- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2001

I, ROGER WILLIAMS: A FRAGMENT OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY
By Mary Lee Settle
Norton, $24.95, 312 pages
REVIEWED BY ISABEL COLEGATE


Probably not many people who stroll beneath the fine trees in Roger Williams Park in Providence, R.I., have more than a vague idea of the wild vicissitudes in the life of the city's founder. Mary Lee Settle, having read all that she could find about, and by, this great man, has turned his story into an expert historical novel.
A poor boy in the teeming dangerous world of 17th-century London, Roger Williams was sent as a boy of eight by his authoritarian father to watch the burning to death of a dissenter at Smithfield. It would teach him, the father said, what happened to those who failed to obey the King in matters of conscience as in all else. But the lesson came too late, because the boy had already been in the habit of creeping up the stairs to the shabby room in which Bartholomew Legate used to read from the Bible, and seeing his hero burn only reinforced his youthful convictions.
Williams was a dissenter for the rest of his life, moving as so many did in those confusing times from one sect to another until in the end it became clear to him that the need was for toleration in the fullest sense or, as John Milton in his "Areopagitica" put it, "the free trading of truth". It meant estrangement from his friend John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Company and expulsion from his home and family in Salem for a bitterly cold exile among the Narragansett Indians before he was able to lead a band of pioneerning friends to Rhode Island.
The London in which Roger Williams grew up was a noisy vigorous place, the court of the bandy-legged, undignified King James a nest of gossip and intrigue, the city outside the walls of Whitehall rife with rumor and scandal. The exceptionally clever boy learnt not only Latin, French and Dutch, but his own form of shorthand, in which he could write down his thoughts without fear of discovery. Noticed by his superiors, he soon found himself adopted as secretary by the powerful Sir Edward Coke, the dragon of the law, who had been first a brutal attorney general in the service of the Stuart monarchy and then a fierce defender of Parliament against the royal usurpations.
Under Coke's tutelage the boy learnt the limits of the law. He also learnt to love his fierce master and to grieve over his one lapse into corruption, when in order to regain his position at court after his dimissal in 1616 he violently forced his daughter to marry the duke of Buckingham's half witted-brother. By these means he scured his own return to favor with King James, who only cared to please the beautiful Buckingham.
In the uneasy early years of Charles I's reign, and still under the protection of Coke, Williams studied at Cambridge, was ordained as a minister of the Church of England and avoided prosecution for his views as Archbishop William Laud became ever more powerful and ever more vindictive against dissenters. Living among the priviledged, a bishopric already in view, Williams made the mistake of falling in love with the niece of a proud and arrogant widow, who told him in no uncertain terms that he should not entertain ideas above his station.
So angry and humiliated as to become feverish, Williams was nursed back to health by the good woman who later became his wife. The confusions and quarrels of the reform movement and the proliferation of dissenting sects — Presbyterians, Muggletonians, Independents, Anabaptists, Ranters, Quakers, Grindletonians, and more — each finding an absolute authority in Biblical texts or the spirit within, contributed to his disencahntment. In touch already with many of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Company, he and his wife Mary set sail for New England.
They found the New World as riven with sectarian strife as the old. Williams deplored the greed which led the colonists to seize Indian hunting grounds. Denounced as dangerous and heretical, he was banished from Massachustts Bay. The Narragansett Indians, whom he had previously befriended, gave him shelter and eventually he was able to buy land from them in what is now Providence. There he set up the first American colony to have complete seperation of church and state and complete freedom of religious belief.
Mary Lee Settle has submerged herself in Roger Williams' letters and adopted his style of writing, not, she says, the style he used in his more formal work, which is scholastic and full of Latin quotations, but the style he used when he was writing in a hurry, or, as in his famous polemic "The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience," on the run and in a rage.
Impressive as this feat of empathy is, it does not make for easy reading. The framework of historical reference is so detailed that without some knowledge of the period a reader is liable to get lost; so many names, controversies, religious sects, good citizens, bad princes, crowd the pages. It is worth persevering, however, for there are moments of brilliant description, whether of the unpredictable, gaudy, drunken court life, or the terrors of the Atlantic crossing, or the first hard winters in an unkown land. The whole novel reflects its author's love and admiration for the endurance, the breadth of understanding, the determination and the love of life of its hero.

Isabel Colegate's novels iclude "The Shooting Party" and "The Summer of the Royal Visit."

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