Friday, July 13, 2012

A Couple of Reviews of John Barry's Biography of Roger Williams

I recently reviewed John Barry's Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul. (It should be appearing soon in a major religious periodical--stay tuned).  When I review a book, I try not to read other reviews of the same book before I write my review.  I don't want what others had to say about a particular book to influence my own thoughts about it.  (This is pretty standard practice).

But I do enjoy reading other reviews of books I have reviewed after my review has been submitted or published.  So let me call your attention to two new reviews of Barry's book.

The first is by Linford Fisher, a history professor at Brown.  Fisher admires the book, but thinks Barry's interpretation of Williams is too simplistic.  He instead thinks we should read stuff by Chris Beneke and Christoper Grenda, Evan Haefeli, Andrew Murphy, and Scott Sowerby.  Fair enough.  These are all fine pieces of scholarship and they should be read by scholars, graduate students, and others who want a sophisticated treatment of religious toleration in early America. I have learned a lot from all of these authors (I have yet to read Sowerby).  But Barry is not targeting this audience.  He is writing for a popular audience of history buffs and, with his audience in mind, I think he did a fine job of explaining Williams.

The second review is by Daniel Driesbach, a professor of public affairs at American University.  Driesbach argues that Barry's biography is too sympathetic and tells us more about the biographer and his times than the subject.  Indeed, Barry's biography of Williams does have a certain "Whig" flavor to it.  Driesbach, while not denying that Williams was indeed a champion of religious liberty, chides Barry for not treating his subject as a 17th century Puritan who had more agreements with the Puritan establishment at Massachusetts Bay than he had disagreements.

More later.