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Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
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737447.pngHistorian John M. Barry is the award-winning author of four works of nonfiction, including New York Times best sellers Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (1997) and The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Greatest Plague in History ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection May/June 2004).

The Topic: After clashing with religious authorities in 1631, Protestant theologian Roger Williams fled his native England to avoid arrest, making a perilous winter voyage across the Atlantic to the New World. He fared no better in Massachusetts, however, and in 1636 he was banished from the colony on pain of death. Williams’s "crime" was his radical belief that secular governments should not dictate their subjects’ religious lives. Advocating "a hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world," he established an experimental society, Providence Plantation, on principles of democracy and religious tolerance. In this in-depth historical account, Barry tracks the evolution of Williams’s revolutionary ideas, which were codified in the U.S. Constitution more than a century later.
Viking. 480 pages. $35. ISBN: 9780670023059

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"The result is a biography that brings into vivid focus one of the most significant and compelling figures in our history and reminds us that today’s disputes about religion in the public square began on the Colonial town green centuries ago." David Shribman

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"It takes him a while to get started. Williams, in fact, doesn’t take center stage until Page 137. But the pre-story is important to understanding the times in which Williams’ political theories evolved." Scott Martelle

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Barry tells the story with passion and an eye for fine detail. … If the story were not compelling enough, Barry’s dramatic first chapter of conflict, confrontation and banishment into the wilderness is worth the price of admission alone." Kevin J. Hamilton

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"John Barry’s Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul establishes Williams as a brave thinker and also a deft political actor—not a rare type in early American history but one we usually associate with the American Revolution, not the Puritan colonies. … Mr. Barry puts Williams squarely among our great political thinkers, crediting him with bringing liberal democracy to the American colonies." Raymond Zhong

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Barry keeps up a lively pace with jaunty prose recounting one man’s rocky sojourn among learned, prickly characters and worldly powers. Yet this book is not so much a biography as a tightly arranged discourse on the clash among ideas as they played out during a period when the American ‘soul,’ as he puts it, was being formed." Tracy Lee Simmons

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Barry shows how controversial these beliefs were at the time, and in this way reinforces the standard image of Williams as an early proponent of liberty of conscience. But his emphasis on the English context for the controversy neglects Williams’s even bolder insistence that what was true for Christian Europeans was true for others, including Indians." Joyce E. Chaplin

Critical Summary

With lively prose and an eye for detail, Barry enthusiastically traces the ideas of religious tolerance and the separation of church and state from Williams’s bold experiment in Providence to the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia. Because of this focus, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul more closely resembles a treatise on American political theory than a biography. However, Barry grounds his narrative in a fascinating examination of this complex, forward-thinking man and his troubled era. While the Los Angeles Times noted that the story starts off slowly and the New York Times Book Review complained that the book ignores Williams’s views on Native Americans, Barry’s compelling and timely account is a stark reminder that Williams’s contribution to American history was (and continues to be) as contentious as it was revolutionary.