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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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*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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
A Puritan minister, Williams was forced to flee England to escape religious persecution. He did not find the freedom he desired in the Massachusetts Bay colony (called "plantations" at the time). Persecuted again, he was again forced to flee. He then founded the colony that became Rhode Island.
A central theme is the tension between authoritarianism and anarchy. The Puritan-run Massachusetts Bay colony veered very heavily to the side of authoritarianism. Rhode Island threatened to dissolve into anarchy. Williams, though, was no anarcho-libertarian. It is a testament to his charisma and temperament that Rhode Island was able to avoid anarchy.
Barry is a talented writer, and his prose reads easily. However, he does have his stylistic quirks. He maintains a strange lack of biographical distance. When Barry states that the Puritan authorities in Massachusetts committed various heinous acts against nonconformists "out of love," he presumably means that was their own stated justification, rather than what he actually believes drove them. He also quotes his subjects heavily, creative 17th century spelling and all. The quotes are all in the same font as the main text, which may be why it appears some Us are printed as Vs (these appear in both the Kindle and hard cover editions).
Barry properly downplays Williams's forward-looking views on the Indians. By the 1800s, his views on religion and politics would have been much less radical relative to his views on Indians. But in his time violent religious intolerance was the rule of the day (dissidents commonly had their ears cut off or worse) and Americans and Europeans had not yet fully developed their nastier racial theories.
Barry explores Williams's legacy in greater length in the afterword (for example, Williams is one of only ten men honored in Geneva's Reformation Wall for their contribution to the Reformation), both rebutting his critics and featuring his proponents. Williams was in many ways the right man at the right time (earlier proponents of freedom of religion did not fare so well), but what he accomplished would not have been possible had he not been such an extraordinary man. Nor should his achievements be viewed lightly because his views did not come from secular roots or because freedom of conscience continued to face challenges in England and colonial America.
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.
This book tells why virtually all the new colonists rejected the English Church that evolved from the TUDORS, and how the British King James and his descendants wanted to be sacred beings, immune to public opinion and centuries of English Common Law. You discover why the Puritans were ...well ... Puritans, and why the Pilgrims were a different people.
However, the desire to establish "Jerusalem on the Hill" in America led to frightening consequences that today are way too 'un American" for our modern thinking and counter to the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights, to be written a hundred years later. A better system of the Early American Democratic Republic evolved in rebellion to the early attempt at theocracy that ALMOST won.
And as an aside you have the thinking leading up to the Salem Witch Trial Era (which is later than the time frame of the book) much better explained. America had a rougher start than we have been taught
But allow a solid 20 to 40 hours to get through it.