Eaton has written Lone Journey with a fine historical imagination. She begins her book not with the birth of her subject or a description of his home environment but with an incident from his early childhood. The young Williams joins a crowd of onlookers who are eagerly awaiting the arrival of an English earl and his recent bride. The scene smoothly shifts to a description of the strong political and religious convictions that Williams held even as a child. Those convictions are tested and deepened as he attends college, moves to America, and founds Rhode Island. The author’s factual narrative is interspersed with lively, if fictional, dialogue, which contributes to the fast tempo of the book.
Eaton devotes much of the biography to Williams’ colonization of Rhode Island and his dealings with Native Americans, who viewed Williams differently from other settlers. He did not attempt to convert them to Christianity, concluding that if they were ever to be won over, it had to be through compassion and fair treatment. While some Puritans considered Native Americans to be heathens who had no place in a Christian land, Williams regarded them as fellow human beings worthy of justice and respect. He realized that the colonists were the intruders and urged that they purchase their land from its original inhabitants.
Not content merely to describe Williams’ role in history and his contributions to American democracy, Eaton portrays the qualities that Williams exhibited both in public and in private life. In so doing, she makes it possible for the reader to appreciate Williams as a real person rather than as a distant historical figure. At the same time, she demonstrates the impact that one person can have on history. Williams tirelessly advocated radical convictions regarding freedom of religion, democracy, and the treatment of Native Americans that were held by few in his day. As the title suggests, Williams had few supporters in his battles for liberty of conscience. Yet the results of his struggle are evident in modern American society. His views on the separation of church and state, freedom of religion, and democratic government have been incorporated into the American political system.