A Man of Conscience
ROGER WILLIAMS AND THE CREATION OF THE AMERICAN SOUL:
Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.
By John M. Barry.
Viking. 464 pp. $35.
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.
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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.more from this author >>