John Barry, Author, Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul
Thinking in Public
February 10, 2012
Mohler: This is “Thinking in Public,” a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
It’s not every day that on the front table of the local bookstore, you find a book on a colonial minister. That tells you something about the individual that is the focus of this new book by John Barry. That man is Roger Williams. His role in American history and in the context in American thought and in the history of church state relations in the United States is a story that needs to be told, and when it comes to this new book by John Barry, it is a story that is told well.
John M. Barry is a well recognized author, a prize winning author. You will recognize him as the author of books, including Rising Tide, his book on the Great Mississippi flood of 1927 and the Great Influenza, the epic story of the deadliest plague in history. More recently, he is the author of Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty. John Barry, welcome to Thinking in Public.
Barry: Thanks very much for having me on.
Mohler: I was very interested right at the outset of my engagement with your new book, which is a fascinating work given the fact that this actually wasn’t the book you first set out to write.
Barry: No, I was going to write a book about the home front in World War I, and culminating in 1919, a year of extraordinary turmoil in America, and one of the figures I was going to use as a narrative vehicle was Billy Sunday of course at first a really big time American evangelist and Jerry Falwell type figure. As I just started doing my due diligence in researching the issue of religion in American public life, I kept going further and further back in time, and I ended up at the beginning of the argument, which turned out to be the exact same argument that is in the headlines today. That beginning was John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusettes, who in a sermon used the phrase, “city upon a hill”, which of course has been quoted ever since, and Roger Williams, who also had an idea of creating a “city on a hill”, but he had a different idea of what it was to Winthrop it was very definitely a Christian nation, and to Williams, it was very definitely a place of freedom.
Mohler: Now I have to tell you, I hope you still write that book you first set out to write because I want to read that one as well, but I understand how you found your way working backwords in history and you spoke of the due diligence in the story and looking to where the conversation began. I think the argument can be made that the conversation began a good deal before Roger Williams, but then you make the point that the great historical achievement of Roger Williams was to create the first government in world history in which there was a clear separation of church and state.
Barry: That is true, and also the elements of religious liberty. Certainly he was not the first person in the world to talk about separating church and state. The difference was, number one as you just said, he actually created a government in which it existed. The other thing that was different was everyone else who had called for it before him were people who were persecuted. He called for it when he could have joined the elite. He could have been one of the most powerful people in Massachusettes, so that also was different. In addition as I said a minute ago, the linkage of political freedom and individual liberty that went beyond just the question of freedom of religion, that also he was the first.
Mohler: Now I want to press you just a moment as you think about that claim and to recognize that what Roger Williams did was by any measure a historical innovation, but let me ask you even before we go back and retrace that story, do you really think you can draw much of a direct line from Roger Williams in Colonial America to the headlines of today’s newspapers?
Barry: Well, the argument is the same thing. Even in Rhode Island two weeks ago there was a federal court ruling on school prayer in which a prayer that was written after the Supreme Court decision of 1963 in which the public school thought was ok, it was a banner on the wall, that was thrown out. That, I think, very much was not only consistent with the first amendment, and I am not sure if you agree with that, but that is my feeling, but it was certainly consistent with Roger William’s own personal views. He said that forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils, he compared it to spiritual rape, so the idea of imposing any religious statement on anyone in a government building, in a public sphere, he would have found deeply offensive. So, I think that is quite relevant.
Mohler: That is going to set up a fascinating discussion in just a moment, but I want to go back and ask you to retrace the history. As a Baptist historian and theologian, I certainly know the name of Roger Williams, and from a Baptist perspective, kind of a complicated figure, but what you did was what I have otherwise not seen done. You went back to England and retraced the story of Roger Williams, and quite frankly, you picked up on a narrative of which I was not as familiar as I thought I was, including figures such as Francis Bacon and Sir Edward Cooke. Could you tell us a little bit about that story? This was a man who knew two British kings before coming to the United States.
Barry: That’s right. Every American over the age of ten probably knows his most famous ruling, which was “The house of every man is as his castle.” Cooke stood up to King James and King Charles who were trying to create an absolute monarchy in England and trying to basically dissolve parliament forever and rule entirely. The king’s apologist said, The king is lost speaking. The king is above the law. That not withstanding the oaths he takes with his own carnation he can suspend any particular law for reason of state. And Cooke as Chief Justice of England stood up to that, defied the king, pioneered the use of the right to Habeas Corpus to limit crown power, wrote something called The Petition of Right, which Winston Churchill called, “The foundation of freedom for any man in any land” and from which forms our amendments and our Bill of Rights directly. Williams had a father and son relationship with Cooke. When he was about twelve to thirteen years old, he started working for him as his manuentice taking stenographic notes, and Cooke took him everywhere – to meet with the kings, to go to Parliament, to go to the Star of Chamber, the Privvy Council, and Cooke’s views on individual liberty, which were extremely well-formed, ran in Williams’s veins. I think they were extraordinarily important in that idea of individual liberty in his thinking. And the other influence was actually Cooke’s arch-rival Frances Bacon, who is best known as the father of the modern scientific method. He said, “Truth is the daughter of time, not authority.” He called for experiments to test your hypothesis in using evidence only and he denigrated logic because it got too far from reality unless you test the hypothesis. And Bacon actually was also a lawyer and chancellor of England and one of the king’s apologists in terms of the use of power, but Williams was able to reject all of Bacon’s political views and also his personal corruption. And he was corrupt—a fascinating figure. But he could accept from Bacon the idea that you use evidence; you test your ideas against reality. If you can do sort of a quantitative analysis almost, he did that. So those two influences, I think, were extremely important in his thinking. And the third major influence was Scripture itself. If anyone reads Scripture, understands there are passages that contradict each other and reconciling them is hard enough, but Williams was also a linguist and he read the Bible in numerous languages. And you layer translation on top of the difficulty of reconciling passages that don’t really jive very well, when you throw that in, he concluded that it was impossible for any human to interpret all of Scripture without error. And it followed, therefore, to him, that if you can’t interpret it without any error, then no one should use force to compel somebody else to believe what they believe.
Mohler: Now when you think about a young man, actually a boy, when you talk about Roger Williams at age thirteen, being assigned to Edward Cooke and then having the relationship to be able to observe English kings and all the rest, I think most Americans don’t recognize, and you stated it in your own words, but the British monarchy was in a grave danger of being turned into something like a Russian czar. This was a crucial turning point.
Barry: That’s absolutely correct. That’s exactly right.
Mohler: The point I want to make here is that Edward Cooke, his beliefs were forged in a very difficult historical context. This wasn’t just some kind of dispassionate professorial concern about individual liberties. Those liberties were being crushed.
Barry: You said it perfectly. King James became King of Scotland at age thirteen months and he grew up sort of like an infant who felt he had no borders. He could do anything he wanted. And he became King of England as well as Scotland at age 37. He took those same views to England. He thought he could imprison anyone at will. He thought that he could collect money without parliamentary authority. This was very, very different from the English tradition. Even the King James Bible itself, there was already an existing English Bible, the Geneva Bible, but King James believed that it did not adequately teach obedience to authority. And the reason—as glorious a work as the King James Bible is—he ordered that new translation is because he wanted a new English Bible that would teach people to obey authority. He believed that even if there was a bad king, even if the king actually attacked God, then, even then, the subject’s only recourse was—a direct quote from James—“in sobs and tears to God.” In other words, the subject could pray. That was all they could do. They could not resist; they could not rebel.
Mohler: Well that sets up the obvious question and that is, how in the world does Roger Williams, as a thirteen year old, become a refugee that has to flee England and go to the Colonies?
Barry: Well, of course, he started working for Cooke when he was about thirteen. He worked for him for several years and then Cooke sent him to the finest schools in England, and he was also a brilliant scholar. He won awards at Cambridge. He became a minister and was probably about 28. We’re not absolutely certain the year he was born, probably 1603. And it was quite a bit later, he was in his mid to late twenties, when he had actually left England, as did thousands of Puritans. The kind of pressures that were building up in England, both political pressures, which we already talked about, and religious pressures because King James and King Charles started shifting the Church of England, which until then it had unofficially a Calvinist theology, but they were moving it closer and closer to Catholic-style worship. That was creating enormous tension, and if you disagreed, you were going to prison, very likely having your ears cut-off and being flogged and sometimes sentenced to life in prison. And eventually that erupted in civil war in England and the beheading of King Charles and the rise of Cromwell, but before the civil war broke out, those same pressures sent thousands of Puritans to America, including, of course, Williams.
Mohler: And Williams arrived where?
Barry: He arrived in Boston. He was a minister. He had a tremendous reputation for godliness and for scholarship. And, immediately upon his arrival, he was offered the ministry of the Boston Church, which was the greatest such post in the Americas, and would of immediately made him a member of the elite in America, at least in English America, and he turned down that offer. And the reason he turned it down was he thought that church was not pure enough for him. He thought that it was still linked too closely to the Church of England. He considered the Church of England corrupt. He knew both King James and King Charles, as you said earlier, and, frankly, they were flawed humans, very flawed humans. And he ended up a minister in Salem. But from the very beginning, he was in conflict with the authorities in Massachusetts, largely over, as he put it, he felt the state had no authority to enforce the first table of the Ten Commandments. Of course, those are the commandments which govern the human relationship with God. He thought that was between the individual and God; the state had no role whatsoever. And what later became a very comprehensive and systematic treatise, several treatises, which he wrote about government role in both religion and in individual freedom, the core of that was his position on the first table.
Mohler: One of the achievements of a biography like this is to take us into the life of an individual, whose life is so distant from our own. A thirteen year old apprentice to one of the leading jurors of the day; a young boy who finds himself as a teenager in the court of the king; and one who’s watchful and very observant, whose mind and worldview are very much in formation at this time; and a young man who becomes as an adult a central part of the American story. And that’s where we need to continue the conversation.
Mr. Barry take us from Roger Williams in Salem to his second necessary flight, as he left literally in the middle of the night out of his home into a snowy woods, in order to go where we’re not even certain he knew where he was headed. So how does that story continue?
Barry: He had so much conflict with Massachusetts that they eventually banished him, and banishment from Massachusetts meant if you return, you were subject to execution. They did execute people who returned after banishment, although that wasn’t automatic. They were actually sending soldiers to put him on a ship back to England, where he would have been imprisoned for life, probably after being physically mutilated. And life sentences in English prisons were pretty short sentences back then. Winthrop, however, had a very good personal relationship with Williams. Winthrop supported the idea of banishing Williams; he did not support the idea of sending him back to England where his fate would have been death in prison, probably. Winthrop warned Williams that he was about to be put on a ship back to England and, as you said, Williams then fled into a blizzard, into what was entirely wilderness, and he spent that winter. Indians, with whom he had a long relationship, saved his life and fed him during the winter. Eventually, he founded Providence, outside of any English jurisdiction, and he decided that Providence—the founding document for Providence, unlike the founding document for every other colony in the Americas, whether Spanish, French, Portuguese or English, they all said the purpose of this colony is to advance the Christian religion and advance God’s glory, and Williams did not say anything like that in the Providence compact. In the first draft, he asked for God’s blessing. Then he decided he would not even ask for God’s blessing on his enterprise, which was extraordinary. If you read Williams’s writings, you will see literally in every single paragraph, in several volumes of his letters, he’s always referencing God, always referencing some Scriptural verse. So for a man like this, a devout minister, to not ask even for God’s blessing that is just an incredible statement of his view that government should be entirely secular. And, of course, later in his masterpiece, a book called The Bloody Tenant, of persecution, a hundred and fifty years before Jefferson, he called for a wall of separation between the wilderness of the world and the garden of the church.
Mohler: Now when you think about William for just a moment, and you think about that government that he has established in what would become Rhode Island, at this point Providence, how did the other colonial governments respond to this? They had to know that this was a remarkably different kind of governmental idea than what they themselves represented.
Barry: They certainly did and they despised it. They referred to Rhode Island as “latrine of America.” Basically, it attracted every rebel in the Americas. Even New Amsterdam, which became New York, and, of course, the Dutch had a tradition of religious tolerance quite unlike the English colonies—or the French or Spanish for that matter—even New Amsterdam was kicking people out of there for religious reasons and they were saying, “Well we suppose they went to Rhode Island.” So Massachusetts, in particular, felt that Rhode Island was this festering corruption just outside its border and they were determined to, really, to wipe it out, which sent Williams back to England for protection. By this time the civil war had started, parliament was in control of London, and he had many friends there. He did win parliamentary protection for his colony, but, more importantly, and I think this is largely the route through which the US was later influenced, he stayed in London and, in total, he made two trips back and stayed for three or four years, and he became very much a part of the intellectual ferment of the times. His close friends, including John Milton and Oliver Cromwell—he was an enormous influence on John Locke, who was a little bit younger. He wouldn’t have probably known Locke. Locke would have been a teenager when he was in London, although Locke’s father was in Cromwell’s army. It’s possible that they crossed paths, but I have no evidence of that. But there is no doubt that Williams’s writings on religious toleration, on political freedom, had tremendous influence on Locke and on many others in London. Although those views were always a minority position and he was widely attacked, but always discussed and eventually—well I’ll give you two examples. When I was saying that he considered forced worship spiritual rape (and his phrase), he had learned the Native American language for the sole purpose of preaching to Natives to convert them to Christianity, so he certainly wanted them converted. But when Massachusetts started putting pressure on Narraganset Indians to convert, threatening force if they did not convert to Christianity, he was in London, the Indians got word to him there, and he convinced Cromwell, of all people, to order Massachusetts to stop. So that is one indication of his impact on that milieu and the second, ironically, when the Restoration came, when Charles II, the son of the king who was beheaded, came back to the throne, he actually confirmed the Rhode Island charter legally allowing this experiment of total separation of church and state. But when Charles gave charters to several other colonies in the Americas, although he did establish the Church of England in those colonies, he actually liked the idea of freedom of conscience so much that he took the same language from the Rhode Island charter that said nobody shall be molested for their religion, for their consciences was the world they used, and he inserted them in these other charters in which he was establishing the Church of England. This was not the case in England at the time. There was still enormous pressure on anyone who did not conform to Church of England practice in England.
Mohler: You know the historical context here is very clearly what made Roger Williams such an innovator is the fact that virtually every available worldview, every available political theory, was some form of theocracy, whether or not it would have been called that even if you take the Erastian Model of post-Tudor England. What you’re looking at is a necessary union of church and state, of pulpit and throne. And what you had in Roger Williams was not a modification of that, but the absolute rejection of that and it’s, I think, difficult for most Americans, including American evangelicals who are living in the twenty-first century, to recognize just how radical that idea was, because it wasn’t just as if this was the promotion of an idea of religious liberty or even of citizenship that was even revolutionary, it was the understanding that the pulpit and the throne were so conjoined that to sever them was to destroy them both.
Barry: Well that was exactly the feeling that a lot of people had. To quote one of Williams’s adversaries in Massachusetts John Cotton, he said, “If the people fall away from God, God will visit the country with calamity.” And they felt that separating church and state did mean the people were falling away from God. Williams had a very different view. Williams understood that if the state is going to be involved in religion, then that meant someone in the government, some politician, was at some point and time going to have to make a judgment about something to do with God, and, he thought, “That’s not the way it works. God’s suppose to judge humans. Humans are not supposed to be passing judgment on God.” And that ultimately is how it ended. He, of course, having known two kings, understood how what he regarded as the total corruption of the Church of England by its political involvement, seen the wars in Europe, the religious wars in Europe, having the experience himself in Massachusetts, he came to believe the state could not get involved with the church or the church with the state without the church being in some way corrupted by the state. So his motive for separation was to protect the church. In today’s phraseology, he would probably say something like, “When you mix religion and politics, you get politics.”
Mohler: Now let me ask you about that in the contemporary context. Let’s try to think through the line you draw from Roger Williams to the contemporary age. And it’s inevitable that we would try to draw that line. It’s also inevitable that there’s a tremendous line to be drawn. The question is, is it a straight line? How indeed would we conceive it? But I want to ask you this: Do you think it would be possible for what Roger Williams did, even in Providence, to have been conceivable if indeed most of the persons who were to constitute this new republic, were not in some sense even Christians? In other words, it’s impossible and anachronistic to go back and say this was like a secular alternative. There were virtually no secularists there.
Barry: I agree with you. He was always—even people who literally wanted him dead never questioned his devotion to God. It was simply that he believed that that relationship had to be between the individual and God, even to the extent that in practically every town in New England, one of the first buildings to go up would be a public meeting house where there would be worship held as well as meetings of town meetings and so forth. In Providence, there was no meeting house built for fifty years after it was founded. And that doesn’t mean that people didn’t worship together. They did, but they would gather in one another’s house. But that lack of a public meeting house being built in Providence sort of epitomizes his view that the state should not get involved with religion.
Mohler: If you have a conversation among historically informed Americans about religious liberty and church-state relationships, in terms of the United States as a great experiment in democracy, they will immediately point to Virginia, to the pioneering compact in Virginia concerning religious liberty, to Jefferson and his influence. To what extent, would you argue that they were then intellectually dependent upon Roger Williams?
Barry: Well I think there are four pathways through which the influence flowed. Number one, everyone knew who Williams was. He was America’s first rebel. As one of his detractors conceded, maybe the most important thing about him was that he stood at the beginning of American history. So he was always an example out there; he was not forgotten. Number two, indirectly, that influence that he had on Locke was tremendously important because certainly all of the founding fathers—all the thinkers among them—they all read Locke. They were all influenced by Locke. All the lawyers read Cooke and were very familiar with the same things that Williams was familiar with in a more intimate way. In fact, many American lawyers actually went to the Inns of Court in London, which was essentially a law school there. Then you had, in addition, as I said a couple of minutes ago, King Charles II taking language about religious liberty, or at least tolerance, from the Rhode Island charter and inserting it in other charters in American colonies. And, finally, in 1776, there were actually two biographies of Williams that were written, one of them by a signer of the Declaration of Independence. You know he was talking about Williams, so he was in people’s heads. The other was not technically a biography. I am sure you are familiar with it, Isaac Backus’s History of the Baptists, but it was—
Mohler: Very influential.
Barry: Yes, and to all intensive purposes, certainly included an excellent biography of Williams. As you just said, very influential. So, I think both directly as an exemplar and indirectly through these other courses, I think he did have a significant impact on what the thinking was during our American Revolution.
Mohler: You obviously devoted a great deal of your own time and professional interests and authorial investment in this new book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul. Other than wanting to tell a story, what was your great purpose in writing this book? What do you hope your readers will think about when they read the book?
Barry: As you said at the outset, or after the outset, I sort of backed into the subject. I wanted to look at the question of the appropriate role of religion in American public life, or not even the appropriate role, just what it is and where it came from. And I’m an historian. I don’t write with anything that I’m really trying to communicate other than understanding. You can argue that there’s no such thing as objectivity and so forth and so on and everybody carries their own biases and so forth, and all those things are true. I try to correct for those things. I try to be aware of them. I really, I guess right out of my own curiosity, try to understand events that I think are important and this, obviously, is one of the defining features of modern America. I said in the book, I think there have been two fault lines that have run through this country for four hundred years. One of them is the proper relationship between church and state, and the other is the proper relationship between a free individual and the state. And both of them go back to Roger Williams and his argument with John Winthrop and the differences between Puritan Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which was, in fact, pretty chaotic. I use a phrase in the book that after Williams founded it and was trying to create government there he tried to figure out what the shape of liberty was. It attracted rebels; these are not people necessarily easy to govern. I don’t know that I had any purpose in writing in other than to try to elucidate the question itself and it took me in a direction I didn’t expect to go, but I was happy to go there. It seemed the appropriate thing to do.
Mohler: Alright, then the inevitable question: What next?
Barry: I wish you hadn’t of asked that. I’ve got a couple of ideas, but actually by this point in the past, I’ve always been pretty hard at work in developing an idea. And so I’m a little bit behind schedule at this moment. I’m not sure why that is, but whether it goes back to a book about science or something else, I’m not sure.
Mohler: Well I’ll tell you, I really, really enjoyed your previous works, Rising Tide and The Great Influenza, and that’s what made this new book something of a surprise to me because it was something outside of the kind of field you’ve been writing about in the past and, obviously, a major investment of your time and thinking, and you’ve told a story that needed to be told, and you put it in an intellectual and historical context that makes it all the more meaningful. And it’s been a privilege to have a conversation with you. Mr. Barry, thank you for joining me for “Thinking in Public.”
Barry: Well thank you very much, and, coming from you, though, that’s high praise indeed. Thanks a lot.
Mohler: The neglected Roger Williams, in terms of contemporary scholarship and, for that matter, recent books, is tied to the fact that when people do know him, they often know something of a mythological character. They’re not sure exactly why he is important. They’re not sure exactly what he believed or what he did. That’s why this retelling of the story is very important and why it’s equally important that it be put into the larger intellectual and historical context. The book and this conversation raise a host of issues, and that’s why the best thing about a book like this is that it starts a conversation that continues.
By any measure, Roger Williams is a consequential figure, a fascinating figure. Who else as a thirteen year old had this kind of access? Who else as an adult had so many twists and turns in his biography? This was a man of no meek and mild opinions. This was a man who did not keep his opinions to himself. That explains the historical dynamic by which he had to flee from England to Boston and then from Boston to Providence, but that also raises something about the historical context. It’s hard for us to imagine in this day of celebrity and Google and digital media and all the rest that there once was a time when you could have someone, such as Roger Williams and the host of characters with whom he was at one time or another associated, who could be at the center of power, the center of influence, right there in the fellowship of the court and the king at one moment, only to be sentenced to be executed the next. There are many figures in these periods of history who went from being one who is facing the gallows to one who is facing the throne; the back and forth in terms of political influence and court intrigue. You’re looking at Roger Williams as a figure who’s only explicable in terms of his own times. Roger Williams would be, well, anachronistic in our own times, and, furthermore, it’s hard to imagine how he would’ve fit into the intellectual milieu of any time other than his own. That’s what makes history so important. That is what makes biography so interesting, and that’s why we ended up having this conversation.
Roger Williams is a complex figure. He even in one book like this, written by an historian of the magnitude of John Barry, can’t do an adequate justice either to the time, the ideas or to the man, but it can make a genuine contribution to how the conversation should be framed. One of the greatest achievements of Mr. Barry’s work on Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul is to put Roger Williams into the larger intellectual, political, economic and, for that matter, cultural context. That’s something that is missing from a lot of the American imagination about Roger Williams. We kind of imagine him as a lone intellectual figure. We imagine him as a pioneer when it comes to religious liberty and, of course, he was. We think of him in terms of his convictions concerning individual liberty and, in that sense, he was, indeed, a pioneering thinker, certainly in the American context, but also even in the British context. But Roger Williams also reminds us that every historical figure is only explicable in terms of his own times. As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor reminds us, “Every individual operates only out of the worldviews that are accessible at the time.” That’s why this historical context is so important. John Barry takes us into the life of a very young Roger Williams and the intellectual foment of the age, looking at one of the most crucial turning points in terms of British history, which also tends to be our own history, certainly at this period. We come to understand that the biggest ideas we can imagine were very much the concern of the age. You understand that the British experiment was going to go either in the direction of the Russian czar or the direction of a constitutional monarchy. And it took a civil war in Great Britain to establish the answer to that question, and even then the question wasn’t really settled. In the United States, it is hard for us to imagine, as an American in the twenty-first century, that there once was a time when this was not a government, not even a government in the making, but it was a collection of several colonial governments, under different royal charters, with different cultural backgrounds and different political settlements, different hopes and different aspirations.
One of the clearest sections of John Barry’s book is where he points out the conflicting visions between John Winthrop and Roger Williams. Two men who shared, to a considerable degree, the same theology; to a considerable degree, even the same world view, but on an issue so central as the relationship between the church and the state, on an issue so central as to whether individual liberty included religious liberty, they were at opposite ends of the spectrum, that ends up being a huge historical consequence. And the United States of America was going to follow one or the other in terms of its future. And it turned out that the American future was far more in keeping with Roger Williams than John Winthrop.
As Christians looking at this, we certainly are sobered by the fact that there could be different arrangements in any point in human history. The contingencies of history are a humbling experience for us. We look at this and recognize that the things that happened weren’t necessarily the things that, by human action, had to happen. They could have gone another way. The American experiment could have gone in the direction of John Winthrop and, yet, it went in the direction of Roger Williams, but not entirely in the direction of Roger Williams and not immediately. The lines we draw in history can never by absolutely direct, certainly over the period of time, including the four hundred years or so that we would speak of in terms of American history. The generations of Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson were far apart. The generations of Thomas Jefferson and ourselves are far apart. But there are lines of development. When the United States reached not only the colonial period and the revolutionary period, but the early democratic period, these issues were always up for settlement; just like in the aftermath of the British civil war the issues were still unsettled, so, even today, the issues are rather unsettled. John Barry spoke of a recent controversy, in no place other than Rhode Island, having to do with a prayer that was pasted on the wall of a local high school.
Now the thing to remember here is that when you look at Roger Williams and his time, you think about the worldviews that were accessible at the time, one of the things that I think is most important in terms of my responsibility in this conversation is to point out that secularism was not an available worldview. Twenty-first century Americans looking back at this might assume that Roger Williams was some kind of pioneering secularist. He was not. When you look at Roger Williams, you are looking at someone who is deeply committed to the Christian gospel, to evangelism, to Christian truth and to the Scriptures. One of the things that Mr. Barry indicated was that it was Roger Williams’s interpretation of the Scriptures that led him to some of his deepest convictions concerning the relationship between the church and the state and the individual soul and his God. John Barry spoke of what he described as convictions in Scripture. It’s important to recognize that Roger Williams didn’t think there were contradictions in Scripture. He just knew that there were contradictory readings of Scripture. It’s a very important issue. Roger Williams came to the conclusion that no civil authority should be able to impose a biblical interpretation precisely because that civil authority was incompetent so to do. He said that not as a dispassionate observer, but as a Christian minister; not as someone who didn’t take the Scripture seriously, but as someone who took the Bible with deadly seriousness and believed all of it, every word of it, to be true. When you start looking at this, you recognize that, in all the twists and turns of history, the issues remain very much sometimes even the same, but the context and the contours are very different.
When you look at Roger Williams, you’re looking at mind in motion. One of the difficulties we have is that when you are speaking of Roger Williams, you have to speak of him at one point, as a young man coming to the United States or what was then Boston; you have to think of a young man who then had the responsibility to try to negotiate a new government in Providence; and you’re talking about a man, who had different twists and turns in his own life, was thinking thoughts in ways of urgency and historical necessity. We can’t draw a direct line. One of the things that many of Americans do, in thinking of our contemporary debates over church and state, is to go back to historical sources and say see that’s exactly what they believed, that’s exactly the direction that they indicated and that explains how we arrive at a right decision and adjudication of these things now. It’s not so easy. The United States is not Providence. The United States is now a nation of many world views that were not accessible to people during the age of Roger Williams. Our complexities are even more urgent. Our confusions are, perhaps, even more inextricable than those that were experienced by Roger Williams, and, yet, we need to be thankful about something. When Roger Williams was at the center of these debates, it was a matter of life or death. It was a matter of life or death if you went against the Church, the king or virtually any combination of the two. It’s not that now, not for us. By the way, that’s one of the achievements of Roger Williams and his intellectual heirs, but it’s an achievement for which we should be very thankful. We can have a conversation like this, even about something so important, not just as Roger Williams the man, but as the issues of the relationship between church and state, throne and pulpit, and of religious liberty in terms of the rights of the individual. We come to understand that we can have this debate, indeed, we must have these conversations, but we do so in the luxury of knowing that even as there are so many additional competing worldviews all around us, we can do so in a context in which our lives are not at stake and there is no civil or ecclesiastical power that is threatening to imprison us, or do worse, based upon the very fact that we’re having this conversation.
Now when Christians listen to these issues and consider these kinds of arguments, this should further humble us in the fact that when we think sometimes we’ve settled an issue, it isn’t settled. It should humble us further to know that sometimes what we think we know isn’t exactly the truth. Even when you look at someone like Roger Williams, again, most people tend to walk around with something of a mythological understanding of him. That’s were John Barry’s new book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, comes in as a very helpful corrective. There’s far more to Roger Williams. Needless to say, there’s far more to the issues that are raised in this book. And that’s why a conversation like this is important to start and impossible to finish.
Thanks again to my guest John Barry for thinking with me today. Before signing off, I wanted to let you know about an important conference for high school students taking place on the campus of Southern Seminary. On Marcy 16th through 17th, join Joshua Harris, Russell Moore and me for Renown, a conference focused on the glory of God displayed in the majesty of Christ. We’ll seek to understand the implications of God’s renown for our own lives. For more information, visit sbts.edu.
Thank you for joining me for “Thinking in Public.” Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.