Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul

Paul Harvey

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of LibertySome of you may have seen reviewed in the New York Times Book Review today (or in the Wall Street Journal, less insightfully, yesterday) John Barry's new book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty. Barry has been best known for hugely popular works of twentieth-century history, including my favorite Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. Evidently, according to the introduction to this new book, he had set out to write another work on early twentieth-century religion, but he kept pressing backwards to get to the origins of what he was studying, and he ended up at Roger Williams.

Down the road a bit Linford Fisher will be discussing this work in more detail at our blog, along with some thoughts on the founding of what is now his home state (Rhode Island). Until then, for those interested in this work, Barry has an extensive piece up at the Smithsonian magazine, which serves as something as a precis for this work. A brief excerpt:

Williams believed that preventing error in religion was impossible, for it required people to interpret God’s law, and people would inevitably err. He therefore concluded that government must remove itself from anything that touched upon human beings’ relationship with God. A society built on the principles Massachusetts espoused would lead at best to hypocrisy, because forced worship, he wrote, “stincks in God’s nostrils.” At worst, such a society would lead to a foul corruption—not of the state, which was already corrupt, but of the church.

The dispute defined for the first time two fault lines that have run through American history ever since. The first, of course, is over the proper relation between government and what man has made of God—the church. The second is over the relation between a free individual and government authority—the shape of liberty.

In her New York Times Book Review piece on the book, Joyce Chaplin notes the contrast between the "visions of America" of Williams in Rhode Island and Father Serra in California (and one could easily come up with numerous other examples here):

Consider the 18th-century Catholic missionary, Father Junípero Serra. He assumed that Spaniards had the right to take up land in California and that the church had the duty to reorganize Indians into Christian settlements, by force if necessary. Three thousand miles from Providence, at a rest stop on Interstate 280 in Northern California, a larger-than-life image of Serra faces the Pacific. Its back is turned against Williams’s far-off statue, as if also against his radical example of what New World societies might represent.

The United States is part Serra, part Williams. A “hedge or wall of Separation” between church and state was affirmed by the Constitution; rights for Indians were not. Williams would have considered it a battle half-won. He did not think an “American soul” needed to be created — such souls already existed within Indians. By largely confining Williams’s story to the establishment of liberties for America’s adopted populations, without equal attention to the defense of its indigenous inhabitants, Barry has perhaps underestimated his remarkable subject.

On that subject, as a side note/interview to the Smithsonian piece, Barry has some further thoughts on precisely this issue, posted in interview format.

We'll look forward to Lin's more expert thoughts on this subject and Barry's book in the near future.  


Curtis Freeman said…
This comment has been removed by the author.

Popular Posts