Founder of Our FreedomsPrint
Rhode Island's religious tolerance
By Ted Widmer
March 1, 2012
Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, By John M. Barry, Viking, 464 pp., $35
One of the weirder aspects of the 2012 presidential campaign is how the party that fancies itself the locus of old-fashioned religious values offered, in the final months of the primary season, a choice between a Mormon and a Lutheran-turned-Baptist-turned-Catholic. By these lights, Barack Obama is the most traditional adherent to what might be called a mainstream American faith.
Except, of course, no such thing exists. Since Europeans began coming to these shores, often for religious reasons, it has been difficult to pinpoint what constituted the mainstream of our spirituality. There is no mainstream; there are simply sluiceways, too many to count. To this day, conservatives labor mightily to prove that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, monotheistic and monolithic. But the Founders themselves are the best evidence against that argument, with their skepticism (Franklin), their deism (Washington), and their tendency to regard much of the Bible as mumbo jumbo (Jefferson).
Does it help to go back even further? That was the intention of John Barry, the gifted writer of works of 20th-century history, who began a book about the outfielder-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday, a good topic for anyone pondering the insistent rise of religion in a century that seemed for a long time to be about rampant modernity. But in the act of writing, Barry found his attention wandering back to earlier centuries. Eventually, this native Rhode Islander made his way home to Roger Williams, the founder of the state and the architect of one of America’s most important freedoms—the freedom to worship God in a manner of one’s choosing.
That Williams would emerge as the spokesman for anything essential to our national narrative would have struck his contemporaries as insane. He spent most of his early years in America criticizing others—another important freedom we cherish. He disliked the way most New England Puritans treated the Indians, he disliked the way they fused church and state, and he disliked the way they tried to muzzle him. Unsurprisingly, he was ejected from one colony, Massachusetts Bay, and then from its neighbor, Plymouth, before moving into a no man’s land controlled by the natives. There, his early attempts to found a more perfect colony at the head of Narragansett Bay met with one imperfection after another, and he learned that it is as difficult to govern people as it is to be governed. Rhode Island was an appropriate fate for this rebel: having declared his right to worship and live as he chose, Williams was then sent some of the most heterodox people on earth—ranters, rollers, scapegraces of all description—and assumed the nearly impossible task of organizing them into a meaningful polity.
But throughout his long life (c. 1603–1683), Williams never gave up the good fight. Rhode Island endured, barely, and slowly became a different kind of city on a hill—proving that misfits could govern themselves as well as perfect people, especially if they were given room to worship as they pleased. Williams rarely fit within any known categories of religious or political belief: after cofounding the first Baptist church in America, he withdrew into a congregation of one and called himself a “Seeker.” He was an ardent polemicist, scribbling constantly (in his case, literally—he would deface books with his response to them, writing nearly as much text as was printed on the page). These little essays inevitably drew him into conflict with his more orthodox neighbors, since his main purpose was to point out all the ways in which they were screwing up. But he carried on, defending his particular approach to both religion and politics, and the principle that a “wall of separation” should be built between them, for the good of each. That phrase (his, though Jefferson borrowed it) was considered sacred by the Founders at the time of the Constitution and the flurry of laws that created our government. The mighty First Amendment, the cornerstone of everything, owes a lot to Rhode Island.
Williams has never quite made it into the pantheon of American heroes—his religiosity is a little too intense, and his arguments too fierce, and Rhode Island too small. It is not entirely right to say he was American at all—he was born an Englishman (a Londoner, unlike most of the Puritans), and he probably felt that he died one as well. But this book, with its vaunting subtitle, will help. One service that it performs is situating Williams within the Olympian intellectual quarrels that were roiling England before he chose to leave. Williams had an unusual pedigree. As a teenager, gifted in writing shorthand, he was discovered and educated by the great lawyer Edward Coke, who vigorously defended English common law and certain essential freedoms within it—particularly the right to express one’s opinions within one’s domicile (a man’s home is his castle, as Coke said). Williams absorbed that principle and lived by it. He never stopped learning from Coke, whom he called “that glorious light,” and this book succeeds in an important argument—that Rhode Island was in many ways the result of Coke’s teachings. Barry also argues, with less proof, that Coke’s enemy, the philosopher-scientist Sir Francis Bacon, also taught Williams a great deal. That would include the importance of studying nature, which helped when he had to survive his ordeal of banishment in the wilderness. Thanks to his lifelong friendship with the Indians, he did.
It would be difficult to call this a biography—it moves around a lot and rushes through some of the more familiar folkloric stories about Williams (such as the time he rowed from Providence to Newport as an old man, simply to debate an annoying Quaker). It can be choppy to leap across the Atlantic in successive chapters, as Barry struggles to tell us about England and America nearly simultaneously. But in its emphasis on intellectual history, it breathes deeply from the same oxygen that fed Williams as he labored to take inchoate ideas about personal freedom and give them a real basis in law and life. Despite the difficulty of reentering debates that were abstruse in their heyday and have not softened with the passage of centuries, Barry is gifted at conveying the great drama of these arguments, and why men (and some women) cared so deeply about their outcome.
Rhode Island did not turn out perfectly. Its gleaming white State House, designed by McKim, Mead & White as a soaring shrine to democracy, has concealed some very strange political shenanigans over the decades. A few miles away, an extraordinary pile of garbage known as the Central Landfill threatens to someday become the state’s largest man-made structure. In its way, it too is a city on a hill. In our government of ourselves, and our government of the land, we have often fallen short of the high standards Williams set. But as this book makes clear, Rhode Island was founded in something like greatness, with ramifications that went far beyond the boundaries of one tiny place. More than any American state, it owes its existence to a single founder. More than any founder, this one carved out his place through a new kind of power—not wealth, or connections, or brute strength, but the simple force of his imagination. Centuries later, it is comforting to know that if we have a capacious American mainstream, it comes from this eccentric, annoying figure who spent a long life scratching and clawing away in the periphery.
Ted Widmer directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He is a contributing editor of The American Scholar.