Yes, that Roger Williams, the one you remember from elementary school history class, the Puritan preacher banished from Massachusetts who went on to found a colony of his own, Rhode Island.
A book published this year – “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty” – goes way past those few paragraphs that your American history course spared.
As politics of our day have breathed life into the topic of religious freedom and the role of the church in civic life, learning more about Williams’ struggles against the all-powerful leaders of his day is timely.
Knowing more about the religious oppression that the Puritans sought to escape, knowing more about how the Puritans themselves oppressed people in the name of religion, knowing more about the deep-seated religiosity of the United States, and knowing more about the hatred of Catholics that lingers still in the United States, all that is even more valuable.
Prejudice came across the sea
Author John M. Barry takes readers back to 16th century Europe to add perspective to Roger Williams’ life and works. In England and France back then, Catholics were slaughtering Protestants, and Protestants were slaughtering Catholics. They would do so for centuries, even up to the 20th.
The Reformation brought rule of the church together with the rule of kings and queens, linking the two in what was widely accepted as “the divine right of kings,” another flashback to grade school history.
Barry does a thorough job – maybe more than necessary – documenting the historical background so readers know who the Puritans are and why they fled England for the colonies. The history of the colonists once on North American soil seems more pertinent, and Barry covers the waterfront on that era.
There is an incredible amount of I-never-knew-thats in these 395 pages. For instance, did you know:
- Virtually every government in England and New England fined people who didn’t attend worship – and that it was a revenue stream for those governments?
- The colonists who arrived with the Massachusetts Bay Company worried that Catholic powers might attack them?
- The English saw the need to colonize in North America as a bulwark against the further spread of Catholicism because of the Spanish and French incursions in the hemisphere?
- If the Puritan church in Massachusetts excommunicated a person, no member of the colony – Puritan or not – could eat with them or even greet them on the street?
- To avoid “heathenish and idols’ names,” Massachusetts stopped using names for the days of the weeks and months of the year?
Seeking liberty from church and state
Roger Williams sees so much of these actions and prohibitions as misuse of both power and religion. Barry describes Williams’ thinking along these lines in plain language:
“. . . he had seen enough of power. He clearly had no desire to direct other men’s lives. He had even less desire to be directed by others. To him all that mattered was that he and every other person in his plantation (Rhode Island) could worship or not worship God in whatever manner he or she desired. . . .”
“He was saying that mixing church and state corrupted the church. He was saying that when one mixes religion and politics one gets politics.”
It comes as no surprise that it was Roger Williams who is likely the first to write of the need for a “wall of separation” between church and state. Nor that Williams’ religious beliefs influenced Rhode Island to be perhaps the first government anywhere in the world to outlaw slavery.
While not all of Williams’ thinking is worthy of admiration or acceptance, his story carries a level of historic importance to us today. For me, that’s a story that is the root of a conclusion I’ve come to believe more and more holds this kernel of truth: You can’t tell Americans that HAVE TO do anything. We see it playing out in so many things today in civic life and the church — from the provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act to the new translation of the Roman Missal.
Roger Williams brought the cornerstone with him from England in the 16th century. Now in the 21st century – 350 or so years later – U.S. citizens enjoy the freedom of worship that Williams modeled, yet how much influence religion has on civic affairs and how far government can go to impose on one’s religious beliefs, these are topics of the day just as they were in colonial times.