By John Pierce

When news came that respected historian and author Edwin Gaustad had died on March 24 in Sante Fe, N.M., my first thought was that we had lost one of our finest observers of religious life in America. My second thought was to the many jewels that can be mined from his wonderful biography of Roger Williams.

Those not attuned to reading biographies, especially about historical figures, may be unconvinced. But I assure you that this book will be a brief, enjoyable and enlightening read.

The freedoms we cherish and seek to preserve in this nation did not just pop into the heads of our founders when they sat down to draft a constitution.

They were hammered out in a struggle against controlling powers — by those like Williams who founded Rhode Island as a refuge of religious freedom for Jews, Quakers, Baptists and other suspect groups as well as those of other or no faith.

Williams also led in the founding the First Baptist Church in America and Brown University in Providence, R.I. And he treated Native Americans with fairness and dignity.

One spring Sunday evening in 2006, I spoke to the historic Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Macon, Ga., on “Roger’s Crazy Ideas.” It was my way of sharing some of the jewels from Dr. Gaustad’s fascinating biography of Williams.

It was also my attempt to show — as Gaustad did so well — how the widely-held understandings of individual and religious freedom that we embrace today were once minority opinions and outlawed practices. Getting a hearing for unfettered religious liberty came at a cost: one Williams and others like Obadiah Holmes (who was beaten on the streets of Boston by Massachusetts Puritan authorities for his illegal Baptist religious practices) were willing to pay.

Among the “crazy ideas” advocated by Roger Williams were that faith is an individual choice that cannot and should not be coerced by government and that there should be room for dissent and diverse opinions without repression.

So today I honor the memory of Dr. Edwin Gaustad and highly recommend for your reading his book, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America.

Mind the jewels within this book. And, after reading it, I hope you have the chance someday to stand near the much-oversized statue of Williams on a hillside overlooking Providence, R.I., and thank God for Roger’s “crazy ideas.”


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