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

Welcome to week 99 of Bidwell Lore! This week we share part II of David M. Powers’ story about the code-writing of Adonijah Bidwell. To read Part I of this story, click HERE.

The Three Codes of Adonijah Bidwell, Part II 
by David M. Powers


Among manuscripts on the Congregational Library and Archives, Boston, “New England Hidden Histories” website is material by Bidwell labeled “Sermon 1.” It consists of thirty-three pages in short-writing, and includes notes for several sermons in both his earlier and later systems. At least four pages deal with keeping the sabbath. Fourteen others are devoted to the cosmic conflict between angels and devils, good and evil, heaven and hell. This latter material includes several pages which are written as a fairly thorough discourse on the subject, composed in complete sentences, using his first code. But there are portions in broken grammar which were rough notes probably written later in his career, using his second cipher.

Bidwell’s messages were laden with frightening images. “[There] are [evil] [spirits], [devils] or fallen [angels],” Bidwell warned his congregation in a carefully composed manuscript in his earlier hand.

However, much of Bidwell’s writing presents a problem. He seems to have borrowed liberally from others. His notes reproduced whole swaths of commentary from several notable scholars. He copied from Henry Scougal’s 1677, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, Matthew Poole’s 1683 Annotations upon the Holy Bible, William Burkitt’s 1709 Expository Notes, and Isaac Watts’ 1737 The Doctrine of the Passions Explain’d and Improv’d, and Watts’ (again) relatively recent 1753 Sermons, Discourses and Essays, vol. II. All of them were from an older generation, and all the authors were long gone. Only Watts, who died two years before Bidwell came to Monterey, was close to contemporary. Bidwell doesn’t seem to have read any more current authors. That suggests that he was of the traditionalist “Old Light” school, not of the evangelistic “New Light” school that sparked the Great Awakening. At least one of his comments backs that up. At one point he echoes Henry Scougal on the limits of religious experience in a sermon on Galatians 4:19:

Excerpt from a sermon written by Adonijah Bidwell in short-code in the 18th century. Pen on paper.

And below is a transcription of the above page:

3 moving [affections,] rapturous beats, exstatic devotion, pray[ing] [with] passion, [thinking of heaven with pleasure], being [affected] [with] kind & melt[ing] expressi[ons] with [which] [they] court [their Savior]:[these] are resemble[ances] of piety & of obtain[ing] it, [but] not the whole of [religion.][1]

None of the sources he used would have been familiar to any of his auditors. Still, he never labeled the material he plagiarized, not even parenthetically; and he never included citations. Carrying hand-written notes into the pulpit meant he did not carry the original books to read aloud. But no matter how honorable his motives may have been, his material came from others.

At this point an uncomfortable reality emerges. Bidwell’s reputation becomes problematic, thanks to the ability to read short-writing of two and a half centuries ago. Who knows what other myths may collapse, what other assumptions may fall, what other reputations may come into question, as a result of reading short-writing from bygone eras?


In Bidwell’s case there may be a silver lining to this cloud over his reputation. He may have – and this is more speculative – been speaking in a third code.

Bidwell’s sermons always dealt with scriptural themes. He would not “preach revolution,” so to speak: no direct endorsement of anything secular, like Revolutionary slogans, government, events, soldiers, crowds. But he could speak in figurative and symbolic language.

An example, in material he copied, is from his sermon dated 1754 and 1774. (He gave the years only.) The text was a Bidwell favorite: 1 Peter 5:8 – “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” Whatever his meaning in 1754, it’s possible the meaning in 1775 had to do with the dangerous, conflicted atmosphere of that time. Like many clergy of his era, Bidwell was a supporter of the Revolutionary cause.

Immediately after the date, he cited a section (see below) from William Burkitt’s Expository Notes, which includes stirring language about “your adversary.”

A sermon written by Adonijah Bidwell in short-code in the 18th century. Pen on paper.

And below is a transcription and a close-up image from the sermon noted above:
Note how every [word] contains a spec[ulative] [motive] to [Christian] watchf[ulness]; “Your adversary” [who] [will] [do] you [all] misch[ief] — [he] is the enemy, an accuser, one who seeks all advantages [against] you. [He] is cruel adversa[ry], a
lion, yea, roar[ing] lion who adds terror to cru[elty] —
restl[ess] adv[ersary] [who] [seeks] [he] [may] devour, [for] that’s the bate [he] gapes [for]…

Excerpt from a sermon written by Adonijah Bidwell in short-code in the 18th century. Pen on paper.

[T]he way to overc[ome] [him] is by resist[ing], not by yield[ing],” said Bidwell. “He is cowardly and conq’d [enemy] resist [him] and he will run.” He further remarks on James 4:7, in notes that were probably for another sermon (borrowing from Matthew Pool’s Annotations):

Excerpt from a sermon written by Adonijah Bidwell in short-code in the 18th century. Pen on paper.

And the transcription of the above image:

You can’t [be] conquered so long as you [do] not consent.” [2]

In what is most likely still another sermon he echoed Burkitt again, saying in the sermon below:

[The devil] is both a conq[uering] and cowardly enemy; tho bold face, yet faint [heart]. Resist [him] and [he] [will] [flee].”

Excerpt from a sermon written by Adonijah Bidwell in short-code in the 18th century. Pen on paper.

So the issue may not be that Bidwell copied, but rather what Bidwell copied. His choices fit the tenor of the times. He selected uncompromising passages. He repeatedly chose fighting words. In addition to his first code, and his second cipher, I’m maintaining that Bidwell developed yet a third code in his layered language about opposing “your adversary.” He employed a semantic interplay of sorts: speaking of two things at once. That Bidwell preached on “the enemy” in the critical pre-Revolutionary year of 1774 is telling. He urged opposition. He urged resistance. Was it to the devil only – or possibly also the Redcoats?
[I] have been willing to bare my full proportion toward ye extraordinary expence of ye War,” he wrote in a letter to the town in 1780. That included, for him, no salary (reluctantly) for four years. [3] Plus, in 1781 he sold 450 pounds of beef that went for the war effort for £6 15s. [4] So Bidwell supported American independence, though he was impoverished by the process. By the time of his petition to the town, age weighed heavily on him; he complained about “bodily weakness,” and the cold of the meetinghouse with its broken windows that let in the weather and prevented all but ten or twelve persons from attending. He probably never received the back pay he sought from the town. Independence came September 3, 1783. Adonijah Bidwell died on June 2, 1784.

Painting of Theologian Jonathan Edwards. He is wearing a white wig and has a large white collar that spills down the front of his black robes.


Bidwell was not the only minister in that area to use short-writing. One of his near neighbors was the Rev. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), seen above. A premier American philosopher and theologian, as well as a leading “New Light” figure in the Great Awakening religious revival which shook the colonies in 1730s and 1740s, Edwards also wrote shorthand, particularly in his youth. He used another of the short-writing alphabets catalogued by Upham, a system devised in 1632 by the Rev. Thomas Archisden (1608?-1682) in England, the home of all early modern shorthand systems. [5] Not only did Edwards write in this alphabet during his youth; he also continued as an adult to identify the locations where he preached his sermons with the Archisden system. [6] He left no sermon manuscripts in shorthand, however.

One curious fact. From at least July 1751 to December 1757 Edwards and Bidwell lived just miles apart. In his exile from Northampton, Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards, Yale, 1720, served the Stockbridge church and an associated Mohican Indian congregation. Adonijah Bidwell, Yale, 1740, served the Monterey church all his life. But there is no record that they ever corresponded, or ever met.

Next week, we celebrate our 100th Bidwell Lore!!!

1. Sermon manuscript, Bidwell House Museum.
2. “Hidden Histories,” Bidwell_Sermon1_011 and 012.
3. Robert E. Hoogs, “Transcription of exchange of Letters from Rev. Adonijah Bidwell with the Town of Tyringham,” accessed 10/7/2021. The Wikipedia article on “Adonijah Bidwell” (accessed 10/18/2021) claims that he “gave up his salary for four years so [troops] could be paid,” he clearly did so unwillingly. 
4. Robert E. Hoogs, Town of Tyringham Records, accessed 10/5/2021
5. Only ten of Edwards’ characters are from Archisden; the remaining ten are similar but not identical to ones used by other shorthand systems.
6. See William P. Upham, “On the Shorthand Notes of Jonathan Edwards,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (2nd series), 15(1902), 514-21. The quote is from p. 516. See also Wilson H. Kimnach, “The Literary Technique of Jonathan Edwards,” Diss. University of Pennsylvania, 1971, p. 208.