Rethinking Roger Williams

This morning I finished reading Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul. It took me a while to work through the story as I gorged on fiction during a stressful late-summer and fall, but the book itself is an engaging read.

My sentiments towards Roger Williams have not been generally positive in the past, mostly because I get frustrated with how people use Williams concept of “soul liberty” [1] After reading The Creation of the American Soul I have come to have deep appreciation of Roger Williams. He was a fascinating man, living in a tumultuous time, who felt compelled to follow evidence wherever it led him. His propensity to come to uncomfortable conclusions got him into trouble frequently throughout his life – first in England, then in Massachusetts, and even in Rhode Island. Through it all, most who encountered him found an honest, engaging, and thoroughly Christian man. Of all the points made in the book, I found that to be the most interesting. Many contemporary people, both friendly and hostile towards Williams' memory, tend to assume that his own Christian convictions faded as he moved from Puritan, to Baptist (for a moment, anyway), and then to being part of no Church. This was not the case, he remain convinced of Christ and the Gospel his entire life. He continued to preach in his later years, and even felt compelled to publicly debate Quakers on their errors as they began to spread in the colonies. It's important do note that Williams debated Quakers while simultaneously affirming their right to worship as they would and live unmolested lives. Williams was more complex then I've ever given him credit, which is a shame.

His convictions regarding religion and state-craft came both through deep examination and great suffering. He'd witnessed, first hand, the abuses of civil authority and the toxic mix of religion and politics. He always affirmed the need for government, but he also believed it's realm of authority was the physical world alone. To Williams, government should not aspire to compel a set of beliefs upon it's citizens and violate their consciences. The mind and soul were God's responsibility – and liberty of the soul from human authority was non-negotiable for him.

The cruelties inflicted on people when religion and state mixed were toxins with which Williams had personal experience. They'd broken friendships, chased him out of his home, and nearly led to his death. This is what led him, as a deeply devout Christian, to champion a wall of separation between church and state. He knew the results if such a wall were not kept up.

As I said, Creation of the American Soul has changed my opinion of Roger Williams, though I do believe John M. Barry may have overstated his case a bit. In the afterword Mr. Barry attempts, briefly, to make a connection between Williams and Jefferson. It's an intriguing picture, but Jefferson and Williams sprang from differing motivations. Williams was concerned about the pollution of religion by the state. Jefferson was more concerned with the corruption of the state by religion. In the Early Republic, Madison seems to have had a more of a kinship with Williams' thoughts.

This is a book worth-reading, and a complex person worth discovering.

  1. The concept that no human authority, civil or religious, could impose a belief upon a person's conscience. It was radical for the time, and a sentiment with which I agree, but it's been morphed over time to mean, “I can do whatever I want.” For this reason I've often advocated dropping the language entirely. return.