'The Century of Revolution', Norton, 1961.