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Roger Williams, Religious Liberty, and the Founding of Rhode Island


If I am being completely honest, I don't know enough about 17th century New England.  In fact, whenever teaching anything outside of the 19th century I often feel like something of an impostor.  Nonetheless, I am comfortable with the basics of early English planting in New England but also realize I have a life's long reading list on Puritanism, Native American encounters, imperial wars, slavery, and witchcraft.  This week, however, I picked a book up which had not yet come to my attention, likely because the author John M. Barry is not a professional historian- we can be quite insular as we talk only to each other- but is instead a prize winning popular writer who has published on the flu pandemic of the WWI era, the 1927 Mississippi Flood, and detailed journalistic account of the political demise of House Speaker Jim Wright.  In 2012 he released this volume on Roger Williams, and it is a remarkable narrative biography which, for at least its first 100 pages, has greatly illuminated for me the English religious and political origins of Williams's protest against Puritan theocracy in Massachusetts.
Link to John M Barry's Page

Anyway, with Edward Coke, Francis Bacon, Jonathan Winthrop, John Smith, and others all jostling for political advancement in the reigns of James I and Charles I this book would provide anyone interested with enough historical background to better understand the recent Booker Prize winning English Civil War novels by Hilary Mantel.  I have yet to follow Barry's narrative of Williams as he arrives in America but it occurred to me that the LOC likely has some wonderful images of the founder of Rhode Island, exiled from Massachusetts for testing the limits of religious dissent.

(Of course, both popular non-fiction and historical novelists should probably take a critical beating from professional historians immersed in either English or colonial American history but those are not my fields and I am underqualified to really criticize Barry, though links to scholarly responses to this book would be quite welcome in the comments below.)

A late 19th century drawing of the Williams house abandoned in the 1630s when R.Williams left Salem for Rhode Island.  Sadly, the building is now gone.


A later photograph of the same house, later nicknamed "the Witch House" because it was owned by one of the Salem Witchcraft Trial judges.  It has been altered greatly since the early 17th century before its demolition.


A New Deal era 300th anniversary celebrating R.Williams's expulsion from Massachusetts, 1636-1936.
A commercial watercolored print of an early woodcut depicting Williams's mission to Native Americans.



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