The Roger Williams Code
How a team of scholars decrypted a secret language—and discovered the last known work of the American theologian.
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, which has not yet been fully translated, consists of citations of scripture 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.”