"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
July 3, 2013
First Freedom an Enriching Read
by Laurie Williams Sowby

In case you’re planning to skip the fireworks this year, here’s a book perfect for celebrating freedom. It’s good for July reading or any time you want to deepen your understanding of and appreciation for the privilege of worshiping God as you please.

First Freedom, the Fight for Religious Liberty is a large-format companion book to the Lee Groberg-produced documentary film that premiered on PBS in December. Its pages are filled with color images shot for the film by Mark Mabry (Covenant Communications 2012, 98 pages in hardcover, $26.99).

But don’t be fooled by the appealing layout and outstanding photographic illustrations from actual historic locations such as Independence Hall, Jefferson’s Monticello, and Plymouth, Mass. There is real substance in the text as well.

Prize-winning historian Randall Balmer, whose credentials include Princeton Ph.D. graduate, Columbia University professor of American religion, and tenure as an Episcopal priest, has skillfully synthesized exhaustive research into a well-written, concise account of how religious freedom came to be the First Amendment.

He does not sacrifice detail in the telling. Observations and quotes on the topic from other scholars of various religious traditions appear as sidebars on the pages (unfortunately, in sometimes very small typeface).

The book follows the history of religion the United States from the time Roger Williams was banished for suggesting church and state should be separate (after the Puritans set up religion-by-law with the Rhode Island Charter in 1663) through the differing views and debates among the founding fathers, who ultimately decided that each person should decide his own religious practices rather than have them mandated by government.

Before the First Amendment, freedom of religion was unheard of. It was precedent-breaking for a nation to trust its future to the morality of its citizens rather than coerce conscience through state-sanctioned religion, as had been done and still is being done in other countries around the world.

First Freedom tells the complex story of how it happened and honors those who carved an idea and conviction into law.

Matthew S. Holland comments in “The Legacy of the Founders” (page 91), “The rich legacy that comes to us from the founders…is not contained in a single law. It is a rich combination of the original Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the spirit of the Revolution, and the Declaration of Independence. Those documents and events work together to teach us something about the dignity of human beings everywhere: that they are entitled to be free and to rule themselves.”

He concludes, “Our most important export has been the Constitution and what it has meant not just for American democracy, but for democracy all across the world.”

The source material is outlined in a selected bibliography and endnotes, along with the credentials of the scholars quoted. The pages are thick and slick, enabling years of perusing this excellent volume.

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About Laurie Williams Sowby

Laurie Williams Sowby has been writing since second grade and getting paid for it since high school. Her byline ("all three names, please") has appeared on more than 6,000 freelance articles published in newspapers, magazines, and online.

A graduate of BYU and a writing instructor at Utah Valley University for many years, she proudly claims all five children and their spouses as college grads.

She and husband, Steve, have served three full-time missions together, beginning in 2005 in Chile, followed by Washington D.C. South, then Washington D.C. North, both times as young adult Institute teachers. They are currently serving in the New York Office of Public and International Affairs

During her years of missionary service, Laurie has continued to write about significant Church events, including the rededication of the Santiago Temple by President Hinckley and the groundbreaking for the Philadelphia Temple by President Eyring. She also was a Church Service Missionary, working as a news editor at Church Magazines, between full-time missions.

Laurie has traveled to all 50 states and at least 45 countries (so far). While home is American Fork, Utah, Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have provided a comfortable second home.

Laurie is currently serving a fourth full-time mission with her husband in the New York Office of Public and International Affairs. The two previously served with a branch presidency at the Provo Missionary Training Center. The oldest of 18 grandchildren have been called to serve missions in New Hampshire and Brisbane, Australia.

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