DURHAM, N.C. — A team of scholars that helped translate an original theological essay written in shorthand by early American Baptist Roger Williams and interpret its significance presented its findings during a seminar at Duke Divinity School’s Baptist House of Studies April 1.
The panel, hosted by Baptist House director Curtis Freeman, included Lucas Mason-Brown, a senior at Brown University in Providence, R.I.; Linford Fisher, a history professor at Brown; and J. Stanley Lemons, history professor emeritus at Rhode Island College and an expert on Williams. Lemons is also a historian at First Baptist Church in Providence, established by Williams in 1638 and generally regarded as the first Baptist church in the United States.
For almost two centuries a small leather-bound book lacking a title page and author identification has been a part of Brown’s John Carter Brown Library collection. More remarkable than its age, however, was the claim made by the book’s donor that the curious symbols and signs scribbled in the margins were from the pen of Williams, revered by many Baptists as a champion of religious liberty.
A note accompanying the book when it was donated said, in part, “The margin is filled with Short Hand Characters, Dates, Names of places &c. &c. by Roger Williams or it appears to be his hand Writing …. brot me from Widow Tweedy by Nicholas Brown Jr.” It was dated Nov. 11, 1817.
All previous attempts to decipher the writing, which fills almost every square inch of white space in the volume, had failed, and the book was largely forgotten. Three years ago, however, in a presentation to a small group of Brown alumni, a plan to involve interdisciplinary faculty to translate the marginalia was born. Initially, the group assumed computers could be used to crack the code — a hope that proved futile. With little time to devote to the project, the faculty invited undergraduates to assist.
Math major Mason-Brown, at the time a junior, answered the call and applied frequency theory to finding a solution. Simply stated, the theory is that since “E” is the most commonly used letter in the English alphabet, the most used symbol in a code must represent that letter. But since Williams did not use vowels, the theory failed. Just as Mason-Brown was considering his options, he learned of a book called The Arte of Stenographie by minister John Willis, published in 1602. Since Williams had worked as a court stenographer before immigrating to America, Mason-Brown reasoned that Willis’s work could be key to understanding Williams’s writing.
Research confirmed that Williams had used Willis’s method as the basis for his shorthand, but that he had improvised considerably to suit his own purposes. Mason-Brown recalls a flash of insight when he realized that the symbol of the first consonant of a word is written large and that vowels in a word could be determined by the position of subsequent consonant symbols around it.
That epiphany solved the riddle of translation, but Mason-Brown still faced two difficulties. First, Williams’s hand-writing was, in his word, “atrocious,” and secondly, Williams made frequent use of “defectives,” words that do not conform to his usual practice. In addition, Williams employed simple pictographs which complicated translation.
Eventually, by slogging through the writings, the team discovered that Williams’s coded writing fell into three categories. On pages 1-164 of the book, Williams copied information from a popular 17th century book on geography. On pages 208-234 he drew information from a medical book. But the second section was a previously unknown original theological work in which Williams refutes ideas expressed by John Eliot that Scripture affirms infant baptism. He also takes issue with what he regarded as Eliot’s manipulative methods of evangelizing Native Americans. Eliot’s book was itself a response to English Baptist pastor John Norcott’s position affirming believer’s baptism by immersion only.
Since Williams refers to “readers” at the beginning of his essay, Lemons believes that he planned to publish it. According to Mason-Brown, in using his own shorthand Williams was not trying to keep his writing secret, but was simply making notes for himself to assist later publication using what paper was available.
Lemons was clear about the primary significance of these writings for Baptists.
“This essay demonstrates that the idea [of believer’s baptism] that he adopted in 1638 remained with him till the end of his life and that he continued to affirm that immersion was the true mode — a conclusion he reached in 1647 or 1649,” said Lemons. “From what has been deciphered, it is clear that Williams continued to hold the Baptist concept of baptism, both as to who is baptized and how it should be done.”
He concluded, “Everybody agrees that Williams did not remain more than a few months with his little church, but this latest discovery shows that he never retreated from the idea that caused him to re-baptize the congregation that had been gathering for worship in his house for about a year. That idea held that believer’s baptism was what the Scriptures required. Moreover, this new piece confirms that Williams believed that the proper mode was ‘dipping’ or plunging the person into the water, not sprinkling, washing, or pouring.”
Williams must have written this essay, in which he staunchly affirms both his positions on infant baptism and evangelism of Native Americans, sometime between the 1679 publication of Eliot’s book and his own death in 1683. This new information indicates that Williams either did not depart from the Baptist principles that distinguished his earlier life or that he returned to those principles before making his marginal notes in the last four years of his life.
In his attack on Eliot’s manipulative methods of evangelizing indigenous peoples, Williams also demonstrated his continuing commitment to religious freedom.
According to Fisher, the timing of Williams’s writing helps explain its space-saving appearance in the margins of an existing book.
“Paper had always been scarce in Rhode Island, and in 1676 American Indians burned much of Providence, including Williams’s home, to the ground,” he said “He lost most of his possessions and was forced to move in with his son, Joseph.”
Jim White ([email protected]) is executive editor of the Religious Herald.