In keeping with the previous review, we turn now to a more modern myth, specifically that of our nation’s founding. More specifically, one component which has from time to time erupted into controversy and distorted the civil landscape by its insistence on truth and right.
But first, a question: did you know that once upon a time, in Massachussetts, it was illegal to live alone?
There was a law requiring all men and women to abide with families—either their own or others—and that no one, man or woman, was permitted to build a house and inhabit it by themselves.
John M. Barry details this and much more about early America which, to my knowledge, never makes it into history classes, at least not in primary or secondary schools, in his excellent book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.
Discussion of the Founding—and most particularly the Founding Fathers—centers upon the Revolutionary Era collection of savants who shaped what became the United States. It is sometimes easy to forget that Europeans had been on these shores, attempting settlements, for almost two centuries by then. It’s as if that period, encapsulated as it is in quaint myths of Puritans, Pocahontas, Squanto, John Smith, and Plymouth Rock, occupies a kind of nontime, a pre-political period of social innocence in which Individuals, whose personalities loom large yet isolated, like Greek Gods, prepared the landscape for our later emergence as a nation. My own history classes I recall did little to connect the English Civil War to the Puritan settlements and even less to connect the major convulsions in English jurisprudence of that period to the the evolution of political ideas we tend to take for granted today. In fact, it seems pains are taken to sever those very connections, as if to say that once here, on North American soil, what happened in Europe was inconsequential to our national mythos.
That illusion is shattered by Barry in this biography of not only one of the most overlooked and misunderstood Founders but of that entire morass of religious and political struggle which resulted in the beginnings of our modern understanding of the wall of separation between church and state. More, he makes it viscerally real why that wall not only came into being but had to be.
If you learned about Roger Williams at all in high school, probably the extent of it was “Roger Williams was a Puritan who established the colony that became Rhode Island. He contributed to the discussion over individual liberty.” Or something like that. While true, it grossly undervalues what Williams actually did and how important he was to everything that followed.
In a way, it’s understandable why this is the case. Williams occupies a time in our history that is both chaotic and morally ambiguous. We like to think differently of those who settled here than they actually were, and any deeper examination of that period threatens to open a fractal abyss of soul searching that might cast a shadow over the period we prefer to exalt.
But the seeds of Williams’ contribution were sown in the intellectual soil which to this day has produced a troubling crop of discontent between two different conceptions of what America is.
The Puritans (whom we often refer to as The Pilgrims) were religious malcontents who opposed the English church. They had good reason to do so. King James I (1566 – 1625) and then his son, Charles I (1600 – 1649), remade the Church of England into a political institution of unprecedented intrusive power, establishing it as the sole legitimate church in England and gradually driving out, delegitimizing, and anathematizing any and all deviant sects—including and often most especially the Puritans. Loyalty oaths included mandatory attendance at Anglican services and the adoption of the Book of Common Prayer. The reason this was such a big deal at the time was because England had become a Protestant nation under Queen Elizabeth I and everything James and Charles were doing smacked of Catholicism (or Romishness), which the majority of common folk had rejected, and not without cause. The history of the religious whipsaw England endured in these years is a blood-soaked one. How people prayed, whether or not they could read the Bible themselves, and their private affiliations to their religious conceptions became the stuff of vicious street politics and uglier national power plays.
So when we hear that the Pilgrims came to America in order to worship as they saw fit, we sympathize. Naturally, we feel, everyone should be allowed to worship in their own way. We have internalized the idea of private worship and the liberty of conscience—an idea that had no currency among the Puritans.
The Puritans were no more tolerant than the high church bishops enforcing Anglican conformity in England. They thought—they believed—their view of christian worship was right and they had come to the New World to build their version of perfection. A survey of the laws and practices of those early colonies gives us a picture of ideological gulags where deviation was treated as a dire threat, a disease, which sometimes required the amputation of the infected individual: banishment.
Hence the law forbidding anyone from living alone. It was thought that in isolation, apart from people who could keep watch over you and each other, the mind’s natural proclivity to question would create nonconformity.
Conformity is sometimes a dirty word today. We pursue it but we reserve the right to distance ourselves from what we perceive as intrusiveness in the name of conformity. Among the Puritans, conformity was essential to bring closer the day of Jesus’ return. Everyone had to be on the same page for that to occur.
(Which gave them a lot of work to do. Not only did they have to establish absolute conformism among themselves, but they would at some point have to go back to England and overthrow the established—i.e. the King’s—order and convert their fellow Britons, and then invade the Continent and overthrow Catholicism, and all the while they had to go out into the wilderness of North America and convert all the Indians…but first things first, they needs must become One People within their own community—something they were finding increasingly difficult to do.)
Into this environment came Roger Williams and his family. Williams was a Puritan. But he also had a background as apprentice to one of the most formidable jurists in English history, Sir Edward Coke, the man who ultimately curtailed the power of the king and established the primacy of Parliament. Coke was no Puritan—it’s a question if he was anything in terms of religious affiliation beyond a christian—but he was one of the sharpest minds and most consistent political theorists of his day. He brought WIlliams into the fray where the boy saw first-hand how power actually worked. He saw kings be petty, injustices imposed out of avarice, vice, and vengeance in the name of nobly-stated principles. And, most importantly, he saw how the church was corrupted by direct involvement in state matters.
This is a crucial point of difference between Williams and later thinkers on this issue. Williams was a devout christian. What he objected to was the way politics poisoned the purity that was possible in religious observance. He wanted a wall of separation in order to keep the state out of the church, not the other way around. But eventually he came to see that the two, mingled for any reason, were ultimately destructive to each other.
Williams was an up-and-coming mover among the Puritans, but the situation for him and many others became untenable and he decamped to America in 1631, where he was warmly received by the governor of Massachussetts, John Winthrop. In fact, he was eagerly expected by the whole established Puritan community—his reputation was that great—and was immediately offered a post.
Which he turned down.
Already he was thinking hard about what he had witnessed and learned and soon enough he came into conflict with the Puritan regime over matters of personal conscience.
What he codified eloquently was his observation that the worst abuses of religiously-informed politics (or politically motivated religion) was the inability of people to be objective. A “monstrous partiality” inevitably emerged to distort reason in the name of sectarian partisanship and that this was destructive to communities, to conscience, to liberty.
For their part, the Puritans heard this as a trumpet call to anarchy.
The Massachussetts Puritans came very close to killing Williams. He was forced to flee his home in the midst of a snowstorm while he was still recovering from a serious illness. He was succored by the Indian friends he had made, primarily because he was one of the very few Europeans who had bothered to learn their language. They gave him land, which eventually became Providence Plantation, and he attracted the misfits from all over. Naturally, Massachussetts saw this as a danger to their entire program. If there was a place where nonconformity could flourish, what then became of their City on the Hill and the advent toward which they most fervently worked?
The next several years saw Williams travel back and forth across the Atlantic to secure the charter for his colony. He knew Cromwell and the others and wrote his most famous book, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience,
in 1644 right before returning to America to shepherd his new colony. In this book for the first time is clearly stated the argument for a firm wall of separation. It is the cornerstone upon which the later generation of Founders built and which today rests the history of religious freedom we take as a natural right.
But the struggle was anything but civil and the abuses to which Williams responded in his call for a “Liberty of conscience” are not the general picture we have of the quaint Pilgrims.
Barry sets this history out in vivid prose, extensively sourced research, and grounds the story in terms we can easily understand as applicable to our current dilemma. One may wonder why Williams is not more widely known, why his contributions are obscured in the shadow of what came later. Rhode Island was the first colony with a constitution that did not mention god and it was established for over fifty years before a church was built in Providence.
Williams himself was not a tolerant man. He loathed Baptists and positively hated Quakers. But he valued his principles more. Perhaps he saw in his own intolerance the very reason for adoption of what then was not merely radical but revolutionary.