Roger Williams gets his due

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  January 4, 2012

Roger Williams — the iconoclast who founded Rhode Island nearly 400 years ago with a radical call for religious tolerance — is held in high regard in these parts. But he is a little-known figure nationwide.

Author John M. Barry, best known for his esteemed The Great Influenza on the 1918 pandemic, gives Williams a wider audience with his new book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.

The book chronicles Williams's battles with religious authorities in England and Massachusetts, his winter flight to Narragansett Bay, and his call for a "hedge or wall of Separation" between church and state.

Along the way, Roger Williams offers a rich portrait of the man's devotion and considerable charms. There is plenty, here, for even the most knowledgeable Rhode Island reader.

Barry will be at the John Carter Brown Library on the Brown University campus on January 11, from 5:30 to 7:30 pm, for a reading and reception. The Phoenix caught up with him for a Q&A, via email, in advance of his appearance.

ROGER WILLIAMS SEEMED A CHARISMATIC FIGURE, WINNING THE AFFECTION OF EVEN SOME ANTAGONISTS. WHAT WAS THE SECRET OF HIS APPEAL? I think his sincerity and enthusiasm was winning. His personality did matter. He didn't make friends the way a modern politician did, simply to manipulate people, but those friendships were absolutely essential to his success. Rhode Island might very well have been incorporated into Massachusetts — and the free society Williams had created would have been destroyed — if he had not had a very good persona; relationship with people like John Milton and [English military and political titan] Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was particularly important. Massachusetts feared him. When Cromwell said, "Back off!" that was the end of it.

HOW RADICAL WAS HIS VIEW OF NATIVE AMERICAN HUMANITY? In theory of course, then and now all Christians regarded all souls as equal. And the English even said that they themselves had been a lot like Indians in their pasts, painting their faces and living primitively — think of the way the Scots were portrayed in the movie Braveheart. But Williams truly did see the Indians as full equals. He took it to another level. Part of that was just his deep reverence for the law. He was a protege of Sir Edward Coke, the greatest jurist in English history — and the man who actually ruled, "The house of every man is as his castle," which meant extending to all England the same liberties great lords had. Common law is based on property, and in accord with common law Williams thought the English had no right to land unless they bought it from Indians. He pointed out English lords had vast forests which they owned and used only for hunting and argued that Indians had the same rights to land they used. He also so respected their right to think as they wished, he convinced Oliver Cromwell to stop Massachusetts from forcing them to convert to Christianity. Yet Williams himself was a devout minister.

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