Tracy Lee Simmons, “‘Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul,’ by John M. Barry,” [review], Washington Post, Feb. 3, 2012


[Lede:] Last December, when Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee confronted critics who accused him of kowtowing to political correctness by tagging the blue spruce in the statehouse as not a “Christmas tree” but a “holiday tree,” he justified himself in the name of Roger Williams. In doing so, Chafee not only invoked the founder of his state but struck a blow for what many people believe to be the true spirit of American liberty, appealing to forbearance over bigotry, freedom over tyranny. The quarrel over how far the public observance of Christmas ought to reach in the United States has become an annual rite of the media, though as John M. Barry shows in his biography-cum-treatise, “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul,” the seeds even of this seasonal scuffle were sown by the earliest settlers of New England.

Barry is a widely published journalist and commentator who has previously written books on an influenza pandemic and the Mississippi River flood of 1927. A man of the big exposition, Barry now turns his meticulous hand to chopping through four centuries of undergrowth to expose the origins of two fundamental and perpetual American fixations: the conflict between church and state and that between the power of the state and the conscience of the citizen — an excursion that has landed him squarely in the piety-soaked milieu of the turbulent 17th century.


Present-day implications of an elemental clash of ideas — “Christmas tree” vs. “holiday tree,” along with more critical matters such as Roe v. Wade — may hover over every page for some readers, as though every event exists only to build a thesis. Yet the vital drama of Barry’s story emblazons two competing visions of American destiny: John Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” vs. Williams’s community of conscience. As Barry shows well and often prophetically, the national soul formed out of that drama remains a troubled, and occasionally tortured, one.


One thought on “Review of John Barry’s bio of Roger Williams — ‘chopping through four centuries of undergrowth’

  1. Of course living in New England and having forebears go back to 1635, I am well aware that the conflicts among the early English settlers were numerous. I watch one branch of my family move churches one after another over such disagreements as infant Baptism. Christmas was certainly not celebrated among many.

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