John M. Barry’s ‘Roger Williams’: separating church and state
‘Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul’
by John M. Barry
Penguin, 464 pp., $35
Roger Williams may not be a household name, but he surely contributed as much or more to the American view of individual liberty and the separation of church and state as any of the much more celebrated Founders who drafted our Constitution over 150 years after his death.
Born and raised in London, Williams watched firsthand as the Parliament battled the King over religious freedom as a young apprentice to Sir Edward Coke, one of the greatest English jurists. Although the Puritans ultimately fled to the new American colonies to escape religious persecution, they had no scruples against persecution for religious belief. John Winthrop, the first Governor of the Massachusetts colony, famously called for the building of a “shining city on a hill,” but shining not because of its religious freedom. Indeed, quite the opposite: it would shine because Protestant Christianity would inform the state and religious principles and practices would be enforced by the state through force and even death. Sound familiar?
Williams was himself a devout Puritan minister but arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony carrying lessons learned firsthand from the King’s willingness to brutally enforce religious doctrine with state power. As a result, Williams proposed a radically different conception of freedom: that there ought to be a “wall of separation” between church and state. Perhaps even more radically, he proposed that the government received its power and authority from its citizens, not the other way around. Neither idea was well received. Massachusetts found Williams’ ideas so offensive that in 1636, in the depth of winter, it banished him from the colony under penalty of death. Only the mercy of Native American tribes saved Williams from certain death.
Williams founded Providence as a refuge where one could choose to believe or to pray however one wished and citizens controlled the government. It was a radical experiment. At the time, the Puritans elsewhere were furiously working to perfect religious persecution, torturing, hanging and burning at the stake those whose only crime was to hold differing religious views. Williams’ conception of individual and religious liberty ultimately prevailed, but the tension between religious intolerance (building that “shining city on the hill”) and individual liberty (creating a “separation of church and state”) remains a fundamental theme in America even today.
In “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul,” New York Times best-selling author (“Rising Tide”) John M. Barry tells the story with passion and an eye for fine detail. Barry, who also authored “The Great Influenza,” knows his English history and weaves political intrigue across both sides of the Atlantic at a time when the crossing depended entirely on fair winds and good fortune. If the story were not compelling enough, Barry’s dramatic first chapter of conflict, confrontation and banishment into the wilderness is worth the price of admission alone. As Williams, stunned by the civil banishment order for a religious dispute, stumbled from the settlement, “snow began falling. It fell softly but also thickly, until it rose to his knees.”
As Barry notes, the dispute “opened a fissure in America, a fault line which would rive America all the way to the present. That fissure opened over the question of the role of government in religion and of the reverse, the role of religion in government.”
Williams’ arguments, made in a lonely colony on the edge of a vast untamed continent, laid a foundation for a liberty that continues to thrive today. Perhaps religious freedom and individual liberty would have emerged over the last 400 years in all events. But Roger Williams deserves our thanks for his courage to fight for it 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.
Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.