Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul by John M. Barry


I became interested in Roger Williams when I read Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates (reviewed here).  She described Williams as a troublesome teenager to the Puritans, a very religious man devoted to conscience as he defined it.  Now that I have read this book, I have come to think of him as a brilliant and original thinker.  

In England he was an assistant to the great jurist Sir Edward Coke from whom he learned great respect for law and the importance of procedure, e.g., habeas corpus, and in a different vein, he learned how political power operates.  Shortly after arriving he offended the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony first by refusing an offer to become a minister and then by stating that the magistrates of the colony representing the civil government had no authority to punish those who transgressed in the commandments that deal with an individual’s connection to God. e.g., taking the Lord’s name in vain, having another god before Him, failing to keep the Sabbath holy.  The other commandments that relate to people’s relations with each other were a different matter.  Even at this early stage, he began to believe that the government properly had jurisdiction over lying, stealing, murder, but not a man’s connection to God.

For this and other unorthodox views, the Puritans banished him from the colony.  They were planning to capture him to return him to England where he would have been mutilated and put in jail, but with John Winthrop’s warning, he was able to escape.  This was in January and he survived only because he had befriended the Indians and they cared for him until spring.  He settled in what eventually became Rhode Island.  From the outset every man had freedom to worship as he wished and there was no state church.  Let me add quickly that this did not come soon or easily to the inhabitants and the neighbors were quite uneasy about this arrangement.

Over the course of his long life (1603 to 1683) Williams came to believe that the power to govern comes from the governed.  Early in his life he experienced the problem with James I believing in the divine right of the king with no limitations.  In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the belief that God conferred the right to govern to those selected to be magistrates caused him problems.  It is impressive that he was able to see and articulate what now seems normal to us given his experience.  

He spoke of the wall of separation between the church and the state; this wall was to protect the garden of the church from the wilderness of the world.  In his view "forc't Worshpp stincks in Gods Nostrills."

The author points out that tension continues to exist in America between our strong belief in religious freedom and our attachment to the concept of John Winthrop’s “City on the Hill,” an example to the world of a tightly knit, loving community of believers.  It’s a little hard to work up any enthusiasm for the “city on the hill” founded by those who fled their home country because of persecution and upon arrival in a new world began to persecute anyone who deviated from their views.  You know it's a tough crowd that refers to the Pope as the Whore of Babylon. 

In a reference to another book by John M. Barry, I read that he overwhelms you with details and is melodramatic.  I would say that accurately describes this book, but I found almost all his descriptions of great interest.  He begins with a lengthy coverage of James I, Sir Edmund Coke, and Sir Francis Bacon (not to be confused with Roger Bacon) and the events of the time.  Naturally the events in Massachusetts are detailed, as are Williams’ two trips to England.  I found Williams to be an amazing man who lived in interesting times and I loved reading what Barry wrote about him.

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