Our History

Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.

By John M. Barry. Viking Penguin (New York) 2012.

            Wonderful book!  Readable, informative, expressive.  I learned how little I know of a man I have, in effect, idolized all my life.  How much more there is to him than the mythic sketch of banishment and founding Rhode Island.  And for all that he is a Baptist saint, how fleeting was his association with any Baptist Church.

 

            And for all that he is sometimes credited, by me and others, as the founder of religious liberty and open faithfulness, how little I know and we know, of the complexity and detail of that monumental work.  He is one of the most underappreciated of any of our heroes.

 

            "Founding Rhode Island" I had always thought of – unconsciously – as "making a declaration to an empty forest, a claim in a social vacuum, then running off to the magistrate's office (albeit that would have been a considerable task, considering the state of the transportation infrastructure) and having the claim registered." Ha!  This book gave me the details of the long, tedious, tenuous, process of accretion that was more the "accumulation" than "founding" of the plantationà colony à state.

 

            And what a person he was!  Accomplished in his Puritan/Dissenter circle, a protégé of an eminent English Lawyer (Coke), witness to turbulent times (the reign of King James, Charles I, Cromwell, and Charles II), acquainted with Bacon, Milton, etc., and associate of, I think, eleven of the thirteen men executed after the restoration.  He knew everybody.

 

            I also had no real sense of the atmosphere and texture of the plantation society and legal structure – the nature and mechanisms of religious discipline and suppression, imprisonment, torture, and exile.  In short, I learned what really nasty, self-righteous, arrogant bastards those New England Puritans were – all the governors whose names (Endicott, Peabody, Winthrop, etc.) are still waved as flags of entitlement in Massachusetts, and whose manner and habits persist to this day.

 

            Nor did I know anything of Williams' relationship with the Indians: how extensive it was in time, depth, and feeling.  I was aware – thanks to the standard liberal seal of approval, that "he respected the Native American beliefs"…blah blah blah – that he was not a rip-and-burn colonist, bent on extinguishing the tribes or their culture, but I did not know, as I learned from this report of his experience, how thorough were the laws of land ownership and control, property exchange, intertribal relations, and so forth among the tribes there.  Williams was not simply a "friend," he was a respected colleague of the chiefs, a representative of the English sought as an advisor to councils – including councils of war – and a mediator of disputes.

 

            This should be required reading for every Baptist, and every civil libertarian – every American.

 

Review by Glenn Loafmann