Cracking the Code of Roger Williams

You may know Roger Williams as a theologian, a philosopher, and the founder of Rhode Island. Depending on your level of interest, you may or may not find him a figure of great interest. But you’ve probably never thought of him as a figure of mystery.

However, how many 17th century figures took notes on books in codes that have not been unraveled until today?

According to SFGate,

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.

Scholars have looked at the writings off and on, but mostly given up. And then they gave undergrads a crack at the book.

Senior math major Lucas Mason-Brown, who has done the majority of the decoding, said his first instinct was to develop a statistical tool. 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.

Never dismiss the young…they can solve some of the deepest mysteries.


  1. James P. Pope

    So what did they Find after they figure out his secret short hand?

  2. Nicholas Winter

    If you’d followed the articlein this article, you know as the article says

    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.

    Intriguing perhaps to a very small number of academics but hardly the stuff novels are made of!

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