Divinity student cracks religious code


Jonny Woods Image copyright St Andrews University

A divinity student from the University of St Andrews has cracked a religious code that has baffled academics for generations.

Jonny Woods has worked out how to read shorthand notes left by leading Baptist theologian Andrew Fuller.

Hundreds of pages of his sermon notes are held in archives, but until now they have been a mystery to academics.

The third-year undergraduate was able to decipher the shorthand after an academic traced a longhand equivalent.

Who was the theologian?

Andrew Fuller, who was born in Cambridgeshire in 1754, became a Baptist minister, and is best known for founding the Baptist Missionary Society.

Such was his international standing, he was offered honorary doctorates by both Yale and the College of New Jersey - now Princeton - although he turned them down.

Image caption Fuller's early sermons have only survived in shorthand form

While he wrote a number of influential works before his death in 1815, his early sermons and other documents have survived only as shorthand notes.

They remained inaccessible until Dr Steve Holmes, head of the School of Divinity at St Andrews University found one headed in longhand "Confessions of Faith, Oct. 7 1783".

He recognised this as the date of Fuller's induction into the pastorate of a church in Kettering and knew that he would have been required to give a confession of faith as part of that service.

Dr Holmes then wondered if a copy of the confession printed in a biography might help him crack the code.

After discovering that the two texts were the same, he recruited Jonny Woods through the university's undergraduate research assistant scheme to help.

'Astonishing moment'

After just a few weeks the student from Coleraine, County Londonderry, was able to translate the shorthand, using the longhand version in the same way that the Rosetta Stone was used as a crib to unlock the secret of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

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."

Two sermons have already been translated, and Jonny is working on more of Fuller's early work.

He said: "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."