Coded religious documents have been read for the first time in centuries after a divinity student from Northern Ireland 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.
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.
• Self-taught theologist Andrew Fuller has been described as “one of the most attractive figures in Baptist history” due to his “indefatigable” qualities as a pastor.
One close friend of Fuller, William Carey, said of the inspirational pastor: “I loved him.”
Although known to have immersed himself in the works of many Baptist and Puritan authors, including John Bunyan, John Gill and Jonathan Edwards, Baptist scholars say it was “to the Scriptures that he looked for his theological convictions”.
According to the Andrew Fuller Centre for Baptist Studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, his first major work, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, which appeared in 1785 with a second edition in 1801, proved to be “an epoch-making book that decisively refuted Hyper-Calvinism” and laid the theological foundations for the modern missionary movement.
The centre views the written works of Fuller as indicative of “the Christ-centered nature of eighteenth-century Evangelical thought,” and also states: “It is clear that Fuller had remarkable stores of physical and mental energy that allowed him to accomplish all that he did. But it was not without cost to his body. In the last fifteen years of his life he was rarely well. He preached for the last time on 2 April 1815 and died 7 May of that year.”
Information published by the centre also claims Fuller was, without a doubt, “the most important theologian of the late 18th century transatlantic Baptist community”.