This is a fascinating book full of a lot history that you probably (assuming you took US history in high school) have a vague sense of but don't know much about, like the relationships between Massachusetts and Plymouth in the early colonial period and how the power balance between Indians and Englishmen (and Dutchmen) evolved over this period. In addition, there's a lot about 17th century English history here, including notably about Edward Coke, Williams' mentor, and originator of the phrase "an Englishman's home is his castle."
I'm giving the book 5 stars because I enjoyed it so much, but it needs to be said: it is definitely boring at times. Partly that's because the book takes so much on, including being a definitive biography, which means a lot of detail of Williams's comings and goings, and detailing the various written sources about him especially surviving letters. The book would be deficient if it didn't have all this, but I don't really care to listen to much of it. I think an abridged version would be just fine.
Williams' unique significance of course is that, unlike the New England Puritans who traveled thousands of miles for religious freedom for themselves in order to impose their views on others, Williams genuinely believed that everyone, even non-Christians theists and atheists, should enjoy "liberty of conscience." There may have been others who held this view before him, but Williams was the first to put it into actual practice in real governance in Rhode Island, and somewhat amazingly was able to secure a charter from England that codified this principle. Williams was also a fairly prominent figure willing to express this fairly radical view openly and strongly in books and pamphlets.
The deeper question, which Barry addresses in the afterward, though I wish he'd said more on this point, is just how much effect Williams actually had on modern notions of freedom of religion. Was it Williams who indirectly gave us the first amendment (he was the originator of the phrase "wall of separation between church of state," which Jefferson quoted) by showing the value of this principle, or was he something of a dead end, an expression of an idea that was already in the aether and that was really developed later by Enlightenment thinkers based on secular foundations, while Williams used somewhat pained and tendentious arguments based on scripture, the only tool available in his era? It's difficult to say, though Barry obviously tends to the side of Williams being a genuinely significant figure, having written a biography of the man.
The significance of this question to modern times is obvious. In the debates between Roger Williams and John Winthrop, many have seen the whole story of (religious) freedom in America. For a more fun read in this vein, check out Sarah Vowell's "The Wordy Shipmates," which is what led me to this Williams book. Of course this is a pretty yankee-centric view. But New England is, was, and always will be the real America. The South just messes stuff up every few decades.
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