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Decoding Roger Williams

The Lost Essay of Rhode Island’s Founding Father

Linford D. Fisher

Publication Year: 2014

Near the end of his life, Roger Williams, Rhode Island founder and father of American religious freedom, scrawled an encrypted essay in the margins of a colonial-era book. For more than 300 years those shorthand notes remained indecipherable... ...until a team of Brown University undergraduates led by Lucas Mason-Brown cracked Williams’ code after the marginalia languished for over a century in the archives of the John Carter Brown Library. At the time of Williams’ writing, a trans-Atlantic debate on infant versus believer’s baptism had taken shape that included London Baptist minister John Norcott and the famous Puritan “Apostle to the Indians,” John Eliot. Amazingly, Williams’ code contained a previously undiscovered essay, which was a point-by-point refutation of Eliot’s book supporting infant baptism. History professors Linford D. Fisher and J. Stanley Lemons immediately recognized the importance of what turned out to be theologian Roger Williams’ final treatise. Decoding Roger Williams reveals for the first time Williams’ translated and annotated essay, along with a critical essay by Fisher, Lemons, and Mason-Brown and reprints of the original Norcott and Eliot tracts.

Published by: Baylor University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

Figures and Maps

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

It has been a singular opportunity to collaborate on a project like this. Many people graciously gave of their time and shared information with us along the way, including Ted Widmer and Kimberly Nusco at the John Carter Brown Library; Steven Lubar, Hal Cook, Tim Harris, Jeff Hoffstein, and Eugene Charniak at Brown University; Frances Henderson at...

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Ted Widmer

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pp. xi-xiv

It is not the easiest thing in the world to surprise an institution that knows itself as well as the John Carter Brown Library. Each book is beautifully catalogued by devoted librarians. Detailed files are kept on the provenance of each item in the collection. Scholars then pore over the Library’s treasures, adding to the store of bibliographic information. Knowledge is...

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Part I. A Key into the Language of Roger Williams: Cracking and Interpreting the Roger Williams Code

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pp. 1-70

Around 1680, in the twilight of his life, Roger Williams picked up his polemical pen once again to sketch out his last major treatise.1 Because paper was scarce, he selected a book from his library, flipped to a section with blank space in the margins, and began to write in a shorthand script that he had learned as a young boy.2 The resulting marginalia essay never...

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Part II. “A Brief Reply to a Small Book Written by John Eliot” (ca. 1680)

Roger Williams

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pp. 71-112

The text of Williams’ essay poses a variety of interpretive challenges. Williams’ shorthand system is personalized and idiosyncratic. For many English words, there is no standard shorthand correlate, and Williams appears to have improvised new symbols and constructions while drafting the essay. Moreover, as with any shorthand system, the writing is highly abbreviated. Most...

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Part III. Baptism Discovered Plainly and Faithfully, According to the Word of God (London 1675 [1672])

John Norcott

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pp. 113-152

When he wrote Baptism Discovered Plainly in 1672, John Norcott (?–1676) was the second minister of one of London’s oldest Baptist churches on Wapping Lane (a position he held between 1670 and 1676).1 Outside of this one publication, Norcott has not left an extensive paper trail, but his importance can be gathered from the prominence of his ministerial post, his...

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Part IV. A Brief Answer to a Small Book Written by John Norcot Against Infant-Baptisme (1679)

John Eliot

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pp. 153-180

John Eliot (1604-1690) was born in Widford, Hertfordshire, England, one year after James I came to the throne. Eliot received his B.A. from Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1622. After a brief stint as the assistant of a school run by the Puritan minister Thomas Hooker in Little Baddow in the late 1620s, he emigrated to Boston in New England in 1631, following...

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Suggestions for Further Reading and Research

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pp. 181-190

The study of Roger Williams must begin with his writings and correspondence. The Publications of the Narragansett Club issued six volumes of Williams’ writings between 1866 and 1874, and these were reprinted in 1963 with a seventh volume of additional material as The Complete Writings of Roger Williams (New York: Russell & Russell). This latter project...


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pp. 191-198

E-ISBN-13: 9781481301060
E-ISBN-10: 1481301063
Print-ISBN-13: 9781481301046
Print-ISBN-10: 1481301047

Page Count: 212
Publication Year: 2014