Friday, December 7, 2012

Roger Williams' Code Cracked

Roger Williams
According to the Washington Post, as well as many other sources, a long enduring mystery concerning Rhode Island’s founding father has recently been solved. Roger Williams was not only the founder of the Providence Plantation, he was one of the first men to preach for a separation of Church and State. In addiiton to leaving behind a tradition of religious dissent, he also left us pages worth of code in his own hand.

Williams has long been imfamous and famous for his conflict with the government of Massachusetts. Soon after his arrival in Boston, Williams made his religious views clear. He stated that people should be free to follow their own conscience in religious matters, because he believed the conscience was a gift from God. In addition, while in Plymouth, he openly questioned the practice of illegally acquiring land from the local Wampanoags. For these views, he was banished from Massachusetts in 1635.

Williams spent the next several months as a guest of Massasoit, only to further flee the influence of Massachusetts by entering the territory of the Narragansett tribe in modern day Rhode Island. It was in Rhode Island where Williams and a group of his closest followers purchased land from the Sachem of the Narragansett to create their own plantation. He called the area Providence, because he felt that it was God’s providence which led him there. From its birth, Providence became a haven for those who were deemed religious dissenters.

Although most of the life of Roger Williams is well documented, he left behind a mystery. In a 250 page volume entitled “An Essay Towards the Reconciling of Differences Among Christians,” William left pages of written code. Although the book was donated to the Brown University Library in the 1800’s, the code within had never been deciphered.
Preface of the Mysery Book at the Brown University Library
Provided by Brown University
Although attempts had been made at a translation in the past by university staff, this year Brown University extended the challenge of the mysterious code to undergraduate students. Several students accepted the challenge and began independent research projects.

Finally, a 21 year old senior at Brown began to make some progress. Lucas Mason-Brown, who majors in math, first attempted to solve the code by analyzing the frequency of the different symbols and how often they appear in groups together. This did not initially prove helpful.

Mason-Brown then studied Roger Williams. He learned that Williams had been trained in shorthand while living in London. Using these clues, he was able to create a key to Williams’ code. He found that the code used 28 symbols which stood for either English letters or sounds. These symbols could then be arranged and re-arranged to make words. Mason-Brown also found that Williams often improvised his code, which sometimes made translation difficult.

The translation provided three separate sections of Roger Williams’ own notes and thoughts. Unsurprisingly, the content of many of these notes dealt with religious issues of the day, like infant baptism. In addition, Williams commented on the conversion of Native tribes to Christianity, which he felt was being done deceptively. These new translations give huge insight into the mind of Roger Williams toward the end of his life. It will certainly be fascinating to see what Williams was secretly writing about in the margins of his books, as he was already so vocal about his controversial opinions.

I find this type of discovery both interesting and instructive. I have often heard the theory that an historic education has very little practical application in life. In some ways, I agree. I could possibly live my life without my love of history. But I guess I could live a dull life without color, or candy, or bacon cheeseburgers too. I wouldn’t want to, mind you.  However, in the case of cracking the Roger Williams code, a student first attempted to use a math based solution, which failed. Ultimately, it was through historic study and a knowledge of the life of Williams that a key to the mystery was found. There are literally thousands of modern mysteries waiting to be solved. One should never rule out the possibility that the solution to any of them might actually be found in the past.

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