Author expounds on Roger Williams, liberty of conscience

Monday, March 12, 2012

WASHINGTON — Award-winning author John M. Barry has done it again.

In two previous best-selling books, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, and Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, Barry not only told the gripping stories of two critical historical events, but he also helped shape public policy on issues of vital importance to the United States and the world.

Now, his latest book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, promises to have a similar impact on another timely, hotly debated public-policy issue: the meaning of religious liberty, or freedom of conscience, in an America that is now the most religiously diverse society on Earth.

In a speech March 7 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Barry related how the convictions of Roger Williams, the 17th century pioneer in religious freedom, hold a powerful message for Americans debating the meaning of church-state separation and liberty of conscience in the 21st century.

Barry reminded the audience that Williams’ commitment to religious freedom – what Williams called “soul liberty” – sprang from deep religious convictions. Williams was convinced that God required religious liberty to be granted “to all men in all countries.” When liberty of conscience is denied by the government, Williams argued, the state commits “spiritual rape.” Full religious liberty is possible only when there is what Williams described (long before Thomas Jefferson) as a “wall of separation” between the “Garden of the Church” and “wilderness of the world.”

Williams believed that in societies where church and state are entangled, authentic faith is denied and any “true church” cannot endure. Citing Europe’s long history of religious wars and divisions, Williams declared that coercion in matters of faith inevitably leads to persecution and bloodshed at worst, and hypocrisy at best.

Barry’s provocative talk was based on his meticulously researched, beautifully written account of the life and work of Roger Williams. It is, in my estimation, the best book written to date on the intellectual roots of Williams’ convictions about liberty of conscience and Williams’ revolutionary ideas about democratic freedom.

John Barry brings Roger Williams to life at time when Americans urgently need to recover the full meaning and significance of the American experiment in religious freedom under the First Amendment. Roger Williams, that trouble-making Puritan minister of the 17th century, is truly a man for this season.

Barry’s appearance at the Newseum was co-sponsored by the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum and Wesley Theological Seminary.

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