Code used by RI founding father is finally cracked

Dec 03, 2012
This image provided by Brown University shows the preface page of the "Mystery Book" from the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, R.I. Lucas Mason-Brown, a senior mathematics major at Brown University, helped crack a mysterious shorthand code developed and used by religious dissident Roger Williams in the 17th century. The handwritten code surrounds the printed text on the preface page. (AP Photo/John Carter Brown Library at Brown University)

The obscure book's margins are virtually filled with clusters of curious foreign characters - a mysterious shorthand used by 17th century religious dissident Roger Williams.

For centuries the scribbles went undeciphered. But a team of Brown University students has finally cracked the .

Historians call the now-readable writings the most significant addition to Williams scholarship in a generation or more. Williams is Rhode Island's founder and best known as the first figure to argue for the principle of the separation of church and state that would later be enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

His 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 - though even that was uncertain at first.

A group including former library director Edward Widmer, Williams scholar and Rhode Island College history professor emeritus J. Stanley Lemons 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.

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

Senior math major Lucas Mason-Brown, who has done the majority of the decoding, said his first instinct was to develop a . The 21-year-old from Belmont, Mass., used frequency analysis, which looks at the frequency of letters or groups of letters in a text, but initially didn't get far.

He 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.

Williams' system consisted of 28 symbols that stand for a combination of English letters or sounds. 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.

From there, Mason-Brown was able to translate scattered fragments, and the students determined there were three separate sections of notes. Two are Williams' writings on other books, a 17th century historical geography and a medical text. The third - and most intriguing - is 20 pages of Williams' original thoughts on one of the major theological issues of the day: infant baptism.

Williams also weighed in 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.

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 new discovery is remarkable on several levels, 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."

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parder dade
1.6 / 5 (11) Dec 03, 2012
:...the separation of church and state that would later be enshrined in the Bill of Rights." The author really needs to read the Bill of Rights. They will find no mention of "separation of church and state", there or in the Constitution. You will find the guarantee of religious freedom in the First Amendment.

Journalists need to at least pretend they are literate.
FrankHerbert
2.6 / 5 (10) Dec 03, 2012
So you support an American theocracy? How does that not infringe on the religious freedoms of everyone who isn't a part of your religion? Try thinking just once in your life.
jonnyboy
1 / 5 (5) Dec 03, 2012
:...the separation of church and state that would later be enshrined in the Bill of Rights." The author really needs to read the Bill of Rights. They will find no mention of "separation of church and state", there or in the Constitution. You will find the guarantee of religious freedom in the First Amendment.

Journalists need to at least pretend they are literate.


the constitution includes all amendments made to the original document.

salf
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 03, 2012
@FrankHerbert: Non sequitur a little? How does pointing out that there is no separation of church and state in the constitution imply that someone supports an American theocracy?

@Jonnyboy: Read all the amendments to the original document. There is no mention of separation of church and state. There are 27. Count them.
Feldagast
1 / 5 (2) Dec 03, 2012
I thought the intent was to prevent something like the church of England to happen here, for the government to not pick one religion over any other. As well as to keep the government out of the church as well as to keep church from influencing the process of lawmaking.
packrat
3 / 5 (6) Dec 03, 2012
So you support an American theocracy? How does that not infringe on the religious freedoms of everyone who isn't a part of your religion? Try thinking just once in your life.


THE BILL OF RIGHTS
Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of
religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or
abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the
right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition
the government for a redress of grievances.

Meaning Congress will not create a state sponsored/mandated religion. If you want that go to England and their state sponsored church. We don't have that here.
It doesn't say anything about a total separation of state and religion either. So there is nothing wrong with having a holiday display in a public place either no matter what religion it is that wants to do it.
Canman
1 / 5 (2) Dec 03, 2012
Look like separation of church and state to me (in the Bill of Rights, which is a part of the constitution) Thanks packrat and jonnyboy.
elizabeth_p_graham
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 04, 2012
The words "separation of church and state" don't appear in the actual First Amendment, but the concept is there. One can not properly construe the Constitution without the case law. In 1947, Justice Hugo Black wrote for the Supreme Court: "In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state. Everson v. Board of Education (1947). That wall is sometimes permeable: In Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) the Supreme Court held that "Our prior holdings do not call for total separation between church and state; total separation is not possible in an absolute sense."

It is only in recent years that the metaphorical wall has been questioned, usually by people lacking legal education or people seeking to have their religion deemed the official church.

I wonder if Roger Williams wrote in his shorthand code to protect his privacy. Heresy was a serious offense.
Jonseer
1 / 5 (4) Dec 04, 2012
One can not properly construe the Constitution without the case law. /q]

How dare you say context and precedent matter. LOL
ArtflDgr
2.6 / 5 (5) Dec 04, 2012
Separation of church and state is not in the constitution, what is there is the prevention of the establishment of a state religion.

reading it might help...
ArtflDgr
1 / 5 (3) Dec 04, 2012
It is only in recent years that the metaphorical wall has been questioned, usually by people lacking legal education or people seeking to have their religion deemed the official church.

are you nutters?

then explain how we are all endowed by a creator in the preamble to the constitution... wouldnt they select some other phrase if the two were to be separate?

the BEST is a faded line in a letter discussing it. the wall was between the state being a religion... ie. the theocracy is not legal under the constitution... but religion certainly is allowed... especially given the history of attendance, prayers at congress, and so on...

one reference to a prhase stretched out of shape, and ignoring thousands of stuff ranging from ten commandments on tablets in buildings, menora, and so on... and not just judeo christian, as the yule stuff during xmas is pagan...

Claudius
3 / 5 (6) Dec 08, 2012
then explain how we are all endowed by a creator in the preamble to the constitution... wouldnt they select some other phrase if the two were to be separate?


Oh, dear, no wonder the Constitution is regarded as a piece of toilet paper by our "leaders." It is because so few have bothered to read it.

The bit about a "creator" is not in the Constitution. It was in the Declaration of Independence, written long before the Constitution.

rampg
5 / 5 (1) Dec 16, 2012
The issue was not about religion, some founding fathers believed in a god or "creator" in their very own personal way. The issue was churches, or the insanity of imposed dogma. The idea was you could personally believe and be a member of any church you pleased, if you pleased. But none was to be established or favored by the state, although Republicans nowadays seem not to care less about that.