Guilt and Subjectivity in Bunyan’s Grace Abounding

As I prepare for my qualifying exam this summer I will be blogging through some of the books I am reading as a means to clarifying my thinking.  These posts are not intended to be terribly original or fully developed, but merely gesture towards some interesting lines of analysis.

Having considered some of the prophetic overtones of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in my last post, I now want to turn to his autobiographical Grace Abounding to the Chief of SinnersGrace Abounding was written while Bunyan was serving a lengthy jail term for preaching publically without a license and was published in 1666.  Like Pilgrim’s Progress the text deals with the struggles and temptations of the Christian life, but unlike the better known work Grace Abounding does so within the genre of the conversion narrative.

This in itself is interesting, especially vis a vis my continuing interest in the development of the conversion narrative over the course of the long eighteenth century (see my previous post on Methodist conversion narratives) and in fact Grace Abounding has been on my reading list for quite some time.  I’m going to deal with some of the interplay between Bunyan’s narrative and later evangelical narratives at length in my next post so what I want to do here is point out some of the more important and interesting facets of the narrative that help us better understand the particularities of Bunyan’s life, theology, and work.

John Bunyan in Prison

To begin with, the most noticeable aspect of Bunyan’s narrative is the overriding sense of guilt that dominates the first two thirds of the text.  This is somewhat typical of similar Calvinist conversion narratives (see, for instance, Jonathan Edwards’ Faithful Narrative) as distinct from Methodist conversion narrative.  On the surface this seems somewhat unusual as the Calvinists believed that, once saved, the elect could not lose their salvation while Methodists believed that a person could “backslide” away from Christ.  However for the Calvinist most of the guilt and terror comes before conversion as the seeker worries over whether he or she is one of the elect and is born down by the burden of perceived sin.  A tremendous amount of time is spent in these narratives detailing sins and the resultant guilt.  Take, for example, this passage from Grace Abounding:

Now I began to conceive peace in my Soul, and methought I saw as if the Tempter did lear and steal away from me, as being ashamed of what he had done. At the same time also I had my sin, and the blood of Christ thus represented to me, that my sin, when compared to the blood of Christ, was no more to it, than this, little clot, or stone before me is to this vast and wide field that here I see. This gave me good encouragement for the space of two or three hours; in which time also, methought I saw, by faith, the Son of God, as suffering for my sins; but because it tarried not I therefore sunk in my spirit under exceeding guilt again.

This is not to say that a similar sense of guilt is not present in narratives by Arminian Methodists.  Indeed, one of the key elements of their narratives is this consciousness of sin that first motivates the individual to seek for salvation.  However there is not of this vacillating back and forth over whether or not one is elect and, after salvation there is surprisingly little guilt or concern.

Despite the fact that guilt is a common characteristic of Calvinist conversion narratives, the sense of guilt that dominates Bunyan’s narrative borders on the neurotic.  Indeed, as William James famously observes in his Varieties of Religious Experience, Bunyan “was a typical case of the psychopathic temperament, sensitive of conscience to a diseased degree, beset by doubts, fears and insistent ideas, and a victim of verbal automatisms, both motor and sensory.  These were usually texts of Scripture which, sometimes damnatory and sometimes favorable, would come in a half-hallucinatory form as if they were voices, and fasten on his mind and buffet it between them like a shuttlecock.”

Most famously, Bunyan spent years obsessing over whether or not he had committed the “unforgivable” sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit.  Large portions of Grace Abounding are taken up with his mental vacillation and anguish over this question and he does in fact seem to obsess over certain words, phrases, and scripture passages.  In modern day psychological terms we might say that Bunyan was a clear manic depressive who went through extreme bouts of depression and melancholy characterized by obsessive thoughts; bouts that were promptly followed by incredible bursts of spiritual elation and a sensibility of God’s love.

It is this extreme obsessive, manic, and internalized nature of the text, however, that is perhaps as intriguing from a literary perspective as it is tiresome to the reader, for it signals a larger sea change in the way narratives are constructed.  Remember, Bunyan published Grace Abounding in 1666 at a time when poetry was still the dominant artistic form – and make no mistake Grace Abounding, even as an autobiography, is important from both an artistic and literary perspective.  For, by shifting the narration of the story primarily to internal spiritual struggle instead of external action, Bunyan subtly reshapes our notion of narrator and action in a way that suggests the complex internal subjectivity and perspective of the novel.

Furthermore, the narrative structure of the text is unique in that the first two thirds of the narrative are taken up with Bunyan’s internal struggle for spiritual freedom, while the final third is consumed with his imprisonment and struggle for physical freedom.  Indeed, the two sections parallel each other both in form and in the way Bunyan conflates physical and spiritual freedom.  Far from being an inconsequential addition to his personal struggle, the final third of the text indicates the extent to which Bunyan’s external life and actions were bound up with his inner experience.  All this is not to say that Grace Abounding is a novel only that the type of spiritual autobiography it participates in is an important (and often ignored) forerunner to the novelistic form.

Indeed, it is this complex internal religious subjectivity that informs outward action that is perhaps the most engaging thing about Bunyan’s narrative and it clearly powerfully informs how he interacts with a largely hostile public sphere that persecutes and imprisons him.  In my next post, I will consider at greater length how the religious subjectivity Bunyan helped spawn came into conversation with the Evangelical Conversion narrative genre at large and the burgeoning Enlightenment discourse on religion, perception, and subjectivity.

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