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Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and…

by John M. Barry

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This book incisively links Roger Williams, Edward Coke (judicial review), and Francis Bacon (scientific method versus accepted truth) to 21st century anguish surrounding individual rights in danger from those using legislatures and courts to establish a proscribed morality. ( )
  renclbb | Sep 28, 2017 |
Summary: A study of the life of Roger Williams focusing on the intellectual influences upon Williams, his journey to Massachusetts, banishment and founding of Rhode Island, and his signal ideas of freedom of conscience and government by consent of the governed.

Questions of church and state, a "Christian" vision for America, and the battle to be free to believe as one wills and practice those beliefs are as contemporary as the most recent national elections, but trace back to our very beginnings in New England. Reading this account of the life of Roger Williams gives me a deeper appreciation of a figure who laid the groundwork of the protections of both religious liberty and from religious tyranny that we enjoy, and the recognition of the human right of freedom of conscience.

Many accounts of Williams' life begin with his banishment from Massachusetts and his flight into the wilderness, taking shelter with the Narragansetts he had befriended, and then establishing the town that would become Providence, leading eventually to the chartering of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. This account begins by tracing his youthful apprenticeship with Edward Coke, one of the greatest legal minds of the age, and a steadfast resister of royal tyranny, whose resistance resulted in his going to the Tower of London. He also closely observed Francis Bacon, the great scientist, but also chancellor to King James, and from him developed a commitment to reaching conclusions by evidence that led later to his own independence in forming theological views, leading to his break with the founders in Massachusetts.

Like many Puritans, Williams, who for a time was sheltered as a "chaplain" to a distinguished family, faced the scrutiny of Bishop Laud, and like many, fled to America. The Massachusetts colony was established with a vision of being a "city on the hill" where Christian faith shaped every aspect of the colony's life and where religious and governmental functions were closely enough aligned to be at one. Williams, exposed to this theocratic government concluded that government could enforce only those parts of the law (the second table) having to do with human beings relationships with each other. To try to enforce the first would be to intrude upon the individual conscience. Williams also reached conclusions that questioned the basis upon which colonists obtained the native people's land. Eventually, the authorities, including close friends from England, banished him and even attempted at one point to seize him by force and take him to England, where he likely would have been executed. Only flight in mid-winter saved him, and led to the beginnings of Rhode Island.

From the beginning, Williams vision was to set up a place, not where anarchy ruled, but where conscience was free and people could believe and worship as they pleased (or not). At various points we see Williams fending off Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut from carving up Rhode Island, even as he also intercedes with Native tribes to avert war with the colonists.

Eventually this leads to a return of Williams to the England he had fled to obtain a charter that would formally recognize Rhode Island (and Providence Plantations--its full name) as a colony in its own right. Furthermore, Williams is proposing the radical idea of a colony with no state church. The account of how he does this, as well as a significant work he published during a second visit, The Bloudy Tenent is fascinating, and along with the early influences in his life, often overlooked. In The Bloudy Tenent he argues both for freedom of conscience and for the idea that the state's power to govern should derive from the consent of the governed. These ideas, via John Locke, shaped the thinking of the founders.

Williams did not remain unscarred in all the conflicts he faced. After his banishment, he took up briefly with the Baptists, but then never again joined or formed a church. He continued to believe, but his significant contributions would be in the learning of Native languages and his relations with Native peoples, his leadership in Rhode Island and politically savvy relations in England, and his political thought that laid the foundations for freedom of conscience, religious liberty and freedom from religious tyranny, which has also frustrated efforts to enforce a Christian conscience upon the nation that continues to this day.

Barry offers a narrative that helps us see the combination of intellectual influences and life events that shaped the thought and actions of Williams. It strikes me that the peculiar genius and grace of Williams was to create a space for the liberties and form of government he believed in without attacking those who attacked him. He worked skillfully and shrewdly and yet as a man of peace in the midst of warring factions in the colonies and civil conflict with bloody executions in England. It seems we could use more like him. ( )
  BobonBooks | Nov 15, 2016 |
This book tells a remarkable tale about a remarkable man living during remarkable times. If it wasn't real history, it would read as very compelling historical fiction featuring a larger-than-life protagonist. But it really did happen. After reading his book, I also have little doubt that Barry's interpretation is about as accurate a description as you are likely to find.

Roger Williams was born circa 1603 in England and died in 1683. He is arguably the father of the concept of separating state from church, politics from religion. He was not the first to conceive of the idea but he was the first to 'walk the walk' as it were by founding a community in the New World that allowed its residents the freedom to worship God as they wished without fear of persecution. That community was, and is, Providence, Rhode Island. A generation later, Williams' writings and ideas influenced and informed many of the founding fathers of the United States.

What surprised me while reading this was the fact that Williams was such a maverick in his thinking. I always had a vague idea in mind that the puritans must have been a tolerant bunch since they were escaping persecution in England. What this book informed me is that they were even more intolerant than the English! John Winthrop, governor of the new colonial charter, had a vision for Massachusetts of a "city on a hill", that would shine a beacon of religious conversion unto the wilds of the new world. There was no room for any religious view outside of the puritan one in that vision. Anyone who dared put voice to a dissenting opinion about the nature of religion was banished - often after having their ears cut off! Further offenses against the status quo resulted in even more severe punishment, up to and including being put to death. As a matter of fact, there was a lot of killing described in this book. Many historical figures in both England and New England died violently as a result of heretical convictions. The most horrific method entailed hanging the victim, cutting him down before he died, then disemboweling and drawing and quartering him while still alive. Even King Charles I was executed for treason in 1649. The crowd that gathered to see that particular spectacle was described as shouting with a joyful roar as his head was mounted on a spike on a wall of the Tower of London as though, "... a great victory had been won." Barbaric times. Navigating these treacherous religious and political waters, Roger Williams changed the world with his ideas and also managed to keep his ears, tongue and head until he died of old age at ~80 years old. This speaks volumes to his intelligence, charisma, and personal bravery.

Regarding the book's narrative; As I stated at the beginning, Barry narrates a story that reads like historical fiction. The facts are exhaustively and impressively researched but are also laid out in a riveting fashion. Further reading on the subject is easily found by way of the included bibliography. After a bit of a slow start where Barry describes the political and social landscape of England that Roger Williams grew up in, the book really hits its stride when the focus shifts to the New World. An outgoing personality and deep-thinking individual, Williams was the first Englishman to take time to study and befriend the native Indians. Doing so saved his life on more than one occasion when he angered the puritans in Massachusetts and his Indian friends gave him sanctuary.

Williams' logical thinking, and early influence from such notables as Sir Edward Coke and Sir Francis Bacon, led him to take the view that, "each man is sovereign in his own head", and, "his home is as his own castle." These are rights that we take for granted today but, in those days, few people believed this! In fact, most western people in the 17th century believed in the divine right of kings to rule. That the king's position was appointed directly from God and that, as a result, the king could do no wrong. Today, we view British royalty mostly as wealthy people with no real political power. In Williams' day, the king held the lives of his subjects, (not citizens!), in his hands and there was no one to dispute his divine right to do as he wished with those lives - until Williams came along and began publishing his well-considered thoughts about personal freedoms. Again, how he managed to expound these ideas and keep his head is simply astonishing!

This book is highly recommended to anyone even remotely interested in this period of English and American history. It really is a remarkable work that manages to entertain while it educates. A rare thing, that. ( )
  ScoLgo | Dec 23, 2015 |
The relationship between religion and the political state in the United States is a complex issue. While some cite a line from a Thomas Jefferson letter advocating a 'wall between church and state' as a guiding (and amusingly, sacred) text, the issues consistently overlap in American life. However, the legal protection for freedom of religion that developed in the United States was a radical departure from the government control of religion in Europe over the preceding centuries.

So, how did the idea of religious liberty become so influential in the United States? Many probably imagine that it came with the Puritans, who saw the ways that both government and the church could become corrupted and emigrated to New England in search of freedom. Less well known, however, is that they wanted the freedom to create a similar system where the government could legally uphold the orthodox church – political ways to preserve the purity of their envisioned “City on a Hill.” Instead, it was dissidents to these Puritans, including Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers, who sought legal protections for religious liberty so they could practice their faith without fear of punishment.

Ironically, a few Puritans themselves sought religious liberty too when their ideas were deemed unorthodox – and thus illegal – by officials in the Massachusetts colony. The most famous of these was Roger Williams, a Puritan theologian who, after refusing to recant some of his teaching, was banished from Massachusetts and ended up founding Rhode Island. Throughout his life, he would not only practically seek religious liberty for himself, but he would provide the theoretical and theological argument endorsing such liberty.

The ways that life, education, experience, and a confluence of significant historical events shaped Williams and his thinking about religious liberty is the subject of John M. Barry's “Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.” Barry, a historian who has written well regarded accounts of the 1917 influenza outbreak and the 1927 Mississippi River flood, argues that Williams is the central character in shaping America's unique relationship of church and state, with its protection of religious freedom. While such an argument is an oversimplification of a very complex story that has evolved over four centuries, the biography of Williams certainly highlights almost all of the main parts of that larger story.

In some ways, Williams is a tragic and inspiring figure. Despite his influence, he sacrificed an easy life to live out his beliefs about government and religion, and he passed opportunities for financial gain for the sake of the larger good. Through his connections in British government, he was able to attain British protection of the nascent Rhode Island colony and its unique religious liberty; through his careful leadership in Rhode Island, he turned a rather rag-tag group of inhabitants into a group who, by majority rule, would uphold religious liberty even in trying circumstances.

Barry writes the story of how Williams came to espouse such beliefs and how he lived them out in his life in an overlapping account. The early sections detail his education – both formal and informal education – in his native England, making particular note of the influence of Edward Coke on Williams' thinking. Roger Williams was a stenographer for the brilliant jurist who famously opposed Francis Bacon. Coke's arguments about the importance of the law itself, as opposed to the whims of the rulers, greatly shaped Williams ideas not only about the limits of rulers and the authority of laws properly enacted, enforced, and adjudicated but also about the nature and limits of religious authority.

In time, Williams would trade on his influence with such leaders in Oliver Cromwell's era to gain British sanction for his experimental government in Rhode Island. He also would write letters, pamphlets, and books espousing his ideas on such matters, which likely influenced the key political philosopher just coming of age during that period, John Locke (who in turn would greatly influence the key generation of America's founders, especially Thomas Jefferson).

More exciting, though, was Williams life in New England, first through his efforts to be part of the Massachusetts colony and then, after his banishment, through his formation and protection of the Rhode Island settlements. Barry details episode after episode where Massachusetts leaders try to undercut Williams, force him to change, and then, after he established Rhode Island, try to wrest control of the land away from him. Barry also recounts some of the key internal challenges that the nascent colony faced, including the influence of some people more interested in personal profit than religious liberty or any of Williams other ideas about government and law.

Occasionally, Barry is repetitive, and some might tire from his sometimes lengthy explorations of the philosophical and legal strands of Williams' thought (though I certainly did not), but otherwise this is a fine volume in which a single biography becomes the means for teaching about a larger historical narrative. Williams was an influential figure who lived in a tumultuous time, shaping life around him and leaving an outsize legacy. Most readers will be amazed at how eventful Williams' life was and how meaningful it was for the United States.

This review is also published at: http://alongthispilgrimsjourney.blogspot.com/2015/03/book-review-roger-williams-... ( )
1 vote ALincolnNut | Mar 16, 2015 |
For years, I have looked for a decent biography of Roger Williams because my ancestor John Sweet joined Williams as one of the original settlers of Providence. I felt there was a need for a biography of Williams since he is one of the most remarkable and overlooked characters of American history. He was a man way ahead of his time, and he suffered much because of it. Barry provides an eloquent and detailed analysis of the religious and philosophical influences on Williams and the influence that he had on others. Barry is sensitive and knowledgeable about the theological, biblical, and ecclesiological issues involved in the life of Williams. ( )
  proflinton | Dec 30, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670023051, Hardcover)

A revelatory look at how Roger Williams shaped the nature of religion, political power, and individual rights in America.

For four hundred years, Americans have wrestled with and fought over two concepts that define the nature of the nation: the proper relation between church and state and between a free individual and the state. These debates began with the extraordinary thought and struggles of Roger Williams, who had an unparalleled understanding of the conflict between a government that justified itself by "reason of state"-i.e. national security-and its perceived "will of God" and the "ancient rights and liberties" of individuals.

This is a story of power, set against Puritan America and the English Civil War. Williams's interactions with King James, Francis Bacon, Oliver Cromwell, and his mentor Edward Coke set his course, but his fundamental ideas came to fruition in America, as Williams, though a Puritan, collided with John Winthrop's vision of his "City upon a Hill."

Acclaimed historian John M. Barry explores the development of these fundamental ideas through the story of the man who was the first to link religious freedom to individual liberty, and who created in America the first government and society on earth informed by those beliefs. The story is essential to the continuing debate over how we define the role of religion and political power in modern American life.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:24 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

An acclaimed historian and "New York Times"-bestselling author offers a revelatory look at how Roger Williams shaped the nature of religion, political power, and individual rights in America.

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