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Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty Hardcover – January 5, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

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*Starred Review* Barry traces American separation of church and state back to earliest colonial days, when John Winthrop (1588–1649), first governor of Massachusetts Bay, and Roger Williams (1603–83), founder of Rhode Island, argued over whether government should enforce religious conformity, a dispute that eventuated in—besides such more immediately consequential things as banishment (and worse) for dissenters from colonial theocracies—Williams’ written formulation of the concept Jefferson boiled down to “wall of separation between church and state.” Barry likes to get to the roots of his subjects, so he delves farther back about Williams, in particular, to the inspiration he took from his patron Edward Coke, England’s greatest jurist, and Coke’s bitter rival in government, Sir Francis Bacon. From Coke, Williams garnered faith in the law and due process as well as, through Coke’s battles with James I and Charles I, the importance of maintaining the rights of Englishmen (Coke’s concept) against divine-right regimes, whether under king or, as in Massachusetts Bay, council. From Bacon, Williams imbibed a penchant for real-world (scientific) testing of beliefs (hypotheses) that led him to launch Rhode Island. Winthrop and Williams were on cordial terms almost to the former’s death, which is just one fascinating strand in the swath of history Barry brings to urgent life with the same focused intelligence that distinguished his The Great Influenza (2004). --Ray Olson


 "John Barry's Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul establishes Williams as a brave thinker and also a deft political actor … Mr. Barry puts Williams squarely among our great political thinkers, crediting him with bringing liberal democracy to the American colonies."

John M. Barry is “a sophisticated sorter-out of theological strands.”

“Roger Williams is one of those figures, famous but forbidding, who hover at the periphery, imposing, important, indispensable to our history and culture and yet still distant, unknown to most Americans … and yet Williams may be … the one whose breath gives life to modern American culture and whose fingerprints are most evident on the American Constitution. The task of reviving Williams has fallen happily to John M. Barry, chronicler of the great influenza of 1918 and the great Mississippi flood of 1927.”

 “Roger Williams deserves our thanks for his courage to fight for religious freedom and individual liberty with his very life at a time when few thought it anything but the rankest heresy. And John Barry deserves our thanks for illuminating this critical and timely chapter of American history … Barry tells the story with passion and an eye for fine detail.”

The Seattle Times

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; First Edition edition (January 5, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670023051
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670023059
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (114 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #497,643 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I was born in... Nah, let's not start that far back. Let's just say after dropping out of graduate school in history I became a football coach-- in fact, the first story I ever sold was to a coaching magazine, about a way to change blocking assignments at the line of scrimmage, and I was on the staff of a guy who was named national coach of the year. I quit coaching to write, first as a Washington journalist covering economics and national politics, then I finally began doing what I always intended and wanted to do: write books. Two of those books have in turn led me into active involvement in a couple of policy areas. Anyway, here's the more formal version of my bio:

John M. Barry is a prize-winning and New York Times best-selling author whose books have won several dozen awards. In 2005 the National Academies of Science named The Great Influenza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history, a study of the 1918 pandemic, the year's outstanding book on science or medicine. In 1998 Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, won the Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians for the year's best book of American history. His latest book is Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, which has been named a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, to be awarded late spring 2013. ( Scroll down for more about this book, including a syndicated op ed based on it.)

His writing has received not only formal awards but less formal recognition as well. In 2004 GQ named Rising Tide one of nine pieces of writing essential to understanding America; that list also included Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." His first book, The Ambition and the Power: A true story of Washington, was cited by The New York Times as one of the eleven best books ever written about Washington and the Congress. His second book The Transformed Cell: Unlocking the Mysteries of Cancer, coauthored with Dr. Steven Rosenberg, was published in twelve languages. And a story about football he wrote was selected for inclusion in an anthology of the best football writing of all time published in 2006 by Sports Illustrated.

He has had considerable influence on both pandemic policy and flood protection. Both the Bush and Obama administrations sought his advice on influenza preparedness and response, and he was a member of the original team which developed plans for non-pharmaceutical interventions to mitigate a pandemic. The National Academies of Science asked him to give the keynote speech at its first international scientific meeting on pandemic influenza, and he was the only non-scientist on a federal government Infectious Disease Board of Experts.

In the area of water resources, he has been equally active. In 2006 he became the only non-scientist ever to give the National Academies annual Abel Wolman Distinguished Lecture, a lecture which focuses on some aspect of water. After Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana congressional delegation asked him to chair a bipartisan working group on flood protection, and he now serves on the board overseeing levee districts in metropolitan New Orleans and on the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which is responsible for the state's hurricane protection. Barry has worked with state, federal, United Nations, and World Health Organization officials on influenza, water-related disasters, and risk communication.

Barry sits on advisory boards at M.I.T's Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health as well as on the board of the Society of American Historians and American Heritage Rivers.

He has also been keynote speaker at such varied events as a White House Conference on the Mississippi Delta and an International Congress on Respiratory Viruses, and he has given talks in such venues as the National War College, the Council on Foreign Relations, Harvard Business School, and elsewhere. He is co-originator of Riversphere, a $100 million center being developed by Tulane University; it will be the first facility in the world dedicated to comprehensive river research.

His articles have appeared in such scientific journals as Nature and Journal of Infectious Disease as well as in lay publications ranging from Sports Illustrated to The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fortune, Time, Newsweek, and Esquire. A frequent guest on every broadcast network in the US, he has appeared on such shows as NBC's Meet the Press, ABC's World News, and NPR's All Things Considered, and on such foreign media as the BBC and Al Jazeera. He has also served as a consultant for Sony Pictures and contributed to award-winning television documentaries.

Before becoming a writer, Barry coached football at the high school, small college, and major college levels. Currently Distinguished Scholar at the Center for Bioenvironmental Research of Tulane and Xavier Universities, he lives in New Orleans.

Barry's latest book focuses on the development of both the idea of separation of church and state and the first expression of individualism in the modern sense. These two issues-- how we define the relationship between church and state and between the individual and the state-- have opened fault lines which have divided America throughout our history up to today. Here is an op ed syndicated by The Los Angeles Times February 5, 2012 :

A Puritan's `War Against Religion.'

In January, while conservative Christians and GOP presidential candidates were charging that "elites" have launched "a war against religion," a federal court in Rhode Island ordered a public school to remove a prayer mounted on a wall because it imposed a belief on 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist. The ruling seems particularly fitting because it was consistent not only with the 1st Amendment but with the intent of Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island expressly to provide religious liberty and who called such forced exposure to prayer "spiritual rape."

As Williams' nearly 400-year-old comment demonstrates, the conflict over the proper relationship between church and state is the oldest in American history. The 1st Amendment now defines this relationship, but understanding the full meaning of the amendment requires understanding its history, for the amendment was a specific response to specific historical events and was written with the recognition that freedom of religion was inextricably linked to freedom itself.

The church-state conflict began when Puritans, envisioning a Christian nation, founded what John Winthrop called "a citty upon a hill" in Massachusetts, and Williams rejected that vision for another: freedom. He insisted that the state refrain from intervening in the relationship between humans and God, stating that even people advocating "the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships" be allowed to pray -- or not pray -- freely, and that "forced worship stinks in God's nostrils."

Yet Williams was no atheist. He was a devout Puritan minister who, like other Massachusetts Puritans, fled religious persecution in England. Upon his arrival in 1631 he was considered so godly that Boston Puritans had asked him to lead their church. He declined -- because he considered their church insufficiently pure.

Reverence for both Scripture and freedom led Williams to his position. His mentor was Edward Coke, the great English jurist who ruled, "The house of every one is as his castle," extending the liberties of great lords -- and an inviolate refuge where one was free -- to the lowest English commoners. Coke pioneered the use of habeas corpus to prevent arbitrary imprisonment. And when Chancellor of England Thomas Egerton said, "Rex est lex loquens; the king is the law speaking," and agreed that the monarch could "suspend any particular law" for "reason of state," Coke decreed instead that the law bound the king. Coke was imprisoned -- without charge -- for his view of liberty, but that same view ran in Williams' veins.

Equally important to Williams was Scripture. Going beyond the "render unto Caesar" verse in the New Testament, he recognized the difficulty in reconciling contradictory scriptural passages as well as different Bible translations. He even had before him an example of a new translation that served a political purpose. King James had disliked the existing English Bible because in his view it insufficiently taught obedience to authority; the King James Bible would correct that.

Given these complexities, Williams judged it impossible for any human to interpret all Scripture without error. Therefore he considered it "monstrous" for one person to impose any religious belief on another. He also realized that any government-sponsored prayer required a public official to pass judgment on something to do with God, a sacrilegious presumption. He also knew that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics. So to protect the purity of the church, he demanded -- 150 years before Jefferson -- a "wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world."

Massachusetts had no such wall, compelled religious conformity and banished Williams for opposing it. Seeking "soul liberty," he founded Providence Plantations and established an entirely secular government that granted absolute freedom of religion. The governing compact of every other colony in the Americas, whether English, French, Spanish or Portuguese, claimed the colony was being founded to advance Christianity. Providence's governing compact did not mention God. It did not even ask God's blessing.

Williams next linked religious and political freedom. It was then universally believed that governments derived their authority from God. Even Winthrop, after being elected governor in Massachusetts, told voters, "Though chosen by you, our authority comes from God."

Williams disputed this. Considering the state secular, he declared governments mere "agents" deriving their authority from citizens and having "no more power, nor for longer time, than the people ... shall betrust them with." This statement sounds self-evident now. It was revolutionary then.

The U.S. Constitution, like Providence's compact, does not mention God. It does request a blessing, but not from God; it sought "the blessings of liberty," Williams' "soul liberty." As Justice Robert Jackson wrote, "This freedom was first in the Bill of Rights because it was first in the forefathers' minds; it was set forth in absolute terms, and its strength is its rigidity."

Eight years after the Constitution's adoption, the Senate confirmed this view in unanimously approving a treaty. It stated: "[T]he government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

Yet the argument continues. Presidential candidates and evangelicals ignore American history and insist on injecting religion into politics. They proclaim their belief in freedom -- even while they violate it.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

100 of 105 people found the following review helpful By H. P. on January 12, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
If you're like me, you didn't know much about Roger Williams before considering this book. Based solely on his status as the founder of Rhode Island, he hardly seems a titan of Anglo history. But Barry makes a very persuasive case that he stands in a direct intellectual lineage from Sir Edward Coke to Williams to John Locke, and that he deserves mention in the same breath as those two titans of the history of liberty. Williams's contribution was freedom of religion.

Creation of the American Soul is less a biography of Roger Williams (his family is scarcely mentioned) than it is a history that largely parallels Williams's career. The first fifth of the book deals almost exclusively with Coke. Williams took shorthand for Coke, and Coke was surely a major intellectual influence on Williams, but this section of the book is as important for what Coke does as what later influence it may have had on Williams. When King James tried to assert the divine right of kings in England, Coke stood up against him with little behind him but the common law. His efforts can at best be described as a stalemate, but the rights Coke fought for ended up embedded in the American Constitution.

Coke was not the only historical figure Williams rubbed elbows with. Williams was a contemporary of and knew John Winthrop, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Francis Bacon (Barry describes Williams as a protégé of Bacon, but it appears from the text that Williams was merely influenced by Bacon rather than having the kind of personal relationship he had with Coke), Anne Hutchinson, George Fox, John Cotton (grandfather of Cotton Mather), Benedict Arnold (great-grandfather of the traitorous Revolutionary War general), John Donne, and John Milton.
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64 of 67 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on January 18, 2012
Format: Hardcover
We Americans are rightly grateful to the geniuses who founded our nation, and set it going with the ideas that there would be no official religion, no religious requirement for public office, and a separation of church and state. Those founders didn't develop those ideas on their own, of course; the philosopher John Locke is often credited with inspiring ideas of religious freedom in Jefferson and Madison. Locke himself was probably influenced in turn by the Puritan Roger Williams, and Williams had a broader idea of religious freedom (he would extend liberty to atheists) than Locke did. Williams got his ideas of religious liberty from his study of human nature and human government, but especially from the Bible; he was a devout Christian minister. Williams believed in the Puritan cause, and felt it was the right way of Christian belief. We say sometimes that colonists came to America for reasons of religious freedom, but while they might have been fleeing religious persecution, they were ready enough in their turn to persecute those of the "wrong" belief. It was Williams who began turning this around, and in _Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty_, historian John M. Barry has not given a biography of Williams as much as he has teased out the religious and political ideas and the events that brought forth the several revolutionary concepts which Williams instilled in his Rhode Island colony and which were to shape the nation when it came into being a hundred years after he died. Anyone interested in the separation of church and state will find this a fascinating story.

Williams left England for New England in 1631.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Richard Scott on February 2, 2012
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Review of Barry Roger Williams and the American soul

I ordered Barry's book immediately after reading the review by Chaplin a month ago (Jan 1). I read it to remind me of my past and to refresh my knowledge of Williams. I too graduated from Brown a few years before Barry and enjoyed my study with Hedges, McLaughlin and Bridenbaugh. I spent a considerable time reviewing the early social and economic history of seventeenth century Rhode Island. My personal family history includes the fact my ancestor left the Bay colony for Providence in 1637, owned the adjoining land to Williams then, and Mrs Scott was influential in convincing Williams of the need for adult or believers baptism.

I found Barry's discussion of Chaplin's review a bit contentious. That Barry discusses at length the qualities of Williams which are essential in how his ideas were used in the ensuing centuries, the book is more about how he developed these ideas. Barry has worked diligently to see how the ideas matured over time through a careful and chronological review of the maturing ideas. It would take a host of intellectual and religious historians to review how Williams ideas were pulled from his tracts and letters and used over the last two centuries. We all read history from our own point of view. So, in reading this the obvious parallels between theocracies, oligarchies, and ethnic killings are clear. Would it not be good were all people to attempt to follow soul liberty.

The early history of Williams relations with Coke and Bacon, his presence as a youth in the Star Chamber and his closeness with those puritans who would later oust him from Massachusetts is essential to understand his later course. The book covers the middle years of Williams thoroughly.
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