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New Book on Roger Williams Probes the Question of Liberty

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul. By John M. Barry. New York: Viking, 2012, ISBN 978-0-312288-3

John Barry coverSince Perry Miller’s path-breaking books in the 1930s, and those of Edmund Morgan from 1958 onward, historians have sought to resurrect Puritanism from   the mud of intolerance, joylessness, and bigotry into which post-Salem witchcraft critics had consigned it. Scholars now generally see Puritanism as a noble if sometimes misguided attempt to build a spiritual commonwealth that would transcend worldliness, inequality, and political machinations. If not quite a city on a hill, Puritan New England was built upon deeply held principles, a respect for education, and a polity in which the material and spiritual health of the community superseded those of the individual. Alexis de Tocqueville was so impressed by Puritanism that he declared it the bedrock upon which American democracy rested.

John M. Barry’s take on Roger Williams (1603-83)—exiled from both Puritan Massachusetts Bay and Separatist Salem—suggests it may be time to return Puritans to the muck. As one might expect, such inferences—and some of Barry’s claims for Williams–have stirred controversy. Barry, who is primarily a journalist, is embroiled in an ongoing feud with eminent historian Gordon Wood. It would be folly for me to take sides, as I am neither a Colonialist nor a scholar of Puritanism. It is appropriate, though, to task several of Barry’s critics. Barry has been called a Williams biographer, though he states clearly that he had no intention of being one. Barry’s thrust is embodied in the book’s subtitle Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty. His is more intellectual history than biography, and Barry clearly believes that Tocqueville was wrong–Roger Williams, not the Puritans, is the cornerstone of American liberty. Barry argues that political liberty would have been unthinkable without the liberty of conscience embedded in Williams’ call for religious tolerance. He credits Williams with assiduously practicing freedom of thought, speech, and action, even when it meant tolerating Rhode Island settlers whose ideals he found reprehensible.

Barry’s book is timely in the age of Tea Party and evangelical zealotry, though his primary intent is to unravel the 17th century mind, not 21st century squabbles.  In Barry’s telling, Williams’ obsession with liberty owed as much to conditions in Europe as to his clashes with cantankerous New World clerics. Williams sojourned to the New World for the same reason as other self-imposed exiles—he too faced the wrath of royal authority for his critique of Anglicanism.  Barry spends more than a third of his book cataloguing the volatility and shifting political fortunes during the final decades of Stuart misrule in Britain. Particularly troublesome was the imposed religious conformity demanded by William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 to 1645. Among Laud’s many enemies was jurist Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), who was imprisoned for his treatises on parliamentary rights. Coke also happened to be young Roger Williams’ mentor.

Williams spent the rest of his life expanding upon Coke’s theories of liberty. Barry also argues that Williams was also indirectly influenced by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), though that connection is often more conjectural than convincing. What is clearer is that Roger Williams thought so deeply about theology and law that he proclaimed it conceit bordering on blasphemy for human authorities to impose conformity of thought upon others. Civil authorities could regulate behavior, but not belief, because one could only apprehend the mind of God, not comprehend it. As Williams viewed it, either all individuals had full liberty of conscience, or none would; the New World would soon degenerate into the decadence and contentiousness from which settlers had fled.

Puritans and Separatists begged to differ, of course, and the link they forged between religious orthodoxy and civic order dictated that Roger Williams was too hot for either colony to handle. Williams might have suffered a worse fate than exile, were it not for friends in high places in England that reversed rulings made in New England. Barry gives us a wonderfully complex view of Williams, whom he views as simultaneously quarrelsome and charming. The Winthrops were responsible for his exile, yet Williams remained friendly with them and routinely exchanged letters and books with the family. Both Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay called upon Williams to negotiate with Native Americans, many of whom held him in high regard. (One wonders how New England history would have unfolded had authorities followed Williams’ advice on Indian policy more carefully.)

Williams won few converts in his own day, but ideas that appeared dangerous in the 17th century are so commonplace in the 21st that it’s tempting to see today’s evangelical right as latter-day Puritans. Separation of church and state owe a debt to Williams’ constructions of liberty, whereas those seeking to tear down the barriers are the new social revolutionaries. Barry’s book offers numerous illustrative examples and provocative ideas upon which a modern debate over religious politics can take place. Although this book is too dense and specialized for undergraduates, scholars can mine it for ideas and scenarios they can reframe for classroom use. They should also read it for its valuable reassessment of “liberty.” Just don’t call it a biography.

Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst


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