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Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America.

By Edwin S. Gaustad. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1999. pp. xiv + 229.

Roger Williams was church founder, husband, father of six children, neighbor, goat-farmer, pietist, negotiator, correspondent, pamphleteer, Indian linguist and anthropologist, dissenter, exile, and proprietor of a trading post. Apart from the subtitle, the book describes Williams as a key actor in the seventeenth-century transatlantic political and religious context so essential to shaping the colonial and national character of our nation. In the Foreword, Nathan O. Hatch noted Williams's obscurity and elusiveness, but Edwin Gaustad's description of Williams and his world allows the reader to find and know him quite clearly.

Gaustad's revelatory use of Williams's extensive leavings helps to entrench Williams in the tradition of radical reform through separation. Williams criticized "Christendom" and civil religion as perilous, whether found in the Anglican church-state structure, or the Genevan pattern, or that pattern emulated in the colonies. His reform efforts exasperated the colonial and English authorities; but for some inexplicable grace and his specific circumstances, he might otherwise have paid for his views in prison or on the gibbet. Gaustad's account implies how galling Williams's vociferousness was in Massachusetts at a time when survival was a priority.

Williams endured strong opposition to unite the reluctant, independent and mutually suspicious towns that formed the Rhode Island colony. He was an able but reluctant leader and shepherd to a contentious people amid the English Civil War and fraudulent challenges to Rhode Island territory.

His amazing, unusual role as mediator between the colonies and the Indians of New England fully distinguished him from his fellows. Who could fault Williams for his initiatives to befriend the Narragansetts, learn their language, and publish a book describing their culture, society, and beliefs to the English-speaking world?

At considerable personal and financial risk, Williams sojourned in London (there in fellowship with prominent friends, too, such as Oliver Cromwell and John Milton) while negotiating the Rhode Island Charter; but after twelve years, John Clarke got the charter in 1663 from Charles II, a king most unlikely to approve a civil state and support religious liberty!

This is a concise, well-balanced analysis of Williams and his work; it also reviews former works from Williams's detractors and supporters--historians have romanticized, rescued, and reconsidered him. Williams was no reckless radical, but a reformer of conviction and influence whose efforts influenced later colonial charters and the Constitution's provisions for liberty of conscience.

His principles (and those of Jefferson and Madison) have been weighed against the contemporary realities of a pluralistic culture by the Supreme Court. The chief historical value of this book? It is Gaustad's compelling exposition of Roger Williams's passionate, stubborn struggles on behalf of individual conscience, issues that captivated him just as they have, ever since, our own society.--Reviewed by Jerry L. Summers, Sam B. Hall Jr. Professor of History, East Texas Baptist University, Marshall, Texas.
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Author:Hall, Sam B., Jr.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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