Barry on Roger Williams

From Penguin, a new biography of Roger Williams, Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul (2012), by John M. Barry. Barry usefully situates Williams in the legal and political struggles of Jacobean and Caroline England — I did not know, for example, that Williams once served as an apprentice to Sir Edward Coke, the famous Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, and thought of Coke as a surrogate father — and follows him to Massachusetts, from which his fellow Puritans banished him when he denied civil government’s authority to punish offenses against God. Barry discusses the evolution of Williams’s ideas about church and state, including his most famous contribution, the metaphor of the “wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world.”  The publisher’s description follows.

For four hundred years, Americans have wrestled with and fought over two concepts that define the nature of the nation: the proper relation between church and state and between a free individual and the state. These debates began with the extraordinary thought and struggles of Roger Williams, who had an unparalleled understanding of the conflict between a government that justified itself by “reason of state”-i.e. national security-and its perceived “will of God” and the “ancient rights and liberties” of individuals.

This is a story of power, set against Puritan America and the English Civil War. Williams’s interactions with King James, Francis Bacon, Oliver Cromwell, and his mentor Edward Coke set his course, but his fundamental ideas came to fruition in America, as Williams, though a Puritan, collided with John Winthrop’s vision of his “City upon a Hill.”

Acclaimed historian John M. Barry explores the development of these fundamental ideas through the story of the man who was the first to link religious freedom to individual liberty, and who created in America the first government and society on earth informed by those beliefs. The story is essential to the continuing debate over how we define the role of religion and political power in modern American life.

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