Last December, when Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee confronted critics who accused him of kowtowing to political correctness by tagging the blue spruce in the statehouse as not a “Christmas tree” but a “holiday tree,” he justified himself in the name of Roger Williams. In doing so, Chafee not only invoked the founder of his state but struck a blow for what many people believe to be the true spirit of American liberty, appealing to forbearance over bigotry, freedom over tyranny. The quarrel over how far the public observance of Christmas ought to reach in the United States has become an annual rite of the media, though as John M. Barry shows in his biography-cum-treatise, “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul,” the seeds even of this seasonal scuffle were sown by the earliest settlers of New England.

Barry is a widely published journalist and commentator who has previously written books on an influenza pandemic and the Mississippi River flood of 1927. A man of the big exposition, Barry now turns his meticulous hand to chopping through four centuries of undergrowth to expose the origins of two fundamental and perpetual American fixations: the conflict between church and state and that between the power of the state and the conscience of the citizen — an excursion that has landed him squarely in the piety-soaked milieu of the turbulent 17th century.

Williams’s long life straddled almost the entire span of that century. Born in London around 1603 of humble parentage, he went on by dint of talent and patronage to engage in legal studies as a protege to Sir Edward Coke, the jurist who literally wrote the book — “Institutes of the Lawes of England” — used by generations of lawyer-apprentices. (Thomas Jefferson sweated over it more than a century later at the College of William and Mary.) Although Williams had taken holy orders in the Church of England, at Cambridge he turned to Puritanism. By the end of 1630, as the first wave of Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he was aboard a ship bound across the Atlantic for a land that he believed would provide more abundantly for the unfettered exercise of the righteous life pursued in all purity.

Almost from the moment he waded ashore, though, Williams stood defiantly at odds with the authorities for his lapses from canons of Puritan belief and practice, absolute fidelity to which was enjoined not only upon preachers but upon all citizens who would be in good standing. He found himself hounded from place to place and brought before the Massachusetts General Court on charges of sedition for promoting “dangerous opinions” — which, under a theocratic government, could amount to heresy, with conviction carrying ultimate penalties.

Finally, on the eve of banishment, he made a snowy 100-mile trek on foot to Narragansett Bay and beyond. There, after christening as “Providence” the new settlement of like-minded separatists who invited all who were “distressed of conscience” (a motley group that eventually included Jews, Baptists and Quakers), he opened a new chapter in the quest for religious liberty. He insisted that civil authority has no claim upon the souls of individuals — and so was formed the first government holding as a central tenet the idea that the only feasible system of rule for civic-minded, even God-fearing peoples should be one where church and state were formally, irrevocably separate. It was Williams, not Jefferson, who first raised the wall of separation between them.

‘Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty’ by John M. Barry (Viking. 464 pp. $35). (Viking)

The greater share of the book lists the multiple problems Williams later had on the ground with governing, for a colony founded on the swells of liberty can easily founder on the rocks of license, and Rhode Island threatened more than once to unravel into chaos. He had to hold this chaos in check while insisting — as a minister and what one scholar has called “a child of a theological age” — that God’s law reigned supreme. For Williams sought to achieve not a secular state, but a community made up of autonomous individuals armed with a strength spiritually mature enough to handle the liberty it was given.

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. The research is economical, not massively gratuitous. Barry prepares us for the conflicts of New England by exploring extensively their preludes in old England; consequential men such as Coke and Francis Bacon make key appearances, and the author provides ample context for the tussles on both sides of the ocean. Just as probingly, we are shown how Williams’s remarkably equitable dealings with the Indians of his region underline an essential decency.

Present-day implications of an elemental clash of ideas — “Christmas tree” vs. “holiday tree,” along with more critical matters such as Roe v. Wade — may hover over every page for some readers, as though every event exists only to build a thesis. Yet the vital drama of Barry’s story emblazons two competing visions of American destiny: John Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” vs. Williams’s community of conscience. As Barry shows well and often prophetically, the national soul formed out of that drama remains a troubled, and occasionally tortured, one.

Tracy Lee Simmons is the author of “Climbing Parnassus.” He is at work on a book about Thomas Jefferson.


Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty

By John M. Barry

Viking. 464 pp. $35