Review: Decoding Roger Williams
Linford D. Fisher, J. Stanley Lemons, and Lucas Mason-Brown. Decoding Roger Williams: The Lost Essay of Rhode Island’s Founding Father. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014. xiii +198 pp. ISBN 978-1-4813-0104-6.
It should, perhaps, come as no surprise that further evidence of Roger Williams’s controversial nature has come to light, even centuries after his death. In 2012, a group of undergraduates and scholars at Brown University deciphered a manuscript written by Williams in the margins of another book near the end of his life. Though the handwriting had long been attributed to Rhode Island’s founding father, the coded symbols of its contents remained a mystery to researchers. Decoding Roger Williams not only reproduces the translated document, it also provides commentary on the transcription process and on the contents of Williams’s essay.
The book opens with an absorbing look into the process of decoding the document itself. After employing a combination of statistical analysis and meticulous research into sixteenth and seventeenth century methods of shorthand, patterns began to appear in Williams’s writing. The authors provide readers with an opportunity to try their hand at transcription by reproducing lines of handwritten text along with a key to Williams’ shorthand symbols. It becomes clear after attempting a few lines that this translation process was slow and painstaking. Although pieces of Williams’s code remain indecipherable, enough has been transcribed to reveal the contours of his thought and arguments.
Decoding Roger Williams focuses on a point-by-point refutation of John Eliot’s work, A Brief Answer to a Small Book Written by John Norcot Against Infant-Baptisme (1679), contained in the middle section of Williams’s manuscript. In this refutation, Williams placed himself within a larger seventeenth-century debate about the role and means of baptism in the Church. John Eliot’s book, A Brief Answer to a Small Book, was itself a refutation of the English Baptist minister John Norcott’s earlier defense of believer’s baptism. Despite Williams’s establishment of the first Baptist congregation in the New World, his later removal from this congregation has shed doubt on the extent to which he adhered to Baptist theology throughout the rest of his life. This new essay, however, reveals that Williams held to Baptist views on baptism, particularly in his rejection of infant baptism and his assertion that scripture sanctioned only believer’s baptism, specifically, a baptism of full immersion. Williams’s decried Eliot’s use of church tradition and implied meanings of certain biblical passages to justify infant baptism. Williams also disagreed with Eliot’s point that infant baptism conferred spiritual patrimony on infants, countering that a full understanding of the Gospel offered the only means to salvation.
Williams’s second major point in the essay concerns Native American conversion and demonstrates continuity with his arguments in earlier treatises of the 1640s and 50s. Despite an optimistic essay in 1643 that touted native languages as the key to missionizing efforts, Williams quickly revised his position and questioned whether the church had the proper apostolic commission to evangelize Native Americans, fearing that Native conversions were overwhelmingly false. This later essay affirms that these earlier misgivings remained throughout Williams’s life. Williams also pointed out that Eliot’s own missionizing efforts in Native American praying towns undermined his argument that infant baptism conferred spiritual patrimony. How did Eliot believe Native Americans were converted, Williams wondered, if they did not have a lineage of spiritual patrimony? As a document written in the twilight of Williams’s life, the authors assert that this brief diatribe against Eliot reveals continuity with his earlier beliefs and, most importantly, is written amid growing suspicion of Native missions in the aftermath of King Phillip’s War.
Decoding Roger Williams provides significant insights into the life of Roger Williams, particularly by examining what is likely his latest extant theological writings and by discussing two subjects rarely touched on in his other texts. It will provide much fodder for future scholars, not only in decoding what remains in the gaps of the document, but also in the implications of a fuller picture of Williams’s religious beliefs. This work is a fascinating look into the processes of documentary analysis. Scholars will appreciate that the book includes a transcription of Williams’s essay, along with reproductions of the treatises by Eliot and Norcott that show the full context of the debate. Anyone interested in Roger Williams, early Baptist theological debates, or religion in colonial America will find Decoding Roger Williams a useful and intriguing text.