Roger Williams, the First American? Some Thoughts on John Barry’s Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul

by Linford D. Fisher

 On the campus of the University of Geneva in Switzerland is a monument consisting of a series of statues—a Calvinist shrine, really—paying homage to some important leaders of the sixteenth century Protestant reformations, particularly from the reformed tradition. “Post Tenebras Lux,” the wall behind the statues boasts; after darkness, light. Erected in 1909 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, the ten figures are a combination of the predictable (John Calvin) and the more obscure (Stephen Bocskay), but mostly related to the development of Calvinism or the Reformation as a whole. It is the third statue from the right that seems out of place at first: Roger Williams, in his distinctive (if not caricatured) pilgrim hat. Roger Williams? What could he have possibly contributed to this era of seismic upheaval and change?

John M. Barry has an answer. Religious liberty. Freedom of conscience. Separation of church and state. In essence, the very foundations—or the soul, to use Barry’s metaphor—of the western world as we know it. Not that this is a daring interpretation: Williams' statue is holding a book titled "Soul Liberty." But Barry has a ready audience for such answers. 

It isn’t often that public lectures on early American history fill large meeting spaces to their capacity. But such was the case on the evening of January 11, 2012, when several hundred people packed into the normally capacious-feeling reading room of the John Carter Brown Library to hear award-winning author John M. Barry give a talk (video here) on his new book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul (Viking, 2012).

There have been two fault lines running through American history, Barry told the assembled masses: the first is the proper relationship between the church and state, and the other is the relationship between the state and individuals. The two sides of the debate on both these issues can be traced back to two seventeenth century leaders: John Winthrop and Roger Williams. Williams was way ahead of his time, arguing for the separation of church and state and religious liberty for all. Such ideas may have gotten him kicked out of Massachusetts, but over time, Williams ended up being far more relevant and influential. Fighting tooth and nail against his detractors in Massachusetts, Plymouth, and England, who called Rhode Island the “latrine” of New England, Williams was able to do something astonishing: create the very first modern civil government anywhere in the world that offered full religious liberty. Not only did he definitely shape the early modern conversation about religious liberty, Barry remarked, Williams also influenced the cherished religious liberty ensconced in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by influencing eighteenth century luminaries like Thomas Jefferson. 

John Barry’s book has and will continue to garner quite a bit of attention, I’m sure (as it did on this blog previously). Major reviews have already been published in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, and more will be forthcoming in academic journals (look for my own in the Journal of Church and State in a few months). In many ways, this is entirely warranted. Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul stands as the first major book on Williams in a decade or two, at least one that is crafted for a wider reading audience. Like Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower a few years ago, Barry’s book may be the one book on early American history that non-academics pick up this year (if any at all). Barry’s narrative is gripping; his characters developed in complex ways, and his arguments bold. Especially for those not familiar with Rhode Island history, Barry has done a terrific job narrating the somewhat surprising difficulty Williams had in unifying his colony and protecting it from disdaining and land-hungry Massachusetts and Plymouth. And there are some ways in which Rhode Island was unique; it was arguably the freest government in the western world. Even the supposedly-tolerant Dutch in New Amsterdam shipped recalcitrant Quakers to Rhode Island (in chains), where they were given complete religious freedom (even if Rhode Islanders disagreed theologically with them).

In other ways, however, this narrative is too simplistic. Barry draws too many straight lines in a world of overlapping, intersecting, and zigzagging ones. Barry devotes considerable attention to Roger Williams’ English context, highlighting the influence that Edward Coke and Francis Bacon had on Williams (the law and scientific method/approach to evidence, respectively). But these connections are more asserted than proved. The main evidence Barry gives with regard to Bacon is Williams’ method; seemingly because Williams had the ability to painstakingly consider arguments one by one and compare claims with evidence means that Williams owed a great intellectual debt to Bacon. The problem with this, as any historian of the colonial period knows, is that these sorts of learned analyses were common fare for the English educated elite of the day. The much-touted exchanges between Williams and John Cotton (the Bloody Tenent series) might interest Barry because of their content, but in terms of their method and argumentation they are relatively unexceptional.

The connections to Coke are a little more direct; Barry is undoubtedly right that Williams’ time working for and with Coke in the House of Commons was formative, but Barry is still hard-pressed to demonstrate concretely the links between Coke’s influence and Williams’ later ideas and actions. Nonetheless, Barry provides an excellent window into Williams’ impressive network of connections while in London in the 1640s, demonstrating that this struggle for religious freedom was, in fact, about “power,” as Barry asserts in the opening sentence of the first chapter.

What Barry leaves relatively unexplored are undeniable contributions of other dissenting groups to the development of religious toleration and liberty in the early modern period, such as the Anabaptists, who preached soul liberty and the separation of church and state a full century before Williams even left for North America, or the fledgling Baptist movement in the Netherlands and England, whose notions of liberty of conscience—while not enacted or argued as forcefully—predated Williams in significant ways, or even the Levelers, whose ideas paralleled Williams’ during the English Civil War. Barry makes much of Williams’ insistence that religious liberty be granted to everybody, including atheists, Turks (Muslims), Catholics, and Jews. But Williams was not completely unique; dissenting Baptists and Levelers called for the same and used similar all-inclusive lists of people who should receive religious freedom. Nonetheless, Barry is right that because Rhode Island was actually able to enact these ideals, it stands apart from other seventeenth century colonies, even Pennsylvania, where religious freedom was granted only to those who could affirm basic Christian principles.

Barry's straight line from Roger Williams to Thomas Jefferson is even weaker still. There was a historical progression of sorts from a scriptural defense of religious liberty to a “secular” one between the 1640s and the 1780s, but many voices filled in the vast space between Williams and Jefferson. Barry wants to create room for Williams in the “modern/secular” camp by showing that Williams compared the church to “a Corporation, Society, or Company of East-Indie or Turkie-Merchants”; Williams also asserted that the church was not the center of society (which also seems more secular to Barry). Nonetheless, most of Williams’ famed expositions on religious liberty are painful to read (as my undergrads can attest), overly wordy, unendingly repetitive, and unabashedly based on lengthy scriptural expositions. The literature on religious toleration in the early modern world is growing by the day, and in many ways, Barry’s book flies in the face of a recent historiography that increasingly emphasizes the multiple streams of influences, the multiplicity of voices, and the overlapping contexts in which issues were debated and enacted. One thinks of Chris Beneke and Christopher Grenda, The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America (2011), Evan Haefeli, New Netherlands and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty (2011), Andrew Murphy, Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America (2003), and Scott Sowerby’s forthcoming book, Making Toleration: The Repealers and the Glorious Revolution.

There are other, smaller errors and omissions along the way (just one example: on p. 241, Barry says that “most of the enslaved Pequots were sent to Barbados for sale” after the Pequot war, when in fact only 15 were ever sent overseas, and those were headed to Bermuda, not Barbados, but they ended up on Providence Island, deep in the Spanish Caribbean; otherwise, most of the enslaved Pequots were distributed locally in New England). Additionally, the rougher portions of Williams' life seem to have been smoothed over. Some of Williams’ most outstanding contributions were the respect he (mostly) extended to American Indians. Nonetheless, despite his appreciation for Native cultures, Williams essentially aided the war of extermination against the Pequots (by keeping the Narragansetts out of the war) and still couldn’t resist requesting an enslaved Pequot boy for himself from John Winthrop after the Pequot War (1636-1638).  Similarly, although he tried to keep Rhode Island out of King Philip’s War, when the Narragansetts burned Providence to the ground in 1676—including his own house—the elderly Williams led a militia to defend what was left of the city and hunt down local Indian bands when necessary. Williams also headed a committee that divided up the human spoils of war, although he argued for limited-term enslavement for the Narragansett prisoners rather than selling them into perpetual enslavement in the Caribbean (although a small shipment of enslaved Indians was sent away on the ship owned by none other than Williams’ own son, Providence Williams).

But Barry has little utility for this Williams; he dispenses with King Philip’s War in two and a half pages in the final chapter of the book. In many ways, however, it is this exasperated, Indian-hunting Williams that also embodies a fundamental contradiction in the American soul: professions of liberty and freedom while simultaneously enslaving and dispossessing Africans and Indians (even in Jefferson’s America a century plus later). These are not the aspects of Williams’ life that we normally celebrate or focus on. But they are still part of the full portrait of Roger Williams and—I would argue—the American soul (whatever that might be).

But there is one thing about which Barry is absolutely right: these issues continue to divide and provoke controversy, even in the present. Even in Rhode Island.

For fifty years a banner hung in the Cranston West High School. Dubbed the “prayer banner,” it had been commissioned by the school administration itself in 1963 and contained a simple prayer (see photo). The controversy began in July 2010 when Jessica Ahlquist, a self-professed atheist and a Cranston West junior, reported to the local chapter of the ACLU that the prayer banner made her feel out of place and ostracized. The ACLU took up the case, and in January 2012 the U.S. District Judge ruled that a prayer is a prayer, no matter what the level of local support for it is (of which there was a lot), and it violated prior precedents set by U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding the separation of church and state and therefore needed to be taken down. The City of Cranston declined to fight the decision, and in early March 2012 the large prayer banner (4x8 feet, six inches thick) was unceremoniously removed.

What would Roger Williams think? It’s a silly question, but of course people ask it. In many ways, he might agree with Ahlquist. After all, as Barry reminds us, the original 1644 charter given to Williams only referenced God once, and he, far more than his fellow New England magistrates, desired a government that did not meddle with the religious views of its constituencies. Then again, Williams was far more immersed in the world of scripture, life, and faith than most modern Americans can even fathom, and education in seventeenth century America was entirely inseparable from an ardently Christian worldview and indoctrination. One could envision, then, Williams respecting Ahlquist’s right to her atheism while being completely baffled at why one person’s beliefs (or unbelief) should trigger the complete removal of all references to God in publicly funded spaces. But who really knows? The seventeenth century is a different place, and far too often we read our modern sensibilities into this vastly foreign world.

This, ultimately, is the book's largest limitation, despite its many admirable qualities: an inescapable collapsing of time and space, a projection on Williams of all that would later come to be, including contemporary issues related to church and state. Roger Williams is important, and Barry has rightfully brought him in a fresh way to a whole new generation of readers. But Williams is important for who he was in his own time, not simply because he seems to have presaged the present in ways we find fascinating. 


Curtis J Evans at: July 13, 2012 at 11:49 AM said...

Lin, excellent review and critique of Barry's book, which I've yet to read. Really fascinating story that you tell. I've always found Perry Miller's few paragraphs in his essay ("The Puritan State and Puritan Society") on Roger Williams in the "Errand Into the Wilderness" collection to be absorbing reading. Though obviously dated, I think Miller notes succintly some of the complicated ways in which Williams' advanced his arguments for religious liberty. Your work is still on my "must read" list.

linfordfisher at: July 13, 2012 at 7:06 PM said...

Thanks, Curtis -- in many ways Barry's work (truly valuable as it is, as I've stated) is a recovery of the interpretive lens of an older generation, perhaps even dating back to Perry Miller's time. But you just made me want to go re-read "Errand," which I haven't for a while. Just for fun.

Curtis Freeman at: September 6, 2012 at 11:30 AM said...

Linford: Sorry I'd missed this thoughtful piece. I'll look for the review in C&S. As you aptly put it, this is an interesting book, but like David Barton too, Barry wants to appeal to history, or a slice of it, as justification for his version of the present. Williams was, as Perry Miller reminded us, a Puritan--not just culturally, but theologically. And trying to turn him into the founder of modern democratic liberalism is deeply problematic. Thanks for your reminder.

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