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Decoding Roger Williams: Texts, Cryptography, and the Materiality of an Early American Mystery

Thursday Lecture Series, Materiality

dateFebruary 27, 2014 timeThursday, 12:15pm EST location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
Old religious book with coded writing in the margins

For over a century, the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University has been in possession of a rare seventeenth-century book. Its margins are filled with cryptic shorthand writing, long believed to be the work of Roger Williams, the seventeenth-century theologian and founder of Rhode Island. However, despite several attempts to decrypt it, this writing remained stubbornly indecipherable. In 2012, a group of undergraduate researchers at Brown University, advised and supported by an interdisciplinary team of scholars, finally cracked the code. Contained within these margins is Roger Williams’ last major piece of writing, an unpublished shorthand treatise, titled "A Brief Reply to a Small Book Written by John Eliot."

In this talk, Brown University history professor Linford D. Fisher discussed the significance of this finding, explaining that Williams' shorthand essay was a pointed response to a pro-infant-baptism booklet published in 1679 by John Eliot, the Roxbury, Massachusetts, minister and famed “Apostle to the Indians.” Eliot, in turn, was critiquing a book written in 1672 by a London Baptist minister named John Norcott, who was promoting believer’s baptism as the correct biblical model. Fisher described how this new treatise gives a rare view into Williams’ late-in-life thoughts on two specific issues that have long vexed historians: believer’s baptism and Native American conversion. Along the way, Fisher used the physicality of the book itself that contained the shorthand marginal writing to think about the nature and materiality of the past.