— The Erimtan Angle —

“Williams was really America’s first individualist, the first contradictor of authority, the first rebel,” explains John M. Barry, author of Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.

While best known as the founder of Rhode Islandand for being a leading proponent of a “wall of separation” between church and state, Barry argues that Williams’ imprint on Americais deeper than most recognize. “When I started writing the book I quickly realized that I was not simply writing about the emergence of the idea of religious liberty, but liberty itself.” Barry sat down with ReasonTV‘s Nick Gillespie to discuss the book, the enduring lessons of Roger Williams’ life, and why he is not yet a household name.

I became aware of Roger Williams reading Simon Schama’s The American Future: A History, shortly after President Obama’s inauguration. In the U.S., the public is always led to believe that the Founding Fathers are at the basis of the uniquely American traits of religious pluralism and toleration, but Schama and Barry clearly illustrate that the Rhode Island experiment was seminal in the formulation of the American Way as we know it today.

The Harvard historian Joyce Chaplin declares that John “Barry is the gifted author of several historical works that examine the early 20th century, most notably The Great Influenza. He had begun working on a biography of a figure from the same period, the American evangelist Billy Sunday, but his curiosity about the longer history of religion in public life whisked him back in time and to Williams, long regarded as the original American proponent of liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state. Born in England, Williams was educated at the Charterhouse School, in London, and at Pembroke College, Cambridge, just in time to thrust his way into his nation’s post-Reformation religious controversies. Disagreement over England’s official faith was why radical Protestants, now known as Pilgrims and Puritans, departed to settle colonies at Plymouth (1620) and Massachusetts Bay (1630). When Williams expressed similarly radical beliefs, and faced arrest, he and his wife fled to New England in late 1630. Their need to leave was so urgent that they crossed the Atlantic in winter, ordinarily considered too dangerous a time for ocean traffic. The Williamses settled in Plymouth Colony, and then in Massachusetts, where Williams again annoyed the authorities. When officials arrived at his house to arrest him in the winter of 1636, he was gone”.[1]

Professor Chaplin continues that “Williams struck overland, through snow and bitter cold, “wch I feele yet,” he reminisced later in life. He survived because he had help. “The ravens fed me in the wilderness,” he said, comparing himself to the scriptural prophets sustained by bird-borne morsels, though his “ravens” were Indians. With their assistance, he reached the upper bend of a bay that would be named for its inhabitants, the Narragansett. There, Williams bought land from its native proprietors and established a settlement he called Providence, to honor the divine assistance given to him and other Christians on their flights from persecution. Oddly, for a book with American in its title, over a third of Barry’s story takes place in Europe, dealing especially with the politico-religious troubles that were roiling England. But Barry avoids the thorny recent scholarship on post-­Reformation England, which has questioned the old textbook religious divisions, including the use of the word “Puritan.” Scholars now use the uncapitalized “puritan” to indicate a tendency, not identify a group. In what sense was Williams “puritan”? We will not know until another biographer truly rethinks the man. Barry does impart enough detail about Williams to show how puzzling a character he was, exasperatingly admirable. He attracted the powerful and the intelligent. The jurist Edward Coke had been his patron during his youth; the poet John Milton was a later friend. Even his critics found him an appealing personality. The governor of Plymouth called him “the sweetest soul I ever knew.” It is telling that both times Williams fled an arrest warrant, it was apparently because someone sympathetic had tipped him off. And yet Williams seemed determined to offend. “I desire not to sleep in securitie,” he had warned the Massachusetts governor John Winthrop, in perfect self-­knowledge of his capacity to be purer than the so-called Puritans. He stated that the colony’s civil authorities could not regulate “the First Table,” those among the Ten Commandments that governed religion; they could prosecute someone for adultery, but not for making (or worshiping) graven images. Next, Williams refused to take an oath of fidelity to Massachusetts, on the grounds that anything sworn in God’s name for worldly purposes was corrupt”, adding that “Barry shows how controversial these beliefs were at the time, and in this way reinforces the standard image of Williams as an early proponent of liberty of conscience. But his emphasis on the English context for the controversy neglects Williams’s even bolder insistence that what was true for Christian Europeans was true for others, including Indians”.[2]


[2] Joyce E. Chaplin, “Roger Williams: The Great Separationist”.

Comments on: "America’s First Rebel: Roger Williams and the Birth of Liberty" (1)

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