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?
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.
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?
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
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?
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?
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.