Giving Roger Williams Flesh and Blood
I, ROGER WILLIAMS, by Mary Lee Settle. Norton. 312 pages. $24.95.
Roger Williams is perhaps America's most famous dissident. Hailed as a champion of religious liberty, he is Rhode Island's founding father, and certainly its most famous citizen. And now Mary Lee Settle, winner of the National Book Award and author of the Beulah Quintet, has told his story in a historical novel.
I, Roger Williams is narrated by Williams himself, as an old man recalling his life. Much of it deals with his early years in England: his childhood and upbringing in Smithfield, his early schooling and worship in St. Sepulchre's parish, and his apprenticeship at Star Chamber, where he quickly fell under the mentorship of England's most famous barrister, Sir Edward Coke.
It was Coke (pronounced "Cook") who sponsored Williams's education at Pembroke College in Cambridge, and who in this work provides him with the genesis of his convictions about religious liberty and the separation of church and state.
Roger Williams is truly one of the unsung American heroes, who lost everything in his life three times for the sake of a simple ideal that we now all take for granted. Settle's Williams speaks to us with a real sense of that loss, a pathos underlying the matteroffact tone of his recollections: ". . . I have tried and failed, and tried and failed again, and will be forgotten."
Settle's Williams is rich in memories, just as the original must have been memories of his loves, his ambitions, his terrors and his losses, and how he became the better for them. Here is his supreme example to us, that sometimes losing everything for the sake of one's conscience is gaining everything, and that without liberty there is nothing. Settle captures the essence of the man quite well.
Settle's Williams also seeks sympathy. At times he reaches for the heights of selfpity, reminding us that joy in his mission did not always bring joy of life. His recollections here are in many ways like Puritan writing: often pessimistic and uncertain, yet full of Biblical hope. In fact, the real Williams would often remind others of his sufferings at the hands of his persecutors, and assert that if anyone deserved sympathy, it was he.
I, Roger Williams is a rich read. All of the charachters are here: his parents, James and Alice; his wife Mary; his mentor Edward Coke; Lord and Lady Barrington; William Masham and Henry Vane.
There is also the fatherly elder John Winthrop, who, after approving of his banishment from the Massachusetts Bay colony, watched over Williams from afar; the wry and heartless John Cotton, who was more interested in righteousness than in mercy; the merciless Bishop Laud of London, whom Williams describes as a sorry, misguided soul who would have tanned Williams's hide; and the loving Narragansett Canonicus, shy and wise, distrusting of foreigners but deeply committed to Williams in friendship.
But for all its richness, Settle's work is at times a difficult read. Historical novels are always a formidable task, more so when told in the first person. Settle's prose is sometimes hard to get through. Nevertheless, this is a study of character more than the telling of events, and Settle does capture Williams's character and breadth of experience. In fact, her Williams is much less obfuscating than the real R.W ever was!
Here Williams is an intelligent, articulate man, sensitive to the plight of those around him, always with a keen awareness of the dreadful consequences of sin. He is hard in his judgments, especially toward the behavior of his fellow colonists and their treatment of the Indians.
Yet his judgments come from an especially tender conscience, one that is filled with what is truly right and just. Settle has given this formidable figure flesh and blood.
This, of course, is fiction. Most of Settle's novel deals with Williams's life before he came to America, a period of which we know little. But Settle's character recollects places and events that were true to their setting.
The novel really shines when she deals with his time in New England. Williams's recollections of Cotton, the Winthrops, Canonicus, Thomas Hooker, and John Endicott are precise and true to the historical characters. There's an especially apt and scathing description of William Harris, whose greed and avarice turned him into one of Williams's most formidable foes.
At the end of the novel, Williams asserts that the true great treasure of Rhode Island lay not in its great tracts of land but in its Charter, which states that no person shall be molested or questioned in matters of conscience. Already, in 1660, some were taking this new freedom for granted, and Williams lamented that many would value it no longer.
If for no other reason than to remind us of these things, Settle's novel deserves a read. It reminds us of a man who gave up everything for an idea that many of us indeed take for granted, and I fear may someday bargain away. Williams (and Settle) would see that as a real tragedy, truly a devil's bargain.
Anthony Carlino teaches history at Rhode Island College. His master's thesis on Roger Williams was published in the May 2000 edition of Rhode Island History.
© 2001 The Providence Journal-Bulletin