Special code used by Roger Williams broken


Spurred by the work of Brown University students, a shorthand code used by 17th century religious nonconformist Roger Williams has finally been unraveled.

The coded writings are in the form of notes in the margins of a book at the university’s John Carter Brown Library. The nearly 250-page volume, “An Essay Towards the Reconciling of Differences Among Christians,” was donated in the 1800s and included a handwritten note identifying Williams as the notes’ author, according to The Associated Press.

The book’s margins are filled with clusters of curious foreign characters – a mysterious shorthand used by Williams, Rhode Island’s founder and best known as the first figure to argue for the principle of the separation of church and state.

The code went undeciphered for centuries.

Among topics Williams touched on in his shorthand: one of the major theological issues of the day: infant baptism, said senior math major Lucas Mason-Brown, the undergraduate student who played a key role in unlocking the mystery.

Williams also commented on the conversion of Native Americans, implying it was being achieved through treachery and coercion, said Linford Fisher, a history professor at Brown who has been working with Mason-Brown.

Williams, an iconoclastic Protestant theologian, began the colony of Providence Plantation in 1636. He had slipped away to what is now Rhode Island that year after being banished from the Massachusetts Colony following a conviction for sedition and heresy.

Book showing Roger Williams' code scrawled among typeset words.

Book showing Roger Williams’ code scrawled among typeset words.

At Providence he provided a refuge for religious minorities, starting the first Baptist church in the New World.Williams was a student of Native American languages and an advocate for fair dealings with Native Americans. He also organized the first attempt to prohibit slavery in any of the original thirteen colonies.

Fisher said the new material is important in part because it’s among Williams’ last work, believed to have been written after 1679 in the last four years of his life, the wire service added.

The new discovery is remarkable for several reasons, former library director Edward Widmer said.

“Part of it was the excitement of a mystery being cracked, and part of it was Roger Williams is very famous in Rhode Island – no other state has a founder as tied up with the state’s identity as Rhode Island,” he said. “To have a major new source, a major new document, from Roger Williams is a big deal.”

Indeed, historians call the newly deciphered writings the most significant addition to Williams scholarship in a generation or more.

Widmer, J. Stanley Lemons, a Williams scholar and Rhode Island College history professor emeritus, and others at Brown started trying to unravel the so-called “Mystery Book” a few years ago.

But the most intense work began this year after the university opened up the challenge to undergraduates, several of whom launched an independent project.

Mason-Brown picked up critical clues after learning Williams had been trained in shorthand as a court stenographer in London, and built his own proprietary shorthand off an existing system. Mason-Brown refined his analysis and came up with a rough key.

Using the key, Lucas-Brown was able to successfully translate more than 180 pages of encoded marginalia, according to Lucas-Brown.

“Williams’ system consisted of 28 symbols that stand for a combination of English letters or sounds,” according to The Associated Press. “How they’re arranged is key to their meaning; arrange them one way and you get one word, arrange them another, you get something different. One major complication, according to Mason-Brown: Williams often improvised.”

(Above: Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians after Williams slipped away from the Massachusetts Colony in 1636.)

5 thoughts on “Special code used by Roger Williams broken

  1. Did I miss a sample of what he said? I guess that’s just a teaser. He is a hero of mine, for sure. Do you know that the more tolerant the state, the more prosperous it was? I have cool map that shows the religious affiliations by percentage, and compares that to general prosperity. Marsha 🙂

    • I couldn’t really find a sample of Williams’ actual translated writings, just that he weighed in on the issues described. The only article written was by The Associated Press, which was surprising because I would have thought that the Providence Journal would have been all over something like this.

      I’ve always found Williams to be a fascinating individual. Certainly far ahead of his time in many respects. And his life covered such a lengthy part of our nation’s earliest history.

      I’d be interested in seeing that map: It doesn’t surprise me that more tolerant states are more prosperous. Even an anecdotal look at the nations of the world would back up that idea when one looks at examples such as North Korea, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe and Syria. Of course, countries such as Saudi Arabia, which has incredible wealth from oil but would hardly be considered tolerant, is an outlier.

      • It does make sense. If the focus is on religious practice and becoming more and more holy, and convincing others to do the same, then there is less time and energy for anything worldly – like making money. It seems that many religions equate poverty with godliness. I have been poor, and I know it doesn’t necessarily make you more pious – more reliant on others, including God, maybe.

        I’ll have to find the map. It’s packed up with my things from work that weren’t books. Marsha 🙂

      • Thanks, Marsha. And, yes, being poor doesn’t make your more holy. It’s my belief that God doesn’t necessarily condemn the rich, but rather the actions of the rich, if they’re not consistent with being good to your fellow man. Plenty of poor people behave like asses, and I don’t think they get a free pass just because they’re poor. But, then again, it’s not for me to speak for God.

      • Right! Me either. I’ve just been poor, and known my inner self! Rich or poor, I still stand in need of a very forgiving God. Marsha 🙂

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