Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty
by John M. Barry.
Viking, 2012,
Cloth, 480 pages, $35.

Puritans came to America wanting to found a church more faithful to their beliefs. But they had a problem. In accordance with the Massachusetts Bay Company charter, they needed to maintain at least nominal loyalty to the Church of England. Roger Williams, a brilliant Puritan separatist, arrived in America in 1631. Almost immediately he made a nuisance of himself in John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill.”

A logical Protestant to his bones, Williams professed “soul liberty.” His spiritual independence and his habit of pushing first principles to their conclusions put him at odds with the typical Puritan believer. Offered a senior position at a Boston church upon his arrival, Williams exclaimed, “I durst not officiate to an unseparated people.” From his new position at a Salem church, he demanded his parishioners condemn other “unseparated” churches, which, he deemed, were “still fastened to the Pope himself.” More boldly still, he insisted that government had no business enforcing Moses’s “first tablet” of the Ten Commandments, which addresses our duties to God. The state, he insisted, cannot enforce belief. For these offenses, Massachusetts authorities forced him to flee in the dead of winter to what would later become Rhode Island.

Williams’s uncompromising stances have made him a hero for religious dissidents and libertarians. John Barry, a talented historian who has written about the great Mississippi flood and the great influenza epidemic, presents a highly sympathetic portrait of Williams, who, as his title suggests, set the course for religious freedom in America and stood steadfast against tyrannical government. Williams—a minor figure to a past generation of colonial historians—emerges here as John Calvin, Thomas Jefferson, and Natty Bumppo rolled into one.

For his enlightened statesmanship alone Williams might well be remembered. A tough pioneer, he forged close relations with the Narragansett Indians, treating them as equals. He welcomed other religious sects, including the then-despised Quakers, into his fledgling colony. He used his impressive connections in England to obtain a Parliamentary charter to preserve Rhode Island from Massachusetts and Connecticut land grabs. Williams seemed to have a talent for making friends in high places. Even after being expelled from the Plymouth colony, he maintained cordial relations with the Winthrops. He counted powerful Puritans, including Oliver Cromwell, as his backers.

But his religious side fascinates us more. He reminds us of Emerson’s take on Henry David Thoreau: few lives contained so many renunciations. He quit England and the Church of England to find religious freedom. Failing to find that in Massachusetts, he fled to Rhode Island. After cofounding the First Baptist Church in Providence, he soon quit that too. In the end, he became a “seeker,” uncomfortable in any organized congregation. In a sense, Williams became a church of one.

We know of Williams’s early life only through a haze. His birth date in London—perhaps 1603—remains conjecture because the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed all the records. He went to Cambridge and served as a clerk to the great jurist Sir Edward Coke. The author surmises that Coke, who fearlessly challenged James I’s monarchical absolutism, wielded great influence over Williams. In turn, Barry brings into the narrative Coke’s rival Francis Bacon, the philosopher of scientific inquiry. Barry speculates that Bacon’s ideas on empiricism made an important impression on Williams logical bent of mind.

For Barry, Williams’s chief legacy is his stalwart opposition to state absolutism. Barry dedicates much space to analyzing Williams’s political thought, especially his Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered and the later tract, Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, written in response to fellow Puritan John Cotton. From these Williams famously developed his “walled garden” image. Inspired by Isaiah, Williams sought to wall off his flourishing garden from the unregenerate wilderness. Other Puritans, Williams claimed, had failed to protect their churches from worldly impurities. The perfect church needed what Williams was the first to call (in a response to John Cotton) “a wall of separation” from the encroachments of the state, lest it be corrupted by the state. The division of responsibilities was simple: the civil state should only apply its penalties to civil offenses. And the church should only exercise jurisdiction over conscience and worship.

You cannot force men’s consciences to believe. Moreover, the state has no right to do so, since it can demonstrate no special providence from God. Quakers might be questionable—Williams couldn’t stand them—and Papists beyond the pale, but their beliefs must not be proscribed.

In Barry’s narrative, these ideas emerge fully formed. But Williams didn’t get there just from Coke and Bacon; he was a profoundly religious thinker. According to historian Edmund S. Morgan, to understand how Williams reasoned, we need to grasp his view of church history. As Williams understood it, God’s covenant with Israel was a visible covenant; God didn’t reproduce it elsewhere. No Christian church henceforth could claim a special covenant with God. Moreover, Williams claimed that apostolic succession had been permanently broken when Constantine established the Christian church as the state religion. Therefore it was impossible for Winthrop, or anyone, to claim to have founded a new Israel, and even more presumptuous to enforce God’s Holy Writ. Accordingly, the state should not enforce the First Tablet of the Commandments on our duties toward God.

In depicting his libertarian hero, Barry fails to reconcile the paradox of Williams’s deep and exclusionary Puritanism with his tolerant, seemingly moderate positions. Though insisting that Williams should be viewed in the context of his times, Barry airbrushes away much of Williams’s thought that fails to correspond with modern sensibilities. How could an advocate for tolerance be so unyielding against sin, or an advocate of state inclusiveness be an exclusionist regarding his fellow Christians?

Williams, famously, believed a righteous man must not be forced to pray with sinners. He was strongly intolerant of religious impurity, and this drove many of his actions. As pointed out by Morgan and other historians, Williams “thought a man should not pray with his wife unless both were regenerate.” The unregenerate should not be permitted within the walled garden of the church. Indeed, Williams was so intolerant, he had to be tolerant. His view of the separatist church was so pristine and stringent that one could pray only with the elect who completely shared his self-styled religious perfection. He had set up his own wall of separation, not just between the church and state, but between himself and other believers. Having such an exclusive attitude, Williams was forced by necessity to allow other types of believers, including Catholics and Quakers. In Williams’s case, the extremes met.

But did Williams’s ideal state divorce itself from religious concerns? Not at all. Williams believed the state had in fact a duty to enforce the Second Tablet of Moses’s Laws, that is, our duties to one another. This was simply a matter of maintaining a peaceful, law abiding society. Should the state legislate morality? Williams certainly thought so.

What are we to make of Roger Williams’s legacy? Barry claims that with the restoration of the tolerant Charles II to the throne, the crown, following Williams’s lead, ensured more religious tolerance for the colonies. This is debatable. Other historians downplay Williams’s contribution to religious toleration in America, a movement that only gained momentum many years after his death. Many colonies and, later, states still outlawed some religious practices and had established churches. By the time of the Revolution, the founders still invoked God’s authority for the righteousness of their cause, a move that would have made Williams cringe.

Williams probably never recognized the full implication of his thought, which would encourage the state to grow more distant from religion. Philip Hamburger in his important study on church and state put it well: “So severe was Williams’s division between the spiritual and the worldly that they seemed almost irrelevant to each other, leaving worldly activities—or at least those so specialized as to seem secular—unburdened by spiritual concerns.” Many who see Williams as a hero today probably see the implications of his argument better than he did. It fundamentally keeps the church out of public life and makes religious worship truly personal, without any implications for the body politic or society at large.

In his conclusion, Barry, somewhat curiously, sees Williams’s legacy as useful in opposing presidential executive privilege of the kind the George W. Bush administration exercised to prosecute its war on terror. Perhaps the book went to press before this better example of breaching the wall of separation was available: the Department of Health and Human Services demanding religious institutions provide contraception through their health insurance. Something tells me the old Puritan might havehad a problem with that.  

Michael Ard took his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 2001. He is a former Richard M. Weaver fellow and a security analyst for Marathon Oil in Houston, Texas. He is the author of An Eternal Struggle (Praeger, 2003), on the religious underpinnings of Mexico’s democratic transition.