This is a story of power, set against Puritan America and the English Civil War. Williams's interactions with King James, Francis Bacon, Oliver Cromwell, and his mentor Edward Coke set his course, but his fundamental ideas came to fruition in America, as Williams, though a Puritan, collided with John Winthrop's vision of his "City upon a Hill.
©2012 John M. Barry (P)2012 Recorded Books, LLC
I remember Roger Williams from my high school and college days as the founder of Rhode Island, but I didn't know much more about him than that. I have four children, all of them adults. I asked each one of them, on separate occasions, if they had studied about Roger Williams in school. Not one of my children had even heard of Roger Williams. That is sad. It is doubly sad because it is such a fascinating story, told extremely well here by one of my favorite authors. He actually was going to write about the home front during World War I, but became intrigued about Roger Williams and the influence on him from Edward Koch, who he worked closely with, and Francis Bacon.
I did not know how strongly he stood for freedom, many times at personal peril. Through this audiobook, I learned to appreciate his independent thought, his courage, his determination, and his advocacy of the cause of freedom, even for those who did not believe as he believed. In fact, especially for those, including the Indians, with whom he had a strong relationship throughout his life. He was much respected by them, even during times of war.
I had thought before that he just gone down to Rhode Island when he was banished from Massachusetts and founded it. End of story. This book completely dispels that notion, detailing the constant struggle to maintain a bastion of freedom and not be swallowed up by the aggressiveness and religious intolerance of the Massachusetts Bay Colonies. This book fills a very definite hole in my understanding of pre-colonial America, despite my having read a number of books on this era. It also gives a very good account of what was happening in England before and during the early colonization of Massachusetts and the surrounding area, during the reigns of James I and Charles I. Highly recommended.
This was a book club choice that I would not have chosen on my own without prompting but John Barry delivered a thought provoking portrait of a man and his times that kept me engaged from the start. Barry reveals Williams as a complex, courageous and principled man and original thinker whose ideas of religious freedom were far ahead of his time. I would definitely listen to John Barry's works again. He has a gift for making somewhat arcane topics highly readable and enlightening. One of my all time favorite non-fiction works is his Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America. That book marries the hydrology of the Mississippi River with a social history of a region in the grip of one of the most massive natural disasters ever to befall this country before a functional social safety net was in place.
This book was more than a biography of a compelling historic figure. It provided a lively and comprehensive overview of the English religious wars of the early 17th Century and the religious conflicts of early Colonial times in New England, with occasional comparisons to today's similar conflicts.
But the best part was the characterizations. We learned so much about figures like King James and King Charles, Sir Edward Coke and the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Cotton and even leading Narragansett and Mohegan sachems. The book provides a real sense of the day-to-day conflicts that were faced by residents of New England.
Roger Williams was a far more remarkable figure than I had realized. I had always thought of him as a kind of cardboard figure who founded Rhode Island for religious dissidents. But this book brings to life his bravery and his humility, as well as his growing focus on liberty of conscience and toleration of other religions. You can follow the development of his philosophy as the book traces his...well, "adventures" is a good word.
Richard Poe is one of my favorite narrators. I have been listening to him on Recorded Books since something called "The Last Farmer," about an aging but independent midwestern farmer. He does a great job with nonfiction--clear, engaged and likeable.
Richard Poe, narrator of this book, pauses for from 1 to 3 seconds between every sentence. I listen while I ride my bike to work, while I walk the dog, while I drive and I find it impossible to retain any continuity with the subject. Constantly rewinding to figure out who or what is being covered. The book itself sounds fascinating. But after chipping away at an hour of it, I admitted defeat.
I originally downloaded this book for some history on Rhode Island (where I live), and was surprised by the amount of political and cultural context it provides, on both sides of the atlantic.
A good deal of the first half is a sweeping tour of the culture and politics in england that pushed people to look to america to escape an increasingly volatile domestic front. It then details the events in the Massachusetts bay colony leading up to williams' exile and the formation of Rhode Island. In turn, it builds him up as the embodiment of the emigration movement, and ultimately of the independent and free spirit that sparked a revolution and led to the foundation of a new nation.
It does a fantastic job of both painting a cultural picture of that time, as well as transposing its visible impact on the classic american frame of mind throughout the years. For a relatively concise book, it really covers a lot of ground in a very entertaining fashion.
The end kind of trailed off unceremoniously, but it wasn't anything that would diminish my strong recommendation to check this one out.
Also -- the narrator is quite good! He's definitely taken an acting class or two -- very dramatic and lively at times.
"It is so unsatisfactory to read a noble passage and have no one you love at hand to share the happiness with you." ~Clara Clemens (daughter of Mark Twain)
What struck me more than anything else in this book was the character of Roger Williams himself. I was fascinated that he is not a much more prominent figure in American history. When I've read about our Founding Fathers, I have often been struck by how far their own ideas and actions were from the fundamental American values we take such pride in today (for example, Jefferson and slavery). The opposite struck me about Williams. He was the first to view Native Americans as equally human, even learned their language, and tried to argue they actually had a legal right to their land - certainly a radical concept in America for hundreds of years after. He argued for full and true religious freedom (on a personal level, not just colony by colony), was the first to argue for what we would recognize as the separation of church and state, and was probably North America's first abolitionist.
Absolutely! He was clear and enjoyable to listen to, and I liked that he added a little drama to the voices and quotes without over doing it.
I was tempted to listen to it all at once - especially the second half - and I definitely listened to it for much longer sets of time than I had originally planned. I'll probably listen to chunks of it again, because I want to go back over some of the details.
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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