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A Divinity Student has Just Cracked a Baffling 200 Year Religious Code

Nancy Bilyeau

A divinity student at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews has just cracked a religious code that mystified academics for over 200 years.

Jonny Woods, a third-year undergraduate at the country’s oldest university, worked out how to read hundreds of pages of shorthand notes for sermons left by Andrew Fuller, a prominent Baptist theologian.

Fuller published the hugely influential text The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, which changed the history of the Baptists.

Andrew Fuller, who was born in Cambridgeshire in 1754, became a Baptist minister, and is best known for founding the Baptist Missionary Society. He was so respected that he was offered honorary doctorates by both Yale and the College of New Jersey — now Princeton — but he declined.

Andrew Fuller
Andrew Fuller

Hundreds of pages of his sermons are held in the archive of Bristol Baptist College,  but until now they have been a mystery.

“The 21-year-old, from Coleraine in Co Londonderry, was able to decipher the shorthand after an academic traced a longhand equivalent,” reported The Telegraph.

After examining the notes, the academic, Dr. Steve Holmes, head of the School of Divinity at St. Andrews, found one headed in longhand Confessions of Faith, October 7, 1783.

“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, Dr Holmes wondered if a copy of the confession printed in a biography might help him crack the code,” according to msn.

St Andrews University. Photo by rob bishop / St Andrews University / CC BY-SA 2.0
St Andrews University. Photo by rob bishop / St Andrews University / CC BY-SA 2.0

Dr. Holmes recruited Woods to help him with the project. He was able to translate the notes, using the longhand version in the same way that the Rosetta Stone was used to discover the secret of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Dr. Holmes told the Irish News that when Woods told him he could read the documents “it was an astonishing moment.” Andrew Fuller was “the patron saint almost” of the Baptist church tradition, Dr. Holmes said. Woods, from Coleraine, said it was an honor to be the first person to read Fuller’s sermons and allow people to get an insight into “this incredible man and the amazing stories he has to share.”

Fuller’s early sermons have only survived in shorthand form. Photo by St Andrews University
Fuller’s early sermons have only survived in shorthand form. Photo by St Andrews University

“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,” he added.

While Fuller wrote a number of important works before his death in 1815, his early sermons and other documents have survived just as shorthand notes.

After just a few weeks Woods was able to translate the shorthand, allowing him to read two of the most historically significant sermons.

“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,” reported msn.

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Dr. Holmes said, “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. Dr Holmes is continuing to edit Fuller’s collection of sermons for a new edition of his works.

Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. Her new book, The Blue, is a spy story set in the 18th-century porcelain world. For more information, go to