Book Write-Up: Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul

John M. Barry.  Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.  Viking, 2012.

This book is about Roger Williams, who started Providence, Rhode Island as a place of religious freedom.  He had been expelled by the Puritans in Massachusetts on account of his belief in religious freedom, and also because he believed that the European immigrants to America were wrong to take land from the Native Americans as opposed to buying it from them.  Here are some points that I want to make about Barry’s book:

—-Barry’s book provided me with context about who the Puritans were and why they came to America.  I have already read a couple of books about the Puritans, but there was some lacunae in my knowledge.  This book helped to fill that.  Essentially, there were power struggles in seventeenth century England between the monarchy and the Parliament.  The monarch (namely, James I then Charles I) was rather open to Catholicism, whereas the Parliament contained a lot of Calvinistic Protestants who were against that.  There were seasons in which the monarchy had the upper hand, and the king’s powerful sympathizers persecuted the Calvinistic Puritans.  The English Puritans still had some clout, however, so a group of them managed to set up a company in America that England recognized.

—-Have you ever wondered about how the different groups in America got along?  How, for example, did the Pilgrims in Plymouth get along with the Puritans in Massachusetts?  Essentially, they did not like each other, for the Pilgrims were separatists who wanted separation from the Church of England, whereas the Puritans desired to purify the Church of England of such things as Catholic rituals, the Book of Common Prayer, and Arminianism.  The Pilgrims in Plymouth still depended on the Puritans, on some level, and that was one reason that they were hesitant to allow Roger Williams to live in their midst after the Puritans had booted him out.  My impression is that the Pilgrims depended on the Puritans because the Pilgrims were essentially on their own, whereas England recognized the Puritan community, and thus the Puritan community had access to English resources and protection.  Those things were important.  Roger Williams would find that out when Massachusetts was trying to take over his area of Providence, and so he went to England for recognition and protection, and, due to his connections, he managed to get it.

—-How did Roger Williams, a Puritan, come to believe in religious liberty?  Barry speculates that it could have been due to the influence of Williams’ mentor in England, Edward Coke, an influential figure who opposed the king becoming too powerful.  There were also pro-liberty trends in English history, such as the slogan that a man’s home is his castle, and a comment Elizabeth I made about the importance of the soul being free from compulsion.  Roger Williams would debate religious liberty with Puritan John Cotton.  Cotton notes times in the Bible in which God opposed religious liberty, since God mandated the death penalty for idolaters.  Williams retorted, however, that this was the Old Testament, and that, under the New Testament, the wheat and the tares are to grow together until Christ returns, and the tares are not to be uprooted.  Williams also pointed to the bloodshed that occurred as a result of religions not tolerating one another.

—-An issue that came up in Williams’ debate with Cotton was whether England (and the Puritan colony in America) was in some sort of national covenant with God, of the sort that ancient Israel had in the Bible.  English Calvinistic Protestants tended to believe that England had that kind of relationship with God, that England was God’s chosen people (which is not to say that they believed that England was one of the lost ten tribes, contra certain British Israelists).  Williams, however, seemed to dispute that, and he expressed doubt that English Protestantism was truly blessed by God.  Why, after all, were the Catholics and Muslims so successful on the world stage, he wondered, if they are the people God rejects, and if God blesses the faithful and curses the unfaithful?  Williams may have arrived at this position over time, for, when he was trying to encourage a group of Native Americans to make peace with the English (Williams was often a mediator between the English in America and the Native Americans, on account of his friendship with Native Americans), he noted to them that the English had God on their side, and thus it would be prudent for the Native Americans to have them as allies rather than opposing them.

—-Barry states more than once that Williams could have made a good home for himself in England, for, even though he was controversial (his books were burned), he was liked and influential, and he was friends with the influential (such as Oliver Cromwell).  But Williams chose to return to Providence, America, the site of his experiment with religious liberty, as rough and uncomfortable as that could be.

—-Williams got to the point where he did not attend church.  He concluded that the apostolic line of succession no longer applied, since it had been corrupted over the years by Catholicism and (well) just plain corruption.  That led him to believe that God did not recognize any churches, that no church could be established that would reflect a continuity with the church that Jesus started.  I wonder why a corrupt line of succession would have to entail not going to church.  Couldn’t believers just get together to exhort and encourage each other, even if the apostolic line of succession became historically tainted?

—-There were other things in the book that stood out to me.  There was the English Puritans’ brewery, which was public, and which employed the poor.  Money was given to almshouses.  That is quite an economic model!  I also liked what Barry had to say about John Cotton: how he passionately preached grace and intimacy with God, in such a manner that attracted many to hear him, and even to follow him to America.  Cotton was probably a refreshing preacher in light of the Puritan emphasis on self-examination and the agonizing struggle to determine if one was part of God’s elect.  Still, Cotton could be a jerk.  When Roger Williams got sick, for instance, Cotton saw that as God’s punishment of Williams for Williams’ views.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Book Write-Up: Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul

  1. Wonderful review James I learned quite a bit 🙂


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