The Creation of the American Soul

The Creation of the American Soul
Roger Williams, Church and State and the Birth of Liberty
John Barry
Duckworth  464pp  £25

The United States is a country infused with countless contradictions, but few of them are as sharp as religion. How could the first nation to cleave church from state remain so pious?

Some of the shrewdest observers of American society have argued, persuasively, that the answer to this riddle lies in the question. Today, in our mostly secular societies, we assume that separation protects the state from the church and so it does. But the reverse is also true. When the Founders drafted the Bill of Rights, in the late 18th century, they aimed also to protect the church from the state.

The First Amendment begins with the ‘establishment’ and ‘free exercise’ clauses, which prohibited the recognition of an official church or national religion and prevented the federal government from regulating religious life. This forced churches to be innovative, imaginative and responsive to their members’ needs; hence the enduring predominance of evangelicalism and the creation of new syncretic faiths, such as Mormonism, Pentecostalism and the Nation of Islam. It also meant that, when the state fell into disrepute, religion was not dragged down with it; hence the absence of anti-clericalism in American history. Instead of weakening religion in America, then, the separation of church and state has actually created space for a vibrant and voluntarist religious life.

Most historians date this development to the period from 1775 to 1791, to the American Revolution and its aftermath. But John Barry, a journalist and historian, situates it much earlier, to the founding of England’s North American colonies and to one in particular, Rhode Island.

The central figure in Barry’s drama is Roger Williams, a Puritan minister and Cambridge graduate, who emigrated to America in 1631. Williams settled in Massachusetts, but chafed under the strict conformity of life under the New England Way. Drummed out for views that even the Puritans found too radical, he fled into what the colonists called ‘the howling wilderness’. Warned by his friend John Winthrop that he was about to be deported to England, where he faced arrest and probable execution for views deemed treasonous, Williams slipped into the dead of night, using a raging blizzard for cover, and headed south. After 75 miles of trudging through deep snow and canoeing through ice-ridden waters, he stopped on the shores of Narragansett Bay. Grateful to the mercies of a loving God, he named his new settlement Providence.

Like most Puritans in England, Williams had resented Bishop Laud’s Church of England and bridled at the abuses of power by Charles I. Yet, unlike most Puritans, he also resisted the rules imposed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He had fled repression in England only to find it in New England. Determined to avoid the abuses of power he had found in London and Boston, Williams embedded both religious liberty and participatory democracy in the charter of the new colony he founded, Rhode Island, most notably by prohibiting the establishment of any official religion. In Rhode Island colonists were free to believe in anything or in nothing. It is here, Barry argues, that we find ‘the creation of the American soul’, which grounded religious and political freedom in individual autonomy.

Barry’s account of all this is compelling and fluid. He writes with grace and insight and with a novelist’s sensitivity to people, personality and story. Most interestingly, he does not portray the New World as a sui generis Eden of liberty that was uniquely ‘American’: at least a third of the book takes place in England and Barry pays a great deal of attention to Williams’ apprenticeship to Sir Edward Coke and his formative relationship with Francis Bacon. Throughout, even when his narrative takes him to America, Barry is rightly careful to situate colonial debates over religion and politics as extensions of what was happening in England in the turbulent 1630s and ‘40s.

Barry is also right to emphasise the revolutionary nature of Williams’ vision. Nonetheless he never really explains where it came from or why Williams was such an unusual Puritan. Perhaps it was as much a matter of personality as it was the power of ideas. Either way Williams left few clues as to why he made such a radical departure and I doubt he warrants the place alongside Hobbes and Locke that Barry gives him in the pantheon of political thought.

Still this is an excellent book. For those looking to make sense of the contradictions that comprise America, they should begin here

Andrew Preston Is Reader in American History at Clare College, Cambridge and the author of Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (Knopf, 2012).

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