January 2012

America’s cornerstone debate

By John M. Barry
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When Roger Williams was born in England, probably in 1603, the feudal system was dying, capitalism was being born and there were rivalries with other countries. Religion did not offer solace. The interpretation and understanding of the Christian faith was a major source of conflict. Within a 25-year period, England went from Catholic rule to Protestant, then back to Catholic and back to Protestant. To guarantee loyalty, Parliament required all officeholders, all priests and all university students to swear an Oath of Supremacy to the monarch as “the only supreme Governor of the Realm . . . as well as in all Spiritual and Ecclesiastical things.” Parliament’s Act of Uniformity required all subjects to attend weekly worship at their parish church. Failure to attend worship or refusing to participate in the full liturgy was a crime and a subversive act.

Widely praised historian John M. Barry, author of the best-selling The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, states at the outset of his magnificent new book that it is “a story about power.” Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty is the absorbing narrative of the personal and intellectual journey of the scholarly and pious Puritan minister who became a tireless advocate for the separation of church and state. Exiled into the wilderness for his beliefs and his refusal to keep his dissent private, he established Providence as a haven for those persecuted for their religious beliefs and created the world’s first democracy.

Barry details the lasting influence on Williams, in quite different ways, of Sir Edward Coke and Sir Francis Bacon and the rarefied circles in which they moved. Coke, perhaps the greatest jurist in English history, was a mentor to the much younger Williams, whom he hired to take notes in shorthand. Coke held an extraordinary number of key offices and made seminal contributions to the law that we take for granted. He displayed the courage to challenge even the Crown if he believed it to be wrong. Williams would not forget Coke’s strong emphasis on the rights of the individual, best recognized in one of his judicial decrees: “Every Englishman’s home is as his castle.” Coke and Bacon were bitter political rivals, and the latter’s influence on Williams was quite different. From him Williams learned the importance of reaching conclusions based on evidence from the real world, a valuable insight in a society where many were guided more by religious beliefs or preconceived notions.

Barry uses extensive excerpts from the writings of Williams and his contemporaries to illustrate their various points of view. He shows, for example, how conformity was in many ways at the heart of John Winthrop’s famous sermon that refers to “a citty [Winthrop’s spelling] upon a hill.” Massachusetts was a purpose-driven society and its purpose was to advance God’s interests on the earth. If not a theocracy, the community was theocentric. Before any major decisions were made, the governor and other leaders listened to the opinions of the leading ministers. Massachusetts tolerated private dissent but it demanded public conformity to the perceived will of God.

It is important to emphasize that Williams and Winthrop shared the same theology, a belief that the Bible was the Word of God, and the same devotion to Christ, and they believed that Christ would be coming back to the earth soon. But Williams was not one to conform; he believed a society could not advance without asking questions. As a serious biblical scholar, he was able to correct and reinterpret passages of Scripture to counter the arguments of his adversaries.

What was new in Williams’ greatest work, The Bloody Tenent, was the break between the material world and the spiritual world and the conclusions he reached about politics and religion. He proposed not just “Soul Libertie,” the essence of individual freedom, but went beyond that to a theory of the state that leads to a democratic society. This was written at a time when neither church leaders nor members of Parliament were advocating democracy. In the same book Williams made his original and revolutionary claim that it was the people who were sovereign.

This rich work by a master historian enlightens on every page.

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