350th anniversary of Rhode Island's "lively experiment" in religious freedom
Should you find yourself in front of the Rhode Island Statehouse in Providence, look up and east, and tip your hat — real or imagined — to Roger Williams. A 35-foot statue of the Protestant theologian (1603?-1683) stands high in Prospect Terrace Park, with right hand extended, as if blessing the city he founded. The beatific image does not quite resemble its cantankerous model, for reasons that John M. Barry explores, if only partly, in his new biography, “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul.”
ROGER WILLIAMS AND THE CREATION OF THE AMERICAN SOUL
Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty
By John M. Barry
464 pp. Viking. $35.
Barry is the gifted author of several historical works that examine the early 20th century, most notably “The Great Influenza.” He had begun working on a biography of a figure from the same period, the American evangelist Billy Sunday, but his curiosity about the longer history of religion in public life whisked him back in time and to Williams, long regarded as the original American proponent of liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state.
Born in England, Williams was educated at the Charterhouse School, in London, and at Pembroke College, Cambridge, just in time to thrust his way into his nation’s post-Reformation religious controversies. Disagreement over England’s official faith was why radical Protestants, now known as Pilgrims and Puritans, departed to settle colonies at Plymouth (1620) and Massachusetts Bay (1630). When Williams expressed similarly radical beliefs, and faced arrest, he and his wife fled to New England in late 1630. Their need to leave was so urgent that they crossed the Atlantic in winter, ordinarily considered too dangerous a time for ocean traffic. The Williamses settled in Plymouth Colony, and then in Massachusetts, where Williams again annoyed the authorities. When officials arrived at his house to arrest him in the winter of 1636, he was gone.
Williams struck overland, through snow and bitter cold, “wch I feele yet,” he reminisced later in life. He survived because he had help. “The ravens fed me in the wilderness,” he said, comparing himself to the scriptural prophets sustained by bird-borne morsels, though his “ravens” were Indians. With their assistance, he reached the upper bend of a bay that would be named for its inhabitants, the Narragansett. There, Williams bought land from its native proprietors and established a settlement he called Providence, to honor the divine assistance given to him and other Christians on their flights from persecution.
Oddly, for a book with “American” in its title, over a third of Barry’s story takes place in Europe, dealing especially with the politico-religious troubles that were roiling England. But Barry avoids the thorny recent scholarship on post-Reformation England, which has questioned the old textbook religious divisions, including the use of the word “Puritan.” Scholars now use the uncapitalized “puritan” to indicate a tendency, not identify a group. In what sense was Williams “puritan”? We will not know until another biographer truly rethinks the man.
Barry does impart enough detail about Williams to show how puzzling a character he was, exasperatingly admirable. He attracted the powerful and the intelligent. The jurist Edward Coke had been his patron during his youth; the poet John Milton was a later friend. Even his critics found him an appealing personality. The governor of Plymouth called him “the sweetest soul I ever knew.” It is telling that both times Williams fled an arrest warrant, it was apparently because someone sympathetic had tipped him off.
And yet Williams seemed determined to offend. “I desire not to sleep in securitie,” he had warned the Massachusetts governor John Winthrop, in perfect self-knowledge of his capacity to be purer than the so-called Puritans. He stated that the colony’s civil authorities could not regulate “the First Table,” those among the Ten Commandments that governed religion; they could prosecute someone for adultery, but not for making (or worshiping) graven images. Next, Williams refused to take an oath of fidelity to Massachusetts, on the grounds that anything sworn in God’s name for worldly purposes was corrupt.
The authorities in Massachusetts were so outraged that having failed to arrest Williams, they tried to obliterate his new settlement. He went back to England to get a charter to protect his colony on his own terms: with a “hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world.” In several publications, he argued that the individual conscience should not — could not — be governed, let alone persecuted. If God was the ultimate punisher of sin, it was impious for humans to assume his authority. And it was “directly contrary to the nature of Christ Jesus . . . that throats of men should be torne out for his sake.”
Barry shows how controversial these beliefs were at the time, and in this way reinforces the standard image of Williams as an early proponent of liberty of conscience. But his emphasis on the English context for the controversy neglects Williams’s even bolder insistence that what was true for Christian Europeans was true for others, including Indians.
In his “Key Into the Language of America” (1643), a dictionary and a cultural anthropology of New England Indians, Williams called his native hosts and neighbors “Barbarians,” yet argued that they had consciences and rights as worthy of respect as anyone’s. He preached to the Indians, but thought that any coerced conversion of them would represent a false faith, an abomination to God. Nor did he think Indians should be deprived of their land. Against the near-universal assumption that America had more land than its indigenes needed or even knew about, he pointed out that they were “very exact and punctuall in the bounds of their Lands, belonging to this or that Prince or People.”
That was even more controversial than the doctrine of religious liberty among Christians. In the mid-1500s, a Catholic theologian, Bartolomé de Las Casas, had made a similar point. While cataloging Spanish atrocities against Indians, Las Casas defended them as inhabitants of a land to which they had rights, and said their lack of Christian faith did not justify abuse of them. Few were convinced. 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.
Joyce E. Chaplin is the James Duncan Phillips professor of history at Harvard and the editor of “Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography: A Norton Critical Edition,” which has just been published.