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Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty Paperback – December 24, 2012
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"A gifted author." — The New York Times Book Review
"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." — The Wall Street Journal
"Barry now turns his meticulous hand to the origins of two fundamental and perpetual American fixations: the conflict between church and state and that between the power of the state and the conscience of the citizen. . . . Present-day implications of an elemental clash of ideas may hover over every page, yet the vital drama of Barry’s story emblazons two competing visions of American destiny: John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” vs. Williams’s community of conscience. As Barry shows well and often prophetically, the national soul formed out of that drama remains a troubled, and occasionally tortured, one." — The Washington Post
"To call it a biography sells it short. What it is, really, is the history of an idea—about the critical importance of separating church from state. So revolutionary was this idea that it caused Williams to be banished from Massachusetts. . . . Williams created the first place in the Western world where people could believe in any God they wished—or no God at all—without fear of retribution." — Joe Nocera, The New York Times
"In Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, New York Times bestselling author John M. Barry tells the story with passion and an eye for fine detail. . . . If the story were not compelling enough, Barry's dramatic first chapter of conflict, confrontation and banishment into the wilderness is worth the price of admission alone. . . . As Barry notes, the dispute 'opened a fissure in America, a fault line which would rive America all the way to the present.' John Barry deserves our thanks for illuminating this critical and timely chapter of American history." — The Seattle Times
"There's a recurring theme among the religiously political/politically religious that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and that in this modern era we have somehow strayed from God and from our roots. John M. Barry's new book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty is a counterargument and it is a significant reminder of whence, exactly, this little experiment in democracy of ours came . . . Absorbing." — Los Angeles Times
"This biography should be read with today's headlines in mind . . . Thoroughly researched and accessibly written . . . This is an important book because it brings back an important founding point in the development of the American character. But it also is a timely reminder that the issues that drove Williams into exile in Rhode Island are very much alive and just as perilous today." — The Washington Times
"Fascinating... a swath of history Barry brings to urgent life with the same focused intelligence which distinguished The Great Influenza." — Booklist
"A commanding history...masterly." — Library Journal
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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. This required great effort. Reading the Winthrop papers and the Williams letters and tracts is difficult. Even those included here are hard to read. It would have been easier had he followed Perry Miller in his biography of Williams of 1953 in which the texts were translated into more readable English for those of us today. I did purchase the "Key into the Language of America" in its facsimile edition and remember again now how hard it is to read. Perry Miller has always been a major source in understanding the puritan Calvinist tradition as the theology developed.
Barry recognizes the debt to Edmund Morgan who is one of the more important historians of the period. His book, "Roger Williams the Church and the State" from 1967 and reprinted in 2006 covers most of the concepts in detail. The difference is its size: only 142 pages versus 395 and more importantly organization. Barry works diligently to help see subtle changes in thought through time and approaches the biography in a chronological order.
The last period of Williams life is more briefly reviewed than the early . Perhaps details of the meetings movements and life in the period when he returned alone to work with Cromwell and Milton is not discoverable. Nor is it clear to me why Charles II supported Williams, given his treatment of Vane. By the time of his return to Providence, the land was in use for farming, as Bridenbaugh wrote "Fat Mutton" and times were changed socially. The long legacy of Williams was the preservation of soul liberty certainly here, but it would appear also in England.
I heartily recommend this to all.
There are some fundamental concerns about this book. The 17th century was a time of religious fanaticism: Catholics, Anglicans, Puritans, Separatists, etc conceded nothing to each other. Various authorities butchered people over what now seem petty differences concerning such issues as predestination, baptism, using a common book of prayers, etc. Make no mistake - Williams too was a Puritan fanatic. He had the luck of falling under the sway of Edward Coke, the prominent jurist of early 17th century England, who attempted to limit the power of the state to dictate all religious particulars, though with very limited success.
The Massachusetts Bay colony was established in 1630 as a godly city on a hill, led by John Winthrop. Deviations from a prescribed godly life were simply unacceptable, and that is where Williams ran into trouble upon his arrival in 1631. He could not tolerate the magistrates telling him when and how to practice his religion. Williams was forced to move several times within the colony, all the while advocating for the state to take a hands-off approach to religion - the influence of Coke now being a practical concern. Actually, it was Williams' insistence that royal colonies were by definition taking land from native Indians that got him banned from the colony in 1635. Over the next nearly fifty years he lived in tiny Providence of Rhode Island.
Williams was disliked, if not feared, by the mainstream Puritans of the Bay, but in all actuality he was no threat. Under his influence, small democratical governments were established in several small towns that are now in Rhode Island. He traveled to England twice to ensure that Rhode Island obtained a royal charter, where he established a relationship with Cromwell.
It is perhaps difficult to accept that Williams is all that the author claims. His influence on religion in the colonies seems to be minimal. His most notable achievements were as a go-between between Indian tribes and the colonies - he was one of a few who could converse with Indians. He was not particularly open-minded about religion, per se. For example, he hated Quakers, though to his credit he did not advocate hanging them, as did Massachusetts. The townships in Rhode Island were so small as to scarcely be an example of how to govern a larger body of diverse people. Outside of Rhode Island, it is doubtful that Williams was particularly influential. The author's claim that Williams played a major role in the creation of the American soul - if that could even be defined - seems like considerable overstatement. The Massachusetts model might be more applicable: one can hardly underestimate societal pressures to conform regardless of the source: state, church, or otherwise.
The book is not biographical. Its focus is on religious and political discord. The first quarter of the book is an interesting look at England under James I and Charles I, as they tightened the screws on non-conforming Puritans. The remainder of the book, focusing on the movements and controversies of Williams, can get a little tedious and repetitious. One suspects that more balanced views of Williams are available.
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