Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America, by Edwin S. Gaustad (Eerdmans, xiv + 229 pp.; $14.95, paper);Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America, by Lyle W. Dorsett (Eerdmans, vii + 212 pp.; $14.95, paper). Reviewed by Grant Wacker, associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Given that 1991 marks the bicentennial of the adoption of the Bill of Rights, it is particularly fitting that the first volume of Eerdman’s Library of Religious Biography (edited by Mark Noll and Nathan Hatch) should be Edwin S. Gaustad’s Liberty of Conscience, a study of Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island and arguably the most notable proponent of religious freedom in seventeenth-century America.

Born in England about 1603, Williams joined the great Puritan migration to Massachusetts Bay in 1631, where he briefly served as pastor of separatist churches in Plymouth and Salem. For Williams, they were not separatist enough. Detachment from the Church of England had to be complete and unambiguous. More portentously, he also came to the conclusion that the civil magistrates held no authority to enforce the “First Table” of the Law—the commandments to love God, eschew idolatry, keep the Sabbath, and avoid blasphemy. Williams’s further belief that the king had no right to cede land that had been stolen from native Americans in the first place proved the final straw. Banished by the magistrates in 1635, Williams and his family made their way on foot to the headwaters of Narragansett Bay.

Also reviewed in this section:

The Genesis of Doctrineby Alister E. McGrath
Project Earthby William B. Badke
Winning the New Civil Warby Robert P. Dugan, Jr.
God’s People in God’s Landby Christopher Wright

Till his death nearly a half-century later, Williams strove to govern the array of visionaries, sectarians, free thinkers, land speculators, and misfits that inexorably drifted toward the colony. Through it all he consistently maintained that Scripture, history, and reason taught that the wilderness of the state must be kept strictly separated from the garden of the church.

Brushing aside Puritan appeals to Old Testament theocratic precedents, Williams argued that Christians lived under a radically new dispensation. The New Testament offered no warrant for civil oversight of religious affairs, and certainly none for civil persecution of religious deviants. History, too, proved that the state invariably corrupted the church whenever it sought to help or protect the church. The story of Western Europe was a story written in the blood of the devout.

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But for Williams the most telling justification for a wide moat between church and state was the argument from reason. Was a coerced conversion ever of any value? To compel adherence to a church or to a body of doctrine was, he wrote, like requiring an “unwilling Spouse … to enter into a forced bed.” Since God alone was able to judge matters of the heart, it made more sense to select civil magistrates by criteria of competence, not outward piety.

Williams’s lifelong witness for the “Jew, the Turk, and the infidel” to worship or not worship as they pleased remains the hallmark of his legacy.

Williams merits a chapter in the canon for other reasons, too. Almost as soon as he set up shop in Providence, he and a handful of adult followers immersed one another, thus establishing what is commonly regarded as the first Baptist church in the Americas. Williams was nothing if not consistent. Within a year he advanced to the conclusion that no church could be a true church until it was re-established by Christ himself. Soon he was worshiping only with his wife, and then, rumor had it, only with himself.

Williams’s wooden biblicism also drove him to decry sacraments, a paid ministry, oaths in court, and the public display of religious symbols. An ardent advocate of the legal rights of native Americans, he suffered grave doubts as to the utility of missionary efforts to convert them, preferring instead to wait upon God and “his holy season.” At age 69 he rowed solo across 30 miles of Narragansett Bay to argue, ironically enough, the fine points of church polity with a group of Quakers, whom he deplored even more than the oligarchs in Boston because of their free and easy way with Scripture.

Gaustad, who is professor of history at the University of California at Riverside, gives us an interpretation of Williams that is so expertly executed it is difficult to imagine how it could have been better. He admits that Williams did not always speak his piece with “economy or grace,” but one thing is sure: Gaustad does. I can think of no historian since Perry Miller who exhibits such a feel for the cadence of the English language. As anyone who has tried to read Williams’s tortured prose can attest, when Williams becomes actually fun to read about, we are on the verge of repeating the miracle of Cana.

To be sure, in Gaustad’s hands Williams comes off as a pretty admirable character. Other historians have rendered him in less likable terms, an eccentric genius at best, an impractical crank at worst. But biography, perhaps more than any other kind of historical writing, calls for an elective affinity between a subject and a historian who conjures the subject back to life, enabling him or her to speak to another time and place. When it works, as it does in this volume, we are as close to historical magic as we are likely to get.

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The First Billy

In attempting a fresh interpretation of Billy Sunday, Wheaton College historian Lyle Dorsett nails his colors and his courage high on the gatepost. Until Sunday was eclipsed by evangelist Billy Graham and by the celebrity TV evangelists in the 1960s, he ranked as the most widely known preacher in American history.

But Sunday is like sushi: no one is neutral. Exactly half of the historians and journalists who have written about him have depicted him as a buffoon and a xenophobe, a man whose platform antics and homiletic slang disgraced Christianity and cheapened patriotism. The other half have portrayed Sunday as a latter-day Amos, calling sinful men and women to repentance and the nation back to its founding ideals of honesty, hard work, and biblical morality. Happily, Dorsett does not try to steer down the middle. Rather, he shows that Sunday was, in fact, a complex man, who followed contradictory lights and thus became the saint historians and journalists most loved to hate.

Born in 1862 near Ames, Iowa, Sunday grew up in rural poverty. By age ten, things had gotten so bad his widowed mother felt forced to ship him off to an orphanage. As the years passed, Sunday drifted from one odd job to another, picked up bits and pieces of formal schooling—and started playing sandlot baseball. Blessed with powerful legs and hair-trigger reflexes, Sunday was signed up in 1883 by a Chicago White Stockings scout. Soon he was bringing in the then-unimaginable sum of $500 per month.

There is no evidence that Sunday’s late-adolescent lifestyle was more errant than that of any farm boy trying to make a living in the big city. Yet he himself always believed that his existence had been dramatically transformed when he heard and responded to the message of a street-preaching team from Chicago’s Pacific Garden Mission.

Intensive Bible study and a growing commitment to the evangelistic work of the YMCA led, in 1891, to a decision to give up professional baseball for full-time ministry. Soon it became apparent that he was blessed not only with powerful legs but also with powerful lungs, a good feel for the rhythms of common speech, and a natural flair for platform gymnastics.

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Contrary to the Sunday legend, success came slowly. Dorsett hauntingly evokes the long, financially lean years when Sunday crisscrossed the small towns of the northern Midwest—the “kerosene circuit”—preaching wherever he could find an audience, in tents, wooden tabernacles, vacant warehouses. The subject was always the same: Christ, old-fashioned morality, the benefits of hard work, the evil of alcohol, and, increasingly, spread-eagle patriotism.

Sunday’s fortune, in both senses of the term, gradually picked up. By the end of his career he had preached to 100 million souls, of whom a million had walked the “sawdust trail.” Sunday hobnobbed with John D. Rockefeller (who shared his horror of alcohol), rubbed shoulders with Hollywood stars, preached in Yale Chapel, dined with Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, even toyed with the idea of running for President himself. He commissioned biographies of himself and hawked postcards emblazoned with his photo.

And then there was the money issue. Between 1908 and 1920, Sunday banked a million dollars. He bought expensive cars, dressed in furs, adorned his wife with expensive jewelry. There is little evidence that he worried about the ostentatiousness of his lifestyle or that his own fortune might be different from the Lord’s.

But all was not roses. Sunday’s personal life was harrowed with pain. Devoted to his wife, Nell, who was his manager and alter ego, Sunday’s career remained free of any hint of sexual scandal. But the lives of his three sons were riven by alcoholism, broken marriages, irresponsible business dealings, and, in one instance, suicide. Always thin-skinned, Sunday recoiled from criticism in the secular press and from erstwhile associates such as Homer Rodeheaver. Though never wholly unemployed, the invitations to speak came less frequently from the early 1920s until his death in 1935, and from more out-of-the-way places.

Dorsett acknowledges that Sunday’s message left a lot to be desired. His equation of Christian faith and the “American way of life” was about as complete as one could make it and still be conscious. He accepted the support of the Ku Klux Klan and assailed theological views he did not understand. His slap-dash rhetoric pandered to the lowest common denominator (although there is reason to believe that in an entertainment-starved age they loved it).

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On the other hand, Dorsett also argues that there was much in Sunday’s message that any Christian should be proud to own. He went out of his way to preach to black audiences. He scourged the power of the liquor industry. He insisted, versus the social gospelers, that what a broken watch usually needed was a new mainspring, not a new casing.

Above all, Sunday recognized that the Christian message held the power to release people from addictions, heal broken marriages, endow life with new meaning. No less a figure than Henry P. Van Dusen, long-time president of Union Seminary in New York—and a paladin of liberal Protestantism if there ever was one—was never ashamed to say that he had been brought into the church in the first place because of Billy Sunday.

Dorsett carefully sets Sunday in the economic and social context of late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century America. An urban and immigration historian by training, he interlaces the text with just enough statistical material to enable the reader to understand the profundity of the social changes Sunday and his hearers faced. Dorsett allows his own evangelical sympathies to structure the interpretation a bit too transparently for my taste, but that is a small matter. The text is distinguished by a graceful writing style and considerable empathy for the plain-folks mentality Sunday exemplified.

Heaven’S Hound In Hot Pursuit

Taken together, what do these two biographies tell us about Christian leaders separated by nearly three centuries?

On the surface, it is difficult to imagine personalities more dissimilar. Williams fought for an antiseptic separation of church and state; Sunday marshaled Christianity squarely behind Victorian American values. Williams perennially occupied himself with the mystery of the church in history; Sunday gave it no thought. Williams doubted the efficacy of human efforts to convert the heathen; Sunday doubted the integrity of any Christian who did not try. Williams avoided wealth, fearing its perils; Sunday pursued the good life with hog-stomping exuberance. Williams, well-born, enjoyed the benefits of a Cambridge University education; Sunday had to claw his way out of penury and make do with a high-school course or two. Williams was nurtured by a tightly knit family life; Sunday suffered the heartache of errant children.

The list of differences could be extended, but in the end Williams and Sunday were linked by a bond that transcended their dissimilarities. Simply stated, both believed that faith cost something. Being a Christian meant that one did not enjoy the luxury of—to put it in 1990s’ terms—living for the weekend. Both were driven by a conviction that they had a job to do. Each wrought, as someone once said of Augustus Strong, “with tireless hands lest the eternal sleep steal upon him before his work was done.” Maybe, in the final analysis, religious leadership is not primarily a matter of charisma or of organizational skill. Maybe it is just the warm breath of the hound of heaven in hot pursuit.

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