Winter 2012

Roger Williams: A Man of Conscience

– Christopher Merrill

Advocating liberty of conscience, he built a wall between the wilderness of the world and the garden of faith that has shaped our political discourse for the last 400 years.

When historian John M. Barry set out to write a book examining the role of religion in modern American public life, his exploration took him instead back to the settling of New England and the unsettling figure of Roger Williams, the first colonist to cultivate the freedom of thought we regard as our birthright. Williams proposed a radical understanding of the relationship between the civic and the spiritual—what is owed to Caesar and what to God. Advocating liberty of conscience, he built a wall between the wilderness of the world and the garden of faith that has shaped our political discourse for the last 400 years.

Williams was born in England around 1603, the son of a shopkeeper in the burgeoning middle class. When he was hired as a teenager to take shorthand for Sir Edward Coke, the leading jurist of the age, he had the chance to witness, in the Star Chamber and Privy Council, battles over the issue of royal prerogative that laid the groundwork for civil war. He studied the foibles of all sorts of men, beginning with the monarch, and the perils of absolute power. The rivalry between Coke and his nemesis, Sir Francis Bacon, was likewise instructive. Barry argues that Williams adopted Coke’s reverence for the law and Bacon’s respect for empirical evidence, an uncommon mixture of intellectual traits that distinguished him from his countrymen—and launched him on a collision course with the authorities in England and America.

After attending Cambridge, a seedbed of Puritanism, Williams became chaplain to Sir William Masham, a Puritan leader in whose service he met many men destined to play large roles in the English Civil War, including Oliver Cromwell. He also fell for a woman above his station; rebuffed in his suit for her hand, he nearly died of a fever, and soon after his recovery he married another woman and sailed for the New World, possibly to escape imprisonment for his revolutionary views.

Upon his arrival in 1631, Williams impressed the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Yet when they offered him a teaching post in the colony’s church, he refused on the grounds that it had not separated from the Church of England. The colony was not a theocracy, strictly speaking, but its civil and religious powers were working hand in glove to dictate how individuals were supposed to think—anathema to Williams. “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils,” he wrote. And his clashes with the authorities led to banishment for his “dangerous opinions.”

He headed into the woods, in the dead of winter, eventually settling with his followers on Narragansett Bay. There he established the New World’s first democracy, which he called Providence. Beset by men from within and without who were avid for land, he mediated disputes between settlers and their native neighbors. (In the Indian war of 1637 he furnished Massachusetts Bay leaders with intelligence about the movements of the tribes in the area, whose motives he understood better than any other settler.) He traveled twice to London to secure patents for the plantation later known as Rhode Island. And he published important texts on religion and political theory, as well as a seminal work on Native American language and life. All this he did in the interest of creating the right relationship between the things of this world and those of the next.

Barry is no biographer—Williams does not really enter the story until a third of the way through the book; the opening chapters are devoted to historical background—but he does draw a vivid portrait of the time. Williams was a Zelig-like figure present at decisive historical events throughout his long life. (The exact date of his death in 1683 is unknown.) Barry is adept at connecting those events—the Puritan migration, the English Civil War, the Restoration, King Philip’s War—to Williams’s “lively” experiment in democracy, the results of which are still under review.

The achievement of this forgotten founding father is indeed a continuing challenge to every American: “For he knew,” Barry writes, “that to believe in freedom and liberty required faith in the freedom of thought, of conscience. And that was soul liberty.”

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Christopher Merrill's latest book is The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War. He directs the University of Iowa's International Writing Program. 

Reviewed: "Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty" by John M. Barry, Viking, 2011.

Image courtesy of New York Public Library