Roger Williams And The Battle For The American Soul

Roger Williams And The Battle For The American Soul (7.5.13)

John M. Barry writes big books.

Such as The Great Influenza (of 1918, Penquin 2005) and Rising Tide (regarding the Great Mississippi Flood of 1928, 1997).

So who would  be surprised at his 2012 offering- Roger Williams: and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty?"  (Penquin) 

This is a monumental title and treatise about the distinguished Puritan Roger Williams, whom Barry admires as a relevant beacon of what's best and redeemable about the good old USA.

But yet and still it's a quick and compelling read.

And what's up with that high sounding "The Creation of the American Soul?" 

How many of us have even considered a God blessed distinction to our American soul?  

But no matter.

We know, or should know, what Barry means.

Because he is reminding us of our better selves, in that the creation of the "American soul", and it's respect for freedom of conscience and association and free speech and religion and separation of state and church, and due process, and respect for individual privacy, are still all highly important today to the good old USA.  

Will somebody say Amen?

And who can begrudge this loftiness when it is both an excellent and readable history book and also a present challenge to all of us U.S. citizens in our modern day.

It's a book that aggressively and without any denominational squeamishness or apology (thank God) tackles the wordly political and religious convulsions of 17th century England.

These convulsions and corruptions spawned the flight to the "New World" of thousands of Reformers graced with the wherwithal to escape the forced worship and fealty oaths, the forced church attendance, forced tithing and prayer books, and all manner of state-church repression and spying, as backed up by threats and loss of life and limb and liberty, by maiming and shaming and banishment, and fines and extra taxes, and loss of jobs, benifices and offices, that is, all manner of punishment as enforced by both crown and church, now said to be blessed and one.

All this unity and "forcing" came to a head under the "Protestant" King James (who began reigning in England in 1603 and who Barry depicts as debauched on the Scottish throne before he came to the English one and only commissioned a new translation of the bible because the Geneva Bible then in use often referred to Kings as "tyrants").

King James gave way to his tepid son Charles who ruled from 1625 until his death in 1649.  

In this wordly and fallen atmosphere our Puritan forbears in England knew that their safest hope of avoiding  the conforming edicts of the King's Bishops was to escape to the new world.

Forced to sink or swim in this atmosphere the up and coming Roger Williams, protege of the reforming Sir Edward Coke, pioneering Chief Justice of England (who openly rebuked King James for his hobby horse "I can do no worng" theory of the Divine Right of Kings), was no different from any other Puritan.

He feared for his life and liberty and faith.

And thus he left, and risked all.

But when he arrived at Boston and was welcomed with a leadership post in the most prestigious Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 (at Charlestown-Boston), he did something very curious.

He declined it, for as Barry explains Williams thought this group "insufficiently commited to the proper worship of God." 

This is truly particular behavior, something along the blunt and offensive lines of Ezekiel or Amos (which leaves me quessing that perhaps no one was more surprised than Williams at his words).

Anyway, the step sister Massachusetts Bay Colony of Salem, less than 20 miles away, picked him up on waivers for about five years. Perhaps, he sensed that this smaller and less distinguished group would be more accepting of his non-conforming ideas.

Barry throughout does exceptionally well to identify Williams' mother lode non conformist belief: his rejection of  Puritan New England as God's new Israel, His beacon on Zion Hill.

This point is crucial to the book because it not only explains Williams' understanding of crown-church coruption back in England  (they had the same Israelite conceit as the majority of Puritans and the majority of present day American) and his emerging firm belief that state and Church are to be separate in that such a unity fits only one nation, actual and historical Israel.

As Jesus said "Render under Caesar that which is Caesars, and to God what is God's."

So when the political divines of the Massachusetts Bay Colony at Boston also forced worship, backed up by all the ways and means of crown and church in old England, to Williams' mind, the Colony brought wordly politics into the church, and sooner or later, such worship was going to stink like the forced worship anywhere.

He wasn't going to get gummed up in that kind of service.

As Barry also ably emphasizes, Williams' point was that while politics was just business as usual for the crown or any government, it was the downfall of the church.

So best to stay separate, that's what holiness means anyway.

Best not to court the one arm of the state to twist the other arm of the church, because it's always the church that ends up broken.

Best to have a wall separating church and state

Regardless of the considerable depth and breath of Williams' experiences, that all shaped his thought, two events from the book stand out.

First, he himself was run out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the dead of winter 1536. And when he kept meeting folks at his house in Salem, the Governor of the Colony sent a ruffian posse to kidnap him back to England where he faced jail and death as a heretic.

Only with the conspiring help of the his friend Winthrop, deputy Governor of the Colony, did he escape fifty miles to the south and enjoy the relative welcome of the Narragansett tribe in what is now Rhode Island.

This stung him to the core as he realized that only Jesus was on his team.

Second, after bartering peace with the Naragansett, he named and founded "Providence," at the top of Narragansett Bay. In this second feat he was clearly writing his specific legacy, as he drafted the civil compact that defined Providence.

So vivid was the abuse heaped upon his brethren in the name of one church-crown folks back in England and by the Massachusetts Colony ("his brothers")  that he did not even mention God in this charter, as if to say Providence had given "Providence" to the new "American soul" that might truly appreciate a God given freedom to faith in God, or not, on God's terms, not on the terms of any crown run church or church run crown on whatever side of the Atlantic.

As I close, I realize I'm just scratching the surface of the Puritan Roger Williams' thought, but perhaps there's been enough Yankee faith fodder for a few folks to pick up this book and read it.

I'll end with Barry's somewhat amazed conclusion regarding Williams' civil compact for Providence:

"Williams was a devout Puritan renowned for his piety. In two volumes of surviving letters, not a single one- not one- repeatedly fails to refer to God, not merely in some pro forma "God willing" but in an intimate way, citing and quoting relevant Scripture. Indeed hardly a single paragraph in any letter fails ot mention God. Faith, longing for God, and knowledge of scripture are ingrained in his writing. Even for a seventeenth-century writer, the frequency of his religious referances stands out. His life revolved around seeking God; that search informed the way he thought, the way he wrote, and what he did each day.

For a man such as he to omit all mention of God underscored his absolute conviction that to assume that God embraced any state other than ancient Israel profaned God and signified human arrogance in the extreme." (p. 225)

Oh my- the prophet in author Barry- seems to have firmly grasped a distinct revelation of biblical faith and the free American soul given by God Himself incapable of being supressed by any hierarchical-territorial prelate or cleric of whatever stripe or fashion.

Br. Tobin,

from the environs of the New Haven Colony.




Preaching Hour TV weekly on Cox PATV Channel 15 in Cheshire, Southington and Meriden CT and on VCAM Channel 15 10pm Fridays in Burlington VT.



Tobin Hitt is the founder of the Zion Pentecost Mission. He is open to gospel partnership with all, and identifies with Paul's description of our mission as ambassadors for our king, Jesus, urging all to reconcile with God (2Cor.20-21). He resides in Cheshire, Connecticut.