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Roger Williams on His Own

In response to:

Radical, Pure, Roger Williams from the May 10, 2012 issue

To the Editors:

It is certainly flattering to be called “one of the most talented of the distinguished nonacademic historians writing today” by such a distinguished academic historian as Gordon Wood. Nonetheless, his review of my book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty [NYR, May 10] requires a response.

Wood believes Williams had less impact than do I, and for support quotes dismissive comments by W.K. Jordan, author of The Development of Religious Toleration in England. In fact, those selected quotes do not accurately represent Jordan’s assessment. He hardly sounded dismissive in crediting Williams with “the most important contribution made during the [seventeenth] century” to religious liberty or concluding that Williams had “a greater genius and a larger view,” and, “No contemporary figure could command such attention as this remarkable and accomplished leader.”

Wood also doubts that Edward Coke and Francis Bacon had significant influence on the development of Williams’s ideas on separating church and state, religious freedom, and his then-revolutionary assertion that governments “have no more power, nor for longer time, than the…people consenting shall betrust them with.”

Wood accepts that Coke and Williams developed a father–son relationship and quotes Williams’s statement that he had “precious remembrance of…the life, the writings, the speeches, and the example of that glorious light,” but omits the beginning of that sentence, in which Williams recalls “how many thousand times” he thought of Coke. Is not thinking of someone’s views and example thousands of times the very definition of influence?

More importantly, on substance Williams’s own later positions on proper procedure, individual liberty, and limits on state power were steeped in Coke’s views even as they went beyond them. A jurist, Coke virtually codified common law, set such precedents as judicial review of legislation, and denounced royal claims that kings were “above the law” and for “reason of state” could “suspend any particular law.” His ruling, “The house of every one is as his castle,” equated commoners with lords and protected both against arbitrary power, and he even stated that a layman who killed church pursuivants arresting him in his home could not be prosecuted. Imprisoned by King James but uncowed after being released, Coke then impeached crown officers and wrote the Petition of Right, which Parliament passed unanimously and whose provisions were seen in our Constitution’s habeas corpus clause and in four amendments of our Bill of Rights.

The evidence for Bacon’s influence is less direct, but in referring to it the book uses words like “seem” or “may have” to show it is speculation. And the speculation did not come from nowhere. The difference between academic and nonacademic historians lies largely in their intellectual capital. Having written books involving the history of science, I had different sensibilities than most American colonial historians and already knew Bacon’s Novum Organon. In reading Williams’s nine extant volumes of writings, I was repeatedly struck by the similarity of their reasoning. Williams knew Bacon personally and cited his work conspicuously, if rarely, on the dedication page of his most important book. Coke appeared on page 2. I suggested Williams placed their names at the beginning of his book as if to say they were at the beginning of his thought. The reader is free to reject this speculation, as Wood does. I believe he is mistaken. Wood also rejects my statement that Williams “could not be more relevant today.” In that, too, I believe he is mistaken.

John M. Barry
New Orleans

Gordon S. Wood replies:

Although I called Mr. Barry’s book “one of the best biographies of Williams that we have,” he is not satisfied. He remains preoccupied with the presumed influence of Sir Edward Coke and Lord Bacon on Williams. Indeed, he spent the first six chapters, nearly a quarter of his book, on their apparent influence on Williams. We can agree that Coke and Bacon were influential figures in seventeenth-century England without attributing a one-to-one direct influence between them and Williams. That is not the way ideas work in an intellectually dynamic culture, certainly not the kinds of ideas that men such as Coke and Bacon were expressing.

Even with his self-proclaimed superiority of intellectual capital and sensibility, Barry has no way of proving the influence of Bacon or Coke on Williams even if he finds Williams using one of Bacon’s phrases or discovers Williams believing in the same liberties and limits on state power as Coke. It turns out that countless Englishmen in the seventeenth century reasoned like Bacon and believed in the same liberties and restraints on power as Coke, and many of them did so without actually having read Bacon or Coke.

What Barry needed to explain was Williams’s radical Puritanism, and since neither Bacon nor Coke was a Puritan, they were of no help in solving that problem. The other problem Barry faced was explaining Williams’s relevance today. Over the past three centuries Williams’s reputation in America has developed only gradually. In the seventeenth century he had almost no impact on his fellow colonists. Williams’s religious experiment, according to the esteemed historian William G. McLoughlin, was an out-and-out failure:

Despite the valiant efforts of Williams, almost no one in colonial New England ever praised his experiment, sought his advice, quoted his books, or tried to imitate his practices. Even in Rhode Island he was often assailed as unsound…. Those who fought hardest for religious freedom in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire considered Rhode Island an embarrassment rather than as asset to their cause.

Only in the late eighteenth century when Isaac Backus and the Massachusetts Baptists rediscovered Williams and used his beliefs on behalf of their dissenting cause in New England did this radical Puritan begin to acquire his modern importance. With the growing interest in the spread of religious liberty over the subsequent century Williams finally came into his own, and he soon became the most-written-about figure in seventeenth-century colonial history.

I have no doubt of Williams’s importance in the West’s long struggle for religious liberty. But, as Perry Miller, the great historian of the Puritans, said in 1953, Williams “fought the fight for freedom by his own lights and not by anybody else’s.” Miller was convinced that accounts over the previous century had “created a figure admirable by the canons of modern secular liberalism, but only distantly related to the actual Williams.” The beliefs of that actual Williams were much too extreme, too individualistic, too eccentric to be, as Barry claims, the source of the American soul. That was a central point in my review, and it is a point that Barry ignored both in his book and in his response to the review.

Admiration for Williams the man and the thinker by another great historian of the Puritans, Edmund S. Morgan, knows no bounds. But as Morgan has pointed out more than once, Williams’s conception of a church is not ours. Williams eventually came to doubt even the possibility of a gathered church. His extreme separatism, said Morgan, “reached the position where he could not conscientiously have communion with anyone but his wife.” “Williams had clearly pushed the principle of separatism to the point where the church was threatened with extinction for lack of suitable members.” This kind of radical separatism is scarcely relevant to the American soul or to the American church, which has generally sought not the isolation of the individual but the congregativeness, the coming together, the gathering of souls.

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