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

by John M. Barry

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3991556,240 (4.25)42
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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The founding of the smallest state and its secular character are directly attributed to him and inspired the Founding Fathers, but Roger Williams is a man from a complex time in both England and colonial America. John M. Barry’s Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty is not only a biography of Williams but a cultural, political, and religious history of his time.

While it takes a while for Barry to focus on Williams and his soon-to-be very revolutionary thinking, he sets the groundwork not only for Williams intellectual and religious development but also the political and cultural context of his life. First and foremost is the political view of the early Stuart monarchs of divine right of kings going up against Magna Carta and Parliament that will eventually set off the English Civil War, and alongside it was the struggle over the Church of England and those Puritans who would not conform to practices that looked decidedly “popish”. It is easy to forget sometimes that England and its American colonies interacted before 1763 and the lead up to the American Revolution, but Barry plainly illustrates that events in each did have an impact on one another whether religiously or politically. Roger Williams’ vision of separation of church and state has come up against John Winthrop’s “city on a hill”, ironically a Puritan version of conform or else mirroring what was happening in England, throughout American history and this was central to Barry’s book even as he followed the live and struggles of Williams. One of the biggest takeaways from the book is that history does not happen in a vacuum as the development of Roger Williams’ revolutionary idea came from a messy political and religious background.

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul is not only a book about the life of Williams, but Barry shows how Williams was influenced by not only important personages he came in contact with but also how he influenced them. ( )
  mattries37315 | Mar 9, 2022 |
This book and a fiction book I read at the same time, [b: The Handmaid's Tale|38447|The Handmaid's Tale|Margaret Atwood|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1294702760s/38447.jpg|1119185], provided interesting commentary on each other, although I hadn't known before starting them that they had similar themes. Both deal with freedom of conscience and a hero who resists the societal and legal requirements to conform inwardly to a particular interpretation of Christian moral code.

RW & the Creation of the American Soul's hero is Roger Williams, who was a theologian, statesman, and a founder of Rhode Island. Contra especially John Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was to be the City Upon a Hill, Williams argued that people should have freedom of conscience. That meant that people shouldn't be imprisoned for their thoughts, although the Second Table of the Law (those of the Ten Commandments dealing with community) could still be enforced. He founded Providence Plantation with these ideals, which made Rhode Island a sanctuary for religious misfits.

I also found it very interesting that Williams argued passionately for the land rights of the Native Americans. He found some traction for this idea, though in the end this argument was less successful than freedom of conscience. I hadn't realized that this type of non-colonizing thought was part of the English-American discussion before it was too late to do anything about it.

Williams was even a proto-abolitionist; so, between these three ideas, he was quite a modern thinker while also being a sincere and devout Christian.

This is a well-written biography which goes very deep into Williams's influences. I would recommend it to anyone interested in American and/or church history. ( )
  LauraBee00 | Mar 7, 2018 |
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 |
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