Cracking the Code

By Zachary Block '99 / September / October 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Much about Roger Williams remains a mystery. No contemporary portraits of the preacher, rebel, and Rhode Island founding father survive. The dates of his birth and death, and the location of his grave, are also unknown.

Then there is the enigma of his weathered first-edition copy of Protestant missionary John Eliot’s 1663 Indian Bible, the first bible printed in the Americas. It’s a remarkable effort: 1,200-pages transliterated into Algonquin as part of the effort to convert local Massachusetts Indians.

Scholars believe that the odd symbols scribbled on the flyleaf and endpapers of the book are Williams’s shorthand notes, but no one has been able to crack the code of their meaning. Further complicating matters is Williams’s notoriously bad handwriting. “He didn’t even have to write in code to make it impossible to read,” says J. Stanley Lemons, histo-rian of the First Baptist Church in America, which Williams founded in 1638. Some experts speculate that Williams, who compiled the first English dictionary of Native American words, may have been commenting on Eliot’s translation.

In any case, Williams was not the only one to write in the bible, which is kept in the John Hay Library. While inspecting the volume in April 1889, University Librarian Reuben A. Guild found marks left by “some vulgar low-minded person. Perhaps a student.”

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September / October 2003