Barry Puts Williams in Context: Coke, the Law, & a very young man

Roger Williams tells Winthrop “I desire not to sleep in securitie and dreame of a Nest wch no hand can reach.” Puritans could hope but Williams found certainty “monstrous” when it violated “soul liberty.” He sought no conversions: while he could convince the Indians with whom he traded to go through the motions of belief, it would be deeply wrong. Indeed, he argued “any bloody act of violence to the consciences of others” would be as if “the parliament of England hath committed a greater rape than if they had forced or ravished the bodies of all the women in the world.” (The Bludy Tenent). He valued restraints – civil & spiritual.

John M. Barry’s Roger Williams emphasizes Sir Edward Coke’s (1552-1634) incrementalism and careful construction of precedents that ordered chaos and defined restraints; the purpose was “to take down common law, to precipitate it out of the cloud of centuries of argument and judgment into the hard crystal of precedent, to then crack that crystal open by analyzing it, and finally to lock the piece into place by defining precedent and law more firmly than could any legislative act” (24). After 1600, Coke’s annual commentaries applied those precedents. The English tradition, Barry argues, led to a “common law more arcane and labyrinthine than civil law, but its very arcana, along with custom, created a web which restrained power, making England more resistant to absolutism than states on the continent” (21). The English valued stability, grounded in property rights: the resonance of his speech still delights – as in “Every Englishman’s home is as his castle” (63). (The quotes demonstrate how heady word choices must have been: Coke’s life covered King James’ translation and Shakespeare; Williams lived during Donne’s time and taught Milton Dutch. Their words retain a life familiarity has buried.)

Around 1616, Roger Williams (1603-1683) began taking down Coke’s arguments in able shorthand. Coke called him “son” and Williams for the rest of his life honored “that man of honor, and wisdom, and piety. . . How many thousand times since I had the honorable and precious remembrance of his person, and the life, the writings, the speeches, and the example of that glorious light” (24). Barry lightly threads Williams through the first section, a minor color in the great tapestry of Coke’s words. Those ideas “embedded themselves within Williams, for Williams took all this in as he took notes, and he inscribed it not on paper but into his own fiber. Later he would take it with him to the New World, where he would translate the inscriptions into what amounted to a new language” (25).

In 1621, Coke arranged for the boy’s schooling at Charterhouse, followed by Pembroke College. A mature Roger Williams returns to London, chaplain, observer and messenger for the influential Puritans, Barrington-Mashams. Barry gives context – describing “Personal Rule,” as Charles dismisses Parliament. With sympathy and insight, he also sketches in early Americans – Smith & Morton, Cotton & Hooker, Endicott & Winthrop. Edmund Morgan sets Winthrop’s dilemma how to live in this world while retaining the remarkably God-centered beliefs of the Puritans. But if the twin passions of law and faith motivate, expressions differ. Three generations later, Cotton Mather notes Winthrop’s “moderation”; Williams, however, doesn’t deviate – following arguments without blinking to extremity.

Williams wasn’t reticent, becoming a separatist among purifiers. With John Cotton and Thomas Hooker, he travels as clerical witnesses to the meeting called “to transferr the government of the plantacion to those who shall inhabite there, and not to continue the same in subordination to the Company here, as now it is” (104). This prepares for Winthrop’s ability to solidify the colony’s independence. As they travel, Williams argues for theological independence – criticizing any inclusion of the Book of Common Prayer in these venerable men’s services.

Nor is his sense of self lesser in the personal realm. He asks for the hand of Lady Barrington’s niece. He assumed an equality she did not. When this wealthy Puritan rejects his request, his response “struck at her weak point,” informing her of “his deep concern for her soul” and telling her she should repent, for, “the Lord hath a quarrel against you” (137). Not surprisingly, it did not have the effect he wanted; she became enraged. Sharp retorts, strong mind and ego – all hint at a man who knows his mind. He does marry a woman Lady Barrington finds more suitable. And, as Laud’s hand reaches even into the ranks of household clerics, Williams sets out for America with his new wife. They arrive that first terrible winter of 1630.

He favors separatist governance; he argues for Indian property rights; he declares Charles guilty of “a solemne public lye” (161). He believes in a clear-eyed but extreme Calvinism. Williams separates church and state but also church from church, parishioner from parishioner. His positions evolve, but are of a piece with his first act – declining to officiate to the “unseparated.” Exiled from Boston, Plymouth and Salem, he founds Providence, fulfilling what Barry describes as “The Mission.” In “the freest place in the world,” “soul liberty” prevailed, the founding documents not mentioning religion. Williams feels some kinship – both with the Indians as he acts as mediator to put off wars and with the English settlers, whom he warns (and thus saves) when mediation doesn’t work. Still, while the freest secular community was inclusive, his theological beliefs remained exclusive, separatist.

Connecting Williams’ deeply felt separatist beliefs with Coke leads to speculation: freedom accompanies (even requires) restraints. A community of trust is built on predictable laws and traditional, enforced property rights as Chicagoboyz note. Williams separates religion and law because he can – law is codified, power restrained. Did Coke’s battles with James over power prepare for the separatist beliefs Williams adopts – leaving man starkly alone with his God? Do we need the security, the nest, somewhere – in our civil or our spiritual life? The great paradox of the Puritans, of course, is that they go to the Old Testament more often than the New; they are rule-oriented, law obsessed. But perhaps it isn’t a paradox. They go back to their law’s and their belief’s roots because they have cut themselves off from the hierarchies, they have left church and state, rejected the authority of archbishop and king. Painfully aware they tread close to heresy and treason, to chaos and marginalization.

And how much has that come down to us in our literature, our mythic hero the loner? Our culture’s has a high and lonesome sound. Some, like Edward Taylor, accept and cherish Puritan beliefs; some, like Emily Dickinson, engage in battle with them; some, like Herman Melville, are restless and haunted. And Emerson, Thoreau, aren’t they, like Williams, men who would set out each house looking toward its own horizon? Think of Wyeth.

2 thoughts on “Barry Puts Williams in Context: Coke, the Law, & a very young man”

  1. “Barry Puts Williams in Context: Coke, the Law, & a very young man”

    And there I thought you were going to write about Obama’s drug use in high school.

  2. Sorry. But then it is a day where we get much to talk about that Barry. And then there will be Supreme Court.

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