- - Friday, February 17, 2012

By John M. Barry
Viking, $35, 464 pages

This biography should be read with today’s headlines in mind. When a president of the United States by fiat demands that a particular church group abandon a centuries-old tenet of its faith to enforce public policy, he is re-enacting - perhaps unwittingly - a drama that unfolded when the Puritan hierarchy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony tried to force its will on dissenter Roger Williams.

The struggle to separate the functions of church and state - so firmly rooted in our national contract - began nearly 375 years ago with this one man.

We have come to think of the separation of church and state as barring churchly influence on governmental matters, often as persnickety as whether city hall can erect a Christmas tree. But as this thoroughly researched and accessibly written book makes clear, Williams was perhaps even more determined to keep government out of the individual’s exercise of faith-based beliefs and practices.

Author John M. Barry got his start here in Washington as a freelance journalist. In 1998 his book, “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America,” won the Francis Parkman Prize for American history. That was followed by “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” another prize-winning book. Now based in New Orleans, Mr. Barry clearly is fascinated about how seemingly random events in history generate responses that resonate.

So to understand how Roger Williams became a heroic figure in the American ethos of individual liberty, Mr. Barry quite rightly takes the reader back to 1534, nearly 100 years before Williams arrived in the New World. That was the year Henry VIII broke with the pope in Rome over the English king’s desire to divorce and remarry and in turn led to the establishment of the Church of England with the monarch serving as its temporal head.

In the century of bloody turmoil that followed, the official state religion of England went from Protestant to Catholic to Protestant and back to Catholic before finally settling on the official church-state relationship that exists today. Along the way, officially sanctioned executioners presided over burnings, hangings and other atrocities that killed countless thousands for the crime of not being able to shift their religious faith to the prevailing winds.

Small wonder then that bands of like-minded individuals were willing to cast their fates to a far-off unknown wilderness and set the first footholds in the New World so that they could worship according to their own consciences without fear. But that by no means meant that these dissenters were tolerant of dissent from their own views.

Mr. Barry points out that the early Puritan founders of Massachusetts, “… had come to America with purpose and mission: they believed that God blessed that mission, which was the furtherance of God’s design and not simply civil government. In order to succeed in their purpose, they believed that the entire community must conform and that their government must use compulsion if necessary to ensure conformity.”

He also reminds us that, “Conformity is a function of the desire for certainty; the greater or lesser that desire, the greater or lesser the demand for conformity. This was an age both believing in and seeking certainty, certainty of everything from the infallibility of Scripture to one’s place in God’s plan. The very sense of society as a body, with each person in a fixed place and performing a fixed task, reflected that view and that view was not limited to Puritans.”

By that standard, Roger Williams should have been a high clerical official in the Church of England for that is the station to which he was raised. He was educated at the Charterhouse School in London, which was a feeder school for high church aspirants. And indeed he took holy orders as well as his education at Pembroke College, Cambridge. But then he became a shorthand secretary for Sir Edward Coke, the magisterial legal scholar and jurist whose “Institutes of the Lawes of England” remained the basic text of British (and later American) common law well into the 20th century.

Coke assumed a fatherly influence over Williams at the very time the jurist was battling with King James I over whether he could enforce an oath of fealty to the Church of England on citizens. For James the issue was clear, the monarch was supreme and answerable only to God, not man’s laws; for Coke, just the opposite was true and he laid down an ancient Roman precept - “no man may be punished for his thoughts” - and nearly lost his head in the process.

So when Williams arrived in America in 1630 he brought with him this bacillus that a man’s conscience trumped government’s authorities on matters of faith. Driven from the Bay Colony he would form his own haven of freedom in tiny Rhode Island, but even in that isolation he vexed the Puritan fathers to distraction.

In addition to welcoming not only like-minded settlers, Rhode Island became a haven for Baptists, Jews and even atheists. More ominous from a Puritan standpoint was Williams‘ belief that the indigenous Indian tribes were not in need of Christian salvation and should have their lands protected by the same property rights as the settlers.

This is an important book because it brings back an important founding point in the development of the American character. But it also is a timely reminder that the issues that drove Williams into exile in Rhode Island are very much alive and just as perilous today.

• Washington author James Srodes’ latest book, “On Dupont Circle” will be published in August.

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