Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Author's Corner with Linford D. Fisher

Linford D. Fisher is Assistant Professor of History at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. This interview is based on his book Decoding Roger Williams: The Lost Essay of Rhode Island's Founding Father (Baylor University Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Decoding Roger Williams?

LDF: In some ways, Decoding Roger Williams came to me, not I to it. In 2011, an interdisciplinary group of undergraduates at Brown caught wind of a mysterious book at the John Carter Brown Library (JCB), the margins of which contained undecipherable coded writing, purportedly by Roger Williams, the seventeenth-century religious dissident and founder of Rhode Island. The then-director of the JCB, Ted Widmer, invited the students to tackle the project by forming a group independent study project. Although I had to decline a formal supervisory role, I gave input into the early phases of the project and kept tabs along the way. Like everyone else, I was a bit skeptical that these undergrads could do what computers, professors, antiquarians, and linguists had failed to do previously, namely, crack the code.

You can imagine our surprise, then, when, in early 2012, the team began making real headway on deciphering the writing by a combination of statistical analyses and good old fashioned historical legwork. What they learned is that the marginal shorthand in the “mystery book” actually contained three separate sections of writing. The first section was comprised of notes on a popular seventeenth century travel book by Peter Heylyn. The third section contained notes from an early modern medical textbook. But the middle (second) section! This was the exciting part. As they began the slow process of translation/deciphering, they realized they had stumbled on a brand new essay by Roger Williams on the topic of adult baptism, one that had never been published nor even seen (or at least understood) by anyone else. 

In this new essay (dated c. 1680), Williams responds to a 1679 pro-infant baptism essay by John Eliot, the minister in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and missionary to Native Americans. Eliot, in turn, was responding to a 1672 anti-infant baptism essay written by John Norcott, a Baptist minister in London, England. In this new essay, Williams defends adult baptism and spends a whole page critiquing John Eliot’s evangelization program.

In September of 2012, one of the primary code-breakers, a mathematics concentrator named Lucas Mason-Brown, and I decided that the team’s findings deserved a wider audience. We began working together on a fuller reconstruction of the essay, with the eye towards both an academic article and a full book. Happily, we were successful on both counts. In April 2014, a co-authored essay appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly on just the Indian conversion section of Williams’ essay. And the book—which contains a lengthy introductory essay, the reconstructed Williams essay, and annotated transcriptions of the Norcott and Eliot essays—was picked up by Baylor University Press, and is due out August 1. For the book, we were also pleased to collaborate with J. Stanley Lemons, a retired Rhode Island College professor and knower of all things Baptist and Rhode Island.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Decoding Roger Williams?

LDF: Roger Williams retained throughout his life a strong belief in the importance of adult baptism (versus infant baptism). He also remained surprisingly critical of the widely-publicized attempts to evangelize Native Americans, especially with regard to the program under John Eliot in Massachusetts.

JF: Why do we need to read Decoding Roger Williams?

LDF: It is rare to find a new essay on an important colonial leader. Williams has long been an enigmatic figure, and this new essay helps make sense of 
him a bit more on at least two important issues (baptism and Indian evangelization). I also think Roger Williams is one of the most underappreciated colonial leaders. He was a little rough around the edges, yes, but he had a radical vision for church-state separation and full religious liberty (in both belief and practice) that was fully implemented in Rhode Island for the first time in the western world. In a day and age when religious intolerance repeatedly rears its ugly head in the US and abroad, Williams is refreshingly clear about how to handle religious differences: by persuasion, not coercion, suppression, or persecution.

We’ve also written the book in a way that takes the reader through the process of decoding the shorthand, so it is a neat window into early modern shorthand and cryptography. It’s not quite Da Vinci Code material, but it’s still fascinating. And for those who are interested in seventeenth century debates over baptism, the annotated transcriptions of the essays by Norcott and Eliot will be insightful. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LDF: I came to the field of history more generally through philosophy and theology as an undergrad. There was something about the study of the past that made me realize that nothing, really, is actually that new in terms of human experience, particularly with regard to religious debates. The past is interesting in its own right, of course, and yet it is also an incredible storehouse of human wisdom and experience, almost a crowdsourcing of the human condition. In my master’s program, I was initially more interested in the early modern period, particularly the era of the Protestant Reformation, but then I delved in more deeply into late nineteenth century American social reform in my master’s thesis. By the end of my first semester in my doctoral program at Harvard, however, I was hooked on early American history. I landed on Native American history for my dissertation topic because it seemed to me to be the underside of a colonial process that I thought deserved deeper investigation (published as The Indian Great Awakening in 2012). I still retain an interest in the wider early modern world, however, since I think most of American history is incomprehensible without a rich understanding of European history.

JF: What is your next project?

LDF: I am currently working on my next book, which is on Indian and African slavery in colonial New England and a few select English Caribbean colonies (Bermuda, Barbados, and Jamaica). Tentatively titled Land of the Unfree: Indians, Africans, and the World of Colonial Slavery (under contract with Oxford University Press), this book will explore the differences and similarities between the enslavement of indigenous peoples in North America and the Caribbean and the better-known rise of African slavery. The best part about the project so far is the requisite archival trips to the Caribbean. The worst part is the deeply disturbing and depressing nature of early modern slavery. But these stories need to be told.  

Thanks, Linford.  This is great stuff.  

And thanks to Allyson Fea who facilitated this edition of The Author's Corner.