Roger Williams and the tumultuous 17th century

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of LibertyRoger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Barry writes an incredibly detailed and readable history of England and New England during the time of Roger Williams. The book is really well-crafted for a non-academic audience, explaining the major issues roiling the churches and states of 17th-century England and New England with appropriate (but not overdone) drama. He clearly admires Williams’ stance, but makes a substantial effort to get beyond the stereotypes of the Puritans and portray them in a three-dimensional way, which does not seem to be easy for modern writers.

Like many writers, he has some trouble portraying Calvinist theology in an accurate way. He does better than I usually see (in my limited reading), but he sometimes falls into the trap of being so focused on predestination that he doesn’t see how Calvinism fits into the larger Christian theological tradition. It’s understandable (after all, Calvinists themselves sometimes can treat predestination in isolation from other doctrines), but think that he could have done better in this area.

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2 comments

  1. How does he separate predestination, and is this zeroing-in unfair to the Puritans? The Puritans may be Calvinistic, but the Reformed tradition has many bearers, not all alike. Calvinism is not Calvin and neither are identical with Puritanism, _&c._.

  2. The main thing is that he contrasts salvation through faith (which he identifies as an Arminian trait) versus God saving only the predestined (Calvinism).

    I think that he misses two things: First, the Reformed tradition of the 16th and 17th centuries, as far as I understand it, says that the predestined are granted faith by God so that they can believe and be justified. Second, predestination in Reformed theology is more of a “how” of salvation than an end in itself: total depravity renders people unable to believe, God’s sovereign grace is necessary to rescue us from this state, and this electing grace assures those who believe that they will be finally saved by an all-powerful God. I think that Barry misses this bigger picture, partially because predestination is strange to modern religious and secular conceptions of the free individual (and it contrasts with some other pre-modern theological traditions, too).

    From what I understand, some (maybe many) Puritans by the 17th century were more focused on finding out if they were predestined than trusting that if they believed, they were predestined. Thus, I think that it’s understandable that Barry would share this overemphasis on predestination. But I think that the mistake I detailed above should have been clearer to someone writing a book about Puritans.

    Do you think that I have represented the mainstream of the early modern Reformed tradition accurately?

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