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Rhode Island, Roger Williams, and Religious Freedom

June 2, 2012

As an expat Rhode Islander, I was delighted to see this article at Religion In American History: Big Ideas in a Small State: Roger Williams and the 375th Anniversary of the Founding of Providence, Rhode Island. We Rhode Islanders take great pride in the fact that our colony’s founder, Roger Williams, was thrown out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for religious reasons, and founded Rhode Island as a haven of religious freedom as a result.

In matters of religion, during the colonial period Rhode Island never had a witch trial, never conducted a blasphemy trial, and never hanged (or even whipped, supposedly) anyone for their religious beliefs. Rhode Island also boasts the country’s oldest library building (Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport), the nation’s oldest Baptist church (Providence, 1638), the oldest Jewish Synagogue (Touro, in Newport; 1763), and New England’s oldest Masonic Temple (Warren).

Apparently there’s something of a revival going on in the area of Roger Williams studies over the past few years, and BLT readers may be particularly interested in one recent development:

In the vast holdings of the John Carter Brown Library on Brown’s campus is an enigmatic book. Actually, it is not so much the book itself that is of interest; it is the pages upon pages of chicken-scratch shorthand that fill every square inch of white space in the margins and front and back of the book. The book—and the shorthand in it—has long been assumed to be Roger Williams’, but for decades, if not centuries, no one was able to crack the shorthand. Enter a group of incredibly optimistic and hardworking Brown undergrads, led by Simon Liebling and Chris Norris-LeBlanc. Compiling a small cadre of undergrad historians, linguists, and mathematicians, the team read widely on the history of shorthand and toyed with high-tech ways of discerning patterns. In the end, however, the solution was deceptively simple: they found a seventeenth-century shorthand textbook that provided an almost instant key to Williams’ scrawlings.

The code was cracked.

Decoding the shorthand led them to another discovery: most of the the shorthand was simply a hurried summary of the contents of another book, Peter Heylin’s “Cosmographie in Four Books,” published in 1654. Nonetheless, there is a central section of the shorthand that seems to be Williams’ own thoughts in which he references people like John Eliot, a Puritan minister and missionary in Massachusetts. Liebling and Norris-Leblanc have attracted the interest of the Brown Daily Herald and the Providence Journal so far. But Williams’ shorthand is in yet another book that the team also hopes to decode: Williams’ personal copy of the so-called Eliot Bible, which was a translation of the entire Bible by John Eliot and some Indian servants into the Massachusett Indian language in 1663.

Next year is the 350th anniversary of the 1663 Rhode Island Charter, and the Newport Historical Society will be holding a series of events about religious toleration, including an academic conference next fall that will widen its focus beyond Roger Williams to include other religious dissident Rhode Islanders such as John Clarke and Anne Hutchinson.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 3, 2012 3:21 pm

    Do you know of George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island?

  2. June 4, 2012 12:15 am

    I was vaguely aware of it, but hadn’t read either letter before. Thanks for posting the link!


  1. Religious liberty in America: July 21, 1591, baptism of Anne Marbury (Hutchinson) « Millard Fillmore's Bathtub

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