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The origin of Soul Liberty and the root of the American ideal

  • Nov 25, 2013
Barry, better known for his histories of the 1919 flu epidemic and the 1927 Mississippi flood, here biographizes Founding Grandfather Roger Williams.  You may have a vague memory of 10 minutes classroom explication in your early school years and a bleak gray line drawing in a passed down and thumbed over history textbook of a guy trudging though the deep New England snow into Indian territory because he was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony civilization.  Yep, that was Roger Williams and he was banished for his belief in "Soul Liberty"--the freedom of religious belief from government enforcement.

Roger Williams believed intensely in the freedom of thought and speech and suffered personal pain and hardship (not just that snow, but loss of family, friends, financial security, influence) for his unwavering belief, but recognized the right, the authority, and even the duty of civil government to govern behavior through the fulcrum of personal property.  Roger Williams was no anarchist, atheist, or libertarian.  His thoughts, his speech, became through Milton, Locke, Jefferson, and other founding philosophers and fathers the basis of our cherished rights and freedoms in America--and a measure of how far we have strayed from them.

I am rating this book as "Worth my time" even though the subject matter is worthy of "What a classic!"rating, because Barry seems to struggle wrapping his arms around the story as it starts from so many roots (Coke's study of law and Francis Bacon's study of the world) and branches in so many directions (law, history, politics, religion, discovery, imperialism, cultural anthropology) across the vast landscape of reformation-torn Europe, the great potential of the untapped new world, and the religious and Civil War splintered England which straddled both old and new.  Since he is writing a biography of Williams, Barry spends a lot of time and pages painting the contextual backdrop of the man in his surroundings, and sometimes seems to lose the thread of the story.

But it is a powerful story well worth following and understanding for its relevance especially in today's American political and religious landscape.  Says Barry of Williams as he returned to an England in the midst of its bitter Civil War between King and Parliament to defend and ensure the survival of his Providence experiment in state without religion:  "He was saying that when one mixes religion and politics one gets politics.". Williams considered the church the "Garden of Eden" where God and religion ruled, and the world "the Wildernesse" where the state ruled, and giving government the power to enforce religion was not only unscriptural and sinful, but harmful to the church.  It will " bring the wilderness into the garden," says Barry.

Williams was the first to use the phrase "wall of separation" to describe his belief on the separation of church. on state, but to save the church from the state, not the other way around.  And the crux of the matter was that when he was saying, writing and acting out these beliefs in the mid-17th century, neither church (certainly not the Puritans in New England who envisioned their shining city on a hill as a civil one) nor state (certainly not the King of England who fought to his death at the hands of Cromwell to defend his power over the souls and bodies of his subjects) was even close to agreeing.

Barry does a good job painting the context of Williams as that voice crying (sometimes literally) in the wilderness, and sustaining the ideal until it became in the Founding century The American Ideal.  Long may it last.

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November 26, 2013
Truer words were never spoken!
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #1
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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