Roger Williams Decoded

The margins of this 234-page book in the Brown University library are covered in shorthand code written by Roger Williams.

The margins of this 234-page book in the Brown University library are covered in shorthand code written by Roger Williams.

Here’s an interesting story involving my paternal 10th g-grandfather, Roger Williams (1603-1683): In 1817, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island acquired a mysterious book, which is now part of the John Carter Collection of the Brown library.  The 234-page book is subtitled An Essay Concerning the Reconciling of Differences among Christians (click here to download a copy).  The book’s author was unknown, and it had no title page.  The most curious aspect of the book, however, was that almost every square inch of white space was covered in a cryptic scrawl made up of strange characters dashed off in one or two strokes.  For librarians, the only clue to the origins of the handwriting came from an accompanying note, barely legible itself, which 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. (dated 11 Nov 1817).  But how could historians be sure?  And, more importantly, what did it say?  All attempts to decipher the writing failed.  The book was largely forgotten, and the mystery remained an unsolved puzzle for nearly 200 years.

On a late fall day in 2010, Ted Widmer, then-director of Brown’s John Carter Brown Library, was giving a talk on Williams’ life and legacy to about 20 members of the Pembroke Club, a group of Brown alums.  The attendees were “mostly people with either gray hair or no hair,” says Bill Twaddell, a retired diplomat and member of the library’s board of governors who sat in on the lecture.  At one point, Widmer mentioned the book and the suspicion that Williams had authored the code in its margins.  Twaddell’s ears perked up. Why not scan the code and let computers attempt to crack it?

With the help of Kim Nusco, the JCB’s manuscript librarian, Widmer and Twaddell began recruiting faculty from the fields of mathematics, computer science, comparative literature and history. But 17th century penmanship triumphed over 21st century technology: The writing was simply too messy for a computer to make sense of, and manually cracking the code was going to be a slog. The project didn’t neatly fall into any one field, and the academics recruited by Widmer, Twaddell, and Nusco had work of their own to worry about.  They decided to give Brown’s undergrads a shot at the project.

In the fall of 2011, two juniors and two seniors (students of history, American studies and mathematics) signed on to tackle the code during the spring semester, and a team was assembled.

“There’s this long history of people who know about it, and think of it as this big mystery,” said Linford Fisher, assistant professor in the history department who advised the students. “It’s part of the local lore around Brown and Providence.”

“No one had ever looked at it systematically like this in generations,” Widmer said. “I think people probably looked at it and shrugged.”

Some of the faculty were skeptical: After so long, how could a quartet of undergraduates discern the secret?  But others, said Kim Nusco, of the library, were more optimistic.  “We could figure it out,” she recalled a professor saying.  “We just need people with brains and time.”

The students had both.

Lucas Mason-Brown, a senior mathematics major at Brown University who helped crack a mysterious shorthand code stands for a photo outside the John Carter Brown Library on the university's campus in Providence, Rhode Island

Lucas Mason-Brown, a senior mathematics major at Brown University who helped crack a mysterious shorthand code stands for a photo outside the John Carter Brown Library on the university’s campus in Providence, Rhode Island

The student who eventually became the hero of the project was Lucas Mason-Brown, a 21-year old Brown senior.  In some ways he was an unlikely candidate for the role.  He is a math fanatic who attended Belmont (Massachusetts) High School and plans to pursue theoretical math professionally.  But something about the shorthand begged for his attention.  “I was sort of instantly captivated,” he said.

As mathematics major, Mason-Brown had no pretensions to being an expert in 17th century manuscripts or theology.  By his own admission, he knew absolutely nothing about Roger Williams.  However, Mason-Brown succeeded through a mix of statistical analysis and historical research to reveal the meaning of the ciphered text.  Earlier suspicions were confirmed as the analysis revealed some of last writings of Roger Williams which were previously unknown.  Historians call the now-readable writings the most significant addition to Williams scholarship in a generation or more.

The first step to solving the mystery was math, Mason-Brown’s forte.   He began with a basic technique called frequency analysis. It relies on statistical observations – for example that e is the most common letter in the English language – to crack the kinds of simple ciphers one would expect from the Colonial era.  This approach yielded nothing.  He then turned to co-occurrence analysis, a more sophisticated technique based on the frequency with which certain letters tend to succeed or precede others.  For example, the most commonly occurring pair of letters, or bigram, in English is t and h.  Still nothing.  The researchers began to suspect that the cipher might have been more complex than expected.  Or it could combine elements of the six other languages Williams knew.  If that were the case, the uselessness of frequency analysis would be the least of the group’s problems.

Setting his equations aside, Mason-Brown next turned for clues to books on early modern shorthand.  His reading pointed him to the system set out by John Willis in his book Art of Stenographie (1602).  The system was popular in England at the same time a young Williams worked as a stenographer for the noted jurist Edward Coke at the Star Chamber Court.  In the system, symbols stood in for most consonant sounds, and most vowels were left out.  The symbols were simple, generally requiring a single pen stroke, making them easier to write than the consonants they stood for.  The relative position of the consonant symbols indicated the vowel in between them.  For example, placing the symbol for g to the bottom left of the b symbol encoded bag.  Move the g symbol to the upper right and you instead had bog.  Guessing that this might be the system Williams used, Mason-Brown tried tweaking his frequency analysis so it applied to consonants only.  Thus modified, the analysis allowed him to tentatively match several symbols to English letters.

Next, he turned to the longhand “flags” that dotted the first of three sections into which he had preliminarily divided the code.  These were words, mostly place names, that the author had written entirely or partially in longhand English.  If a word was partially written in longhand and partially written in shorthand, he could guess at the entire word and then determine what the symbols in the shorthand portion of the word stood for.  For example, Mason-Brown encountered “Meso” written out in longhand followed by a string of symbols.  Given the prevalence of ancient place names among the longhand flags, he guessed that the word was Mesopotamia.  The string of short-hand symbols standing for potamia gave him a set of precious potential correspondences.

Applying these two tactics in tandem, Mason-Brown was able to build a tentative key.  When applying the key to paragraph-length passages yielded intelligible English, he knew his hunch about the Willis system had been correct.

By the start of the spring semester, he had built and confirmed a key of the 28 most common symbols and the letters or sounds to which they corresponded.  But this was far less than half the battle.  The code was filled with “defectives,” long words given idiosyncratic abbreviations that did not follow the normal rules of the encoding scheme.  It was also liberally peppered with pictograms.  “Friendship” was rendered with the symbol for F followed by a sketch of a ship.  And the handwriting was, as Mason-Brown describes it, “atrocious.”

But the longhand flags offered another possible shortcut.  The flags in the first section – geographical terms like “Nov Belgium,” “Mutina,” and “Paphlygonia,” – suggested an expertise beyond Williams’ main fields of interest.  The flags in the third section – medical terms including “Hermaphrodite” and “Eunouch” – suggested the same (as well as an unexplained interest in sexual aberration).  All looked like keywords.  It was possible, the students and scholars hypothesized, that these sections were copied down from reference texts.

With the help of historian Tim Harris, the undergrads matched the first section to Peter Heylyn’s Cosmographie in Four Books: Containing the Chorographie and Historie of the Whole World, and All the Principal Kingdoms, Provinces, Seas and Illes thereof, a sort of 16th-century geographical encyclopedia.  With the help of medical historian Hal Cook, they matched the third section to Bartholinus’ Anatomy, a popular 17th-century medical reference.  Translating these sections would now be a simple matter of matching the shorthand to the passages from which it was copied.

Meanwhile, in early March, the Rhode Island Historical Society furnished two letters in Williams’ hand that included brief snippets of shorthand.  By comparing the idiosyncratic defectives in the samples, Mason-Brown was able to confirm Williams’ authorship of the shorthand in the mystery book, and the academics attached to the project concurred with his conclusion.

By the end of the spring of 2012, Mason-Brown had confirmed Williams’ authorship, cracked the code and translated most of its contents.  It was a gratifying, if relatively minor, accomplishment. But the undeciphered shorthand from the middle section of the mystery book still beckoned.  It lacked those helpful longhand flags, making it harder to translate, but also offered a glimmer of hope that it contained a different sort of text: original writing by Williams.

In the summer of 2012, Mason-Brown moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan with the single goal of translating the rest of the code.  He would likely have to work through the remaining shorthand word by word.  It was a daunting task: 24 pages of uninterrupted shorthand.  The only words written out in English were two names, “Eliot” and “Norcott.”  But in July, the first passage emerged:

[Here is a] a brief reply to a small book written by John Eliot called, an Answer to John Norcot Against Infant Baptism, a plea to the parents of the children of Christ. [Argued] from Acts and John and other [scriptures], written with love.

Then a week of work yielded this:

The words of the Great King enjoin us to protect the gospel, whose written word [refutes] John Eliot and whose word must prevail over the book of John Eliot. [I hope a] beam of light will appear to you by my labor. I [shall] not weary the reader with a large and onerous discourse. I shall not [let it so that] principles themselves prevail over the written word of God.

It was original theological writing by Roger Williams.  And it was previously unknown to history: the first such discovery in decades.  In 1676, John Norcott wrote a treatise attacking infant baptism, the accepted practice throughout the majority of Christendom.  John Eliot, a missionary to the American Indians, penned a retort three years later.  The text in the middle section of the mystery book was a rebuke of Eliot in defense of Norcott and adult baptism.

Williams also touched on conversion of American Indians, another hot topic in 17th-century theology:

[As to] the conversion of the Indians by the gospel: it would be cause of great joy if they were feeling true, but [in many cases] they are converted by treachery and [coercion] and not by the wisdom of the gospel of Christ as [Eliot’s] treatise doth declare.

Both of these stances stemmed from Williams’ radical (for the time) belief in religious freedom.  He held that people could only become true followers of Christ by consciously accepting him and that no one else could make such a decision on their behalf.  Most of the rest of the work consists of scriptural citations in support of his views.

According to Brown historian Linford Fisher, a specialist in early America, there is good reason to believe Williams may have intended to publish the writing.  The reference to a generic “reader” in the introduction indicates an intention to write for a general audience.  The work’s structure mirrors that of the Eliot treatise to which it systematically responds, indicating a concerted intellectual effort rather than scattered notes.  And its tone is reminiscent of Williams’ published polemical works, including 1644’s The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution.

Based on the publication date of Eliot’s treatise, Williams was writing in 1679, at the earliest.  He died in 1683.  The timing helps explain the use of space-saving shorthand in the mystery book’s margins.  Paper had always been scarce in Rhode Island, and in 1676, as King Philip’s War raged, American Indians burned much of Providence, including Williams’ home, to the ground.  He lost most of his possessions and was forced to move in with his son Joseph, further contributing to a need for frugality.

Though the work does not significantly alter our understanding of Williams, according to J. Stanley Lemons, a professor emeritus at Rhode Island College and a Williams specialist, it’s now Williams’ last known work of theology and confirmation that the radical theologian remained staunch in his convictions into the twilight of his life.

Brown’s Fisher also sees the work as testament to the remarkable consistency of Williams’ views.  He notes that despite the personal trauma wrought by King Philip’s War, Williams continued to ruminate on the salvation of Indians, and his position remained in line with that expressed in earlier writings.

“I’m not sure that what we’ll learn inside the text will be terribly important,” says Widmer, who along with Mason-Brown, Lemons, and Fisher will contribute to a scholarly book on the project. “I think the chase is as important as the result.”

In an interview, Mason-Brown stated, “It’s not a Dan Brown novel,” (referring to the author of The Da Vinci Code).  “But it’s original commentary on several hot-button theological issues of the time.”

“My secret hope was that it would turn up new thoughts . . . something a bit more edgy or scandalous,” Fisher said.  But still, the translation is a big deal: It confirms that many of the convictions crystallized earlier in Williams’ life held true until just before his death.  “This is a further elaboration of his views,” said historian John M. Barry, who wrote a book about Williams. “We know that he strongly opposed the use of any kind of pressure or compulsion to convince anyone of any religious belief.”  And perhaps, he said, solving the mystery will bring some much-needed attention to a little-known founding father.

A panel including (from left) J. Stanley Lemons, Lucas Mason-Brown and Linford Fisher answer questions during a presentation at Duke Divinity School’s Baptist House of Studies of a newly-translated Roger Williams document, 1 Apr 2013. (Religious Herald photo by Jim White)

A panel including (from left) J. Stanley Lemons, Lucas Mason-Brown and Linford Fisher answer questions during a presentation at Duke Divinity School’s Baptist House of Studies of a newly-translated Roger Williams document (Durham, North Carolina, 1 Apr 2013). (Religious Herald photo by Jim White)

During a seminar at Duke Divinity School’s Baptist House of Studies on 1 Apr 2013, 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.”  Since 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.

Lucas Mason-Brown will graduate from Brown in May 2013.  He has been selected as one of 12 George J. Mitchell scholars, and in 2014, and he will spend a year of postgraduate study in mathematics at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.  The nationwide competition for Mitchell scholarships attracts nearly 300 applicants from whom 12 are awarded scholarships on the basis of academic distinction, leadership and service.  Lucas-Brown does not plan to pursue cryptography professionally.  His ambitions lie more in “pure math” — the secrets of elliptical curves, for example, but he says that he will miss the collaborative nature of his Williams research.

“It’s not often,” he said, “that a math student gets to work on a problem that people in so many different disciplines get to appreciate.”

Information for this article was compiled from the following published reports:

  • Alexa Pugh, “At the JCB, cracking the Williams code: Undergrads to decipher curious shorthand of Rhode Island’s 17th century founder”, The Brown Daily Herald, 7 Nov 2011.
  • James Nye, “Founding father’s mystery code cracked after 250 years: Researchers unlock religious writings of Rhode Island founder after centuries”, The Daily Mail (UK), 30 Nov 2012.
  • Sheila Lennon, “Brown team cracks code used by Roger Williams in book’s margins”, The Providence Journal, 1 Dec 2012.
  • Martine Powers, “Brown students decode Roger Williams’ shorthand”, The Boston Globe, 5 Dec 2012.
  • Ben Schreckinger, “The Roger Williams CodeHow a team of scholars decrypted a secret language—and discovered the last known work of the American theologian”, Slate, 12 Dec 2012.
  • Jim White, “Shorthand written by religious liberty icon Roger Williams decoded after 300 years, revealing essay”, Religious Herald, 3 Apr 2013.


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