The bright light of a free conscience

In an age of kings, Roger Williams plotted, ranted, and suffered for the right to think freely

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The old wall separating church and state now looks so much a part of the natural landscape of American culture that it's hard to remember the stones were mortared with martyr's blood.

But Roger Williams, the chief mason of that wall, never forgot what it cost. And from the sound of his insistent voice in this historical novel by Mary Lee Settle, it's clear he never let anyone else forget either.

Branded a traitor, a heretic, an Indian lover, even "divinely mad," the founder of Rhode Island smelted his ideas about the primacy of conscience in the flames of England's religious controversy.

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He was born outside London, probably in 1603, the same year James I began his contentious reign. Early in this fictionalized memoir, Williams describes slipping into a small room to hear a dissenter preach from the new Bible "with the King's name on it in gold, the most dangerous book that has ever been released upon a people." Later, seeing this brave man burned alive at the stake makes a lasting impression on the boy. "He planted words of fire," Williams says. "I am a seeker to this day."

His search might have been snuffed out, had he not caught the attention of England's most famous barrister, Sir Edward Coke. As Coke's private secretary, Williams received the world's most sophisticated education in the rapidly developing theory of parliamentary law. Coke walked the razor's edge, risking the ire of two frustrated kings as he attempted to establish the rule of principle over royal prerogative.

Most of Settle's story concentrates on these formative years of Williams's life, about which little is known. She has re-created Coke's strategy and Williams's reaction in intricate, sometimes belabored detail - but that seems true to her narrator, who's searching for the sparks that set his adult life ablaze.

Only in the last 50 pages does Williams describe his trip to New England, where he spent four argumentative years before being banished by the pious "Saints" in the dead of winter. Alone, nearly frozen to death, he was saved by Indians and went on to found the small settlement of Providence.

(Edwin Gaustad has just released a concise biography of Williams for young people [Oxford University Press]. Though it lacks the emotional power of Settle's novel, it provides a helpful summary of Williams's life in America.)

In "I, Roger Williams," the protagonist speaks to us and "the Father of Lights" toward the end of his long life in Rhode Island, his "sometimes Eden." "I have wrote much of this," he tells us, "to exorcise the haunting."

At times, wandering alone before his family wakes up, he's smothered in grief, furious that he couldn't maintain the shaky peace between the "Saints" and his native-American friends. Even the precious freedom of conscience that he labored to establish seems ready to slip away under the weight of ignorance and self-righteousness.

Settle brilliantly catches the combustible ironies of Williams's character, and they give light to this unusual novel. As he rages at his numerous enemies, living and dead, here and abroad, he never loses the spirit of forgiveness or a sense of humor. (He notes wryly that a detractor once said he had a mind like a windmill.) And true to his radical doctrine, he always resists the sin of his oppressors: "I must warn myself," he writes, "lest I see myself as chosen of all men, question that mystic pride within that tells me I am Right and must teach what I have found to be True. Oh Truth oh Right oh save me from such a trap."

As Williams's friend, John Milton, would say, the readers for this novel are probably "fit but few." It's full of riches, but they're hard won.

First, it demands considerable familiarity with 17th-century English and American history. There's no coddling us with helpful exposition. If you don't know who Thomas Hooker was - to pick just one of many once towering, but now obscure characters - he'll remain a foggy reference.

The second challenge is actually the novel's greatest strength. Settle spent a cold Vermont winter studying two volumes of Williams's correspondence. In re-creating him, she demonstrates remarkable fidelity to the tone and cadence of his passionate voice, even though, as she acknowledges, we must "learn to read his work as we would another language."

To Williams, a polyglot who counted languages "as the greatest gift of God to us poor, misguided men," that would make perfect sense. After all, when he introduced the concept of free conscience, it was essentially a new moral grammar, "such a fool idea ... as naked as a newborn babe. Even now so long later I sometimes want to charge into the one street here in Providence, the first place in all the world that I know of where such a right is part of the common law, jump over the hogs and the puddles and call out, 'By Christ's bowels, do you not know what you have, do you not know?' "

Settle's fiery novel goes a long way toward reminding us.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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