Student cracks code for divinity documents not read for 200 years

Coded religious documents have been read for the first time in centuries after a divinity student cracked the code.

Baptist leader Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) left hundreds of pages of shorthand notes which have baffled academics for centuries.

The University of St Andrews said third-year divinity undergraduate Jonny Woods has now become the first person in the world to read some of the pages after using a longhand version as a kind of Rosetta stone.

Fuller, the son of a poor tenant farmer in Cambridgeshire, became a leader of the British Baptist denomination and, despite minimal schooling, published a hugely influential text, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, which is said to have changed the history of the Baptists.

Mr Woods, from Coleraine, Co Londonderry, said it was exciting to crack the code enabling people to finally read documents Fuller left in shorthand.

The 21-year-old said: “To be able to read something that no-one else has read in more than 200 years, it’s not something I thought I would ever be able to do and it was an incredible moment.

“It was quite a few weeks of tough and not very successful work, but eventually it paid off.”

He added: “It is such an honour to be the first person to read Andrew Fuller’s sermons and to allow people to get an insight into this incredible man and the amazing stories he has to share.

“I’m excited to continue working on the vast collection of work that he has left to us, in the hope that we can understand more about his thinking and how this developed throughout his ministry.”

The breakthrough came after Dr Steve Holmes, head of the School of Divinity at the university, found a shorthand document with the heading in longhand in the archive of Bristol Baptist College, which holds hundreds of pages of Fuller’s sermons.

Shorthand notes
Andrew Fuller left hundreds of pages of notes in shorthand (University of St Andrews/PA)

Dr Holmes found one headed in longhand “Confessions of Faith, Oct. 7 1783” with the rest of the document in shorthand.

Knowing this was the date of Fuller’s induction into the pastorate of a church in Kettering and that he would have been required to give a confession of faith as part of that service, Dr Holmes wondered if a copy of the confession printed in a biography might help him crack the code.

After discovering the two texts were the same, Dr Holmes recruited Mr Woods through the university’s undergraduate research assistant scheme to help.

After a few weeks, the student was able to translate the shorthand using the longhand version as a kind of Rosetta stone, allowing him to read two of the most historically significant sermons from the collection.

It is hoped that being able to finally read the documents will offer insight into Fuller’s meteoric rise within the Baptist denomination, by revealing the early development of his thought.

Dr Holmes said: “When Jonny told me he could read these documents, it was an astonishing moment.

“Andrew Fuller stands as the figurehead, the ‘patron saint’ almost, of the church tradition of which I am a part.

“To be reading words of his that no-one had read since he preached them in 1782 – it’s one of those moments you live for as an academic.”

The translations of two sermons are now with the Baptist Quarterly under consideration for publication while Dr Holmes is continuing to edit Fuller’s wider collection of sermons for a major new critical edition of his works.

UniversityWeb editor