Bidwell Lore – The Three Codes of Adonijah Bidwell, Part I

As we approach our 100th Bidwell Lore, we have decided to postpone our article about Col. Giles Jackson in order to share a guest post this week and next all about the code-writing of Adonijah Bidwell. This post comes from David M. Powers, who first tackled the “short-writing” of the Rev. Adonijah Bidwell in 2013 and was able to decipher some pages at that time. His current research expands upon his prior discoveries. He is also the author of two books, Damnable Heresy: William Pynchon, the Indians, and the First Book Banned (and Burned) in Boston and Good and Comfortable Words: The Coded Sermon Notes of John Pynchon and the Frontier Preaching Ministry of George Moxon

The Three Codes of Adonijah Bidwell 
by David M. Powers

If you are connected to the Bidwell House Museum you may know the background story as well as, or better than, I. The Rev. Adonijah Bidwell (1716-1784) came to Township No.1 in 1750 to serve as minister – and farmer – for the rest of his life. Much of the original village disappeared long ago; but Bidwell’s legacy continues in the Bidwell House Museum which holds numerous manuscripts in his handwriting.

What was his ministry like? An internet site proclaims, without citation, that Bidwell “often centered his sermons around freedom, penning them in a cryptographic code to disguise the language to potential readers.” [1] Another site adds, “Reverend Bidwell’s sermons often dealt with love or forgiveness, however his shorthand code is too complex to gain more than the basic feel of a sermon.” [2]

Well, there’s a danger in basing historical analysis on wishful thinking like this, no matter how dramatic it may be. These claims are simply not backed up by facts.


There are two distinctive systems of short-writing in the papers left by Adonijah Bidwell. It is possible to read both.

The first is a code-based system where symbols stand for complete words.

Only frequent words are so treated. For example, a Greek letter “theta” represents “God,” a capital “P” written as a squared box represents “spirit,” a cursive capital “D” stood for “death,” and a small “b” stands for “body.” Bidwell also used abbreviations of sorts, such as the final letters of common short monosyllabic words: “re” meaning “there,” “ey” for “they,” and “ir” for “their.” Some of his abbreviation-symbols were inspired by Latin: “ei” meant “to him,” “sine” meant “without,” and a block letter “D” meant “Dominus,” for “Lord.” And some were from Greek: a “nu” stood for “nomos,” or “law.” The resulting combination of some symbols amid many complete words makes this first code easier to read. Below you can see a page from one of his sermons. 

Image of a sermon hand-written by Adonijah Bidwell

And below is a transcription and close-up image of a part of the above page:

. . .[angels] fell Rev 12, 4 – Some suppose that about the same numb[er] of the race human were elected as fell[en?] [angels] & those to fill the seats & vacancy that was made in [heaven]– but certain ‘tis [there] were many of [them], legion; Mk. 5:9-13. If not multitudes of [them,] how could [they] always be present with every individual person in [earth]? What person upon the face [earth] is not attended and followed by a tempt[ing] [devil] [where] ever he goes, and somet[times] swarms of [them]  Mary Magdalene had 7 – Mk. 16, 9 /. [which?] …[was]. If so [there] must be vast numbers of [them] [They] are finite spirits; can’t be in 2 distant places eodem tempore [= at the same time]. [3]

Close up image of one of Adonijah Bidwell's sermons

Bidwell became more reliant on short-writing in his later years. His second code depends heavily on cipher, stringing together the sounds of a word in sequence, enabling the shorthand user to write anything. It is much more adaptable than a single symbol for every word. But it’s much more difficult to unravel. Instead of “theta” for “God,” for example, he now used a “lamda,” Shelton’s symbol for “g.” If the slanted, scratchier, darker, and briefer sections in his manuscripts betray a more mature hand, we may identify the heavier notes as later thoughts inserted into his manuscripts. Here is what his second code looked like:

An image of one of Adonijah Bidwell's sermons in his handwriting

And below a transcription and a close-up image from that code:
Objection 2: [t]he [Christian’s] [duty] discovered, i. e., not to yield [but] resist & oppose. [We] [must] either resist [or] be taken captive; [we] never get rid [of] [him] [but] by resisting. If [we] parley & treat [we] [must] expect to [be] triumphed over and trampled. [4]

Close-up image of the above page from one of Adonijah Bidwell's sermons

Short-writing or shorthand was commended to ministers long before Bidwell’s time. Henry Dix wrote in 1633, “bee very perfect in the practice of this Art, before you beginne to write sermons.” [5] The appeal was not because such systems were “speedie.” The minister had enough time for study. Rather, short-writing saved paper, and that was a necessary, valuable commodity for the minister, especially on the frontier.
Bidwell had a bewildering array of short-writing alphabets to choose from. In the 1870s William P. Upham catalogued twenty-six distinct shorthand alphabets developed between 1602 and 1753. [6] It turns out that Bidwell’s “cryptographic code” was a relatively straightforward version of Thomas Shelton’s second system, his 1659 Zeiglographia. [7]

A chart illustrating the code from Shelton's book Zeiglographia

Like other shorthand systems of the day, Shelton relied on characters for consonants around which the vowels were indicated at specific points. The letter “a” was indicated by a point at the top of the initial letter (12 o’clock), and then in descending order on the right of the letter, “e,” “i” (at 3 o’clock), “o,” and “u” (at 6 o’clock – the bottom). The subsequent consonant would be placed at that point, thus creating a syllable. A few of Bidwell’s manuscripts did have complete words formed by this system.
Although Bidwell used Shelton’s alphabet and Shelton’s characters for Biblical books (except the names of the Gospels), he generally wrote only the opening letters of a word, followed by a dash. The same symbol could stand for multiple words. 
The “Pr” symbol, for example, could mean “Proverbs,” “prince,” “principle,” “providence,” or “proof.” As many as twenty other Shelton characters served as first-letter indicators. A “6” stood for words beginning with “wh,” such as who, which, what, why, when, etc., depending on context, and “)” stood for “m,” representing man, men, make, may, more, means, etc. A “b” represented words beginning with “th,” such as thing, think, these, those, this, and so forth. Only the context would clarify the symbol’s meaning; but usually the result is not too difficult to decipher.
The alterations Bidwell made to Shelton’s system offer a prime example of one important fact about short-writing. Everybody adapted. Rarely, it seems, did anyone follow a system without enhancing it, honing it, amending it, simplifying it, reshaping it to fit their own circumstances. In that regard each practitioner is unique, and each manuscript presents its own challenges.

A chart created  by David Powers of Adonijah Bidwell's short writing symbols


On the theme of “freedom,” contrary to internet sources it appears that Bidwell’s manuscripts contain very little on that topic. Surveying a major sampling of Bidwell’s manuscripts reveals that instead of being a central theme, “freedom” as a word does not even occur in his sermon notes, and the word “free” occurs only three times. [8] The one time the word “liberty” occurs, it seems to mean “license” or irresponsibility.

Furthermore, Bidwell’s language had little mention of “love or forgiveness.” Instead, it is rife with references to conflict. He is especially keen on battling the unseen forces of evil which cruelly beset God’s people.

Bidwell’s sermon texts were generally derived from the New Testament and the Psalms. He presented his hearers with lively images to help them to see the unseen. He urged them to glimpse the snares and pitfalls all about them. His congregation was comprised of struggling farmers on a site so unpromising – and, possibly, harassed by demons? – that the population eventually moved to a valley some miles to the south.[9]

Next week we will finish up David’s fascinating story of Adonijah Bidwell’s Code writing.

1. Wikipedia, “Adonijah Bidwell,” accessed September 18, 2021.
2. Military Wiki Fandom, “Adonijah Bidwell,” accessed September 24, 2021.
3. “Hidden Histories,” Bidwell_Sermon1_014.
4. “Hidden Histories,” Bidwell_Sermon1_019.
5. Henry Dix, A New Art of Brachygraphy, or Short-Writing by Characters, (London: 1633), 57.
6. William P. Upham, A Brief History of the Art of Stenography (Salem, MA: Essex Institute, 1877), 46-47.
7. Thomas Shelton, Zeiglographia, or A New art of Short-writing, never before published (London: printed by M. S., 1659).
8. Documents surveyed include much of “Sermon 1” on the “New England Hidden Histories” website (1754, 1774, 1760, 1781); and sermons on Galatians 4:19 (n. d.); Matthew 5:3 (1759); James 4:6 (1759, 1761, 1783); 2 Peter 2:9 (n. d.); 1 Peter 3:15 (n.d.); Luke 16:9 (1754, 1766, 1777, 1780), the latter all from the Bidwell House Museum, Monterey, Massachusetts.
9. Holland, 600, reports that the Rev. Lucius Field, dismissed in 1836, complained “of the unfavorable location of the meeting house.”

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