Field of Science

Book review: Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of LibertyRoger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry

If anyone wants to know what makes the United States unique, part of the answer can be found in this book. At its center is a wholly remarkable, extraordinary, awe-inspiring individual who was light years ahead of his time. Roger Williams founded Rhode Island (then Providence Plantation) in 1636 and it became the world's first model of both full religious tolerance as well as individual rights, and it established government by the consent of the governed as a foundational principle. At that time nothing like it existed anywhere, and certainly not in Europe where Catholics and Protestants were killing each other over absurdly trivial matters like the age for baptism and Calvinist predestination. Williams's teachings and writings set the stage for fundamental debates about the role of religion and the state in individuals' lives with which we are still grappling.

Williams had fled from England when Charles I intensified his father James I's campaign to persecute Protestant Puritans who wanted a purer, more rigorous form of worship. Growing up in London, Williams had been enormously influenced by Edward Coke and Francis Bacon, two men who ironically were sworn enemies. Coke was the most eminent jurist in English history and had challenged the divine right of kings and emphasized rights to property and due process. Bacon was one of the fathers of the scientific method and put a premium on evidence and observation. From both these men Williams imbibed a deep set of ethics about free, secular thinking.

He arrived in Massachusetts a decade after the Mayflower docked at Plymouth and a few years after the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established by John Winthrop, the "city on a hill". A talented lawyer, minister and linguist who was steeped in Bacon's scientific method, he became friends with the Indians, learnt their customs and and became fluent in their language. He was received with great respect and offered the post of minister in the newly-established Boston's first church. His time in history came when he made a historic break by opposing two basic tenets of the Puritans and Christians in general: that the state should have no authority to enforce the first four commandments dealing with God, and that Indians had property rights too and the Puritans did not have the authority to simply seize them and needed to buy their lands. This went not just against the fundamentalist religious beliefs of the colony but was something wholly new that directly contradicted both the meld between church and state and in fact all the political and religious philosophy that existed at the time.

For his novel views Williams was duly banished from Massachusetts under threat of execution, but he kept on privately preaching his creed in the more tolerant Salem. When Massachusetts sent out a squad of soldiers to haul him onto a ship bound for England for imprisonment, they found that (goaded by a tip from Winthrop), Williams had already escaped into the bitter, snowy winter wilderness. The only reason he remained alive was because he found refuge and friendship among the Narragansett and other Indians who lived in the area, and the fact that his friends and colleagues had denounced him while strangers had saved his life fundamentally changed his views of race, of religion, of Native Americans, of freedom and individual rights, of how much control men should have over other men. His colony became a refuge for the rejected, the denounced, the banished of Massachusetts, Plymouth and Connecticut; the three major colonies of the time.

He decided to codify his beliefs in a formal document. Massachusetts kept on being threatened by its freethinking neighbor to the South and kept on trying to usurp its territories, so Williams went back again to the same England from which he had fled about fifteen years ago. At this point England itself had become roiled up in what was going to lead to the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I. He befriended Oliver Cromwell and managed to get a charter for Rhode Island written and later endorsed by Charles II (who seems to have forgiven his friendship with Cromwell). In an age when almost every piece of paper including the founding charter of Puritan Massachusetts was infused throughout with the names of God and Christ, the Rhode Island charter is an extraordinary document, not mentioning God even once. It established almost complete freedom of religion and made it clear that no one should be persecuted simply for their beliefs; a groundbreaking assertion at a time when even minor differences in religious beliefs between Catholics and Protestants, let alone ones between Protestants and Jews or Quakers, were enough to ignite religious wars that killed thousands. Finally, with his charter safely establishing the legality of Rhode Island, Williams returned back to his colony and lived to be an old man, still preaching the gospel of tolerance.

Williams's writing serve as the foundation for the novelty of the American experiment. He was a devout Christian who conceived a separation of church from state, private from public activity. He might have been the first bonafide libertarian. There is a straight line between his teachings, John Locke, the Declaration of Independence and all the worldwide events that the American Revolution inspired. No wonder that when the tide of history met the shores of fate, not only did Rhode Island become the first to protest against unlawful behavior by the English even before the Boston Tea Party, but it became the first state in the colonies to declare independence from Great Britain in 1776.

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  2. He helped to give us the idea and value of the separation of church and state. He had seen first hand what the power of the state and church combined looked like in England and again in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

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