University of St Andrews

Student decodes baptist theologian's writings after centuries of mystery

Tue 29 Jan 2019
By Cara Bentley

A third year divinity student has become the first to read the 'impenetrable' works of Baptist theolgian Andrew Fuller.

Undergraduate Jonny Woods at the University of St Andrews was given the task by senior lecturer in Systematic Theology, Dr Stephen Holmes, of trying to crack a series of sermon notes using one document which existed in both shorthand and longhand.

The theoligian Andrew Fuller lived in the late 18th and early 19th century and became a leader of the British Baptist denomination.

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

The work brought the baptists into the evangelival revival and Fuller also founded the Baptist Mission Society alongside William Carey, with Fuller staying in the UK encouraging people to financially and prayerfully support mission abroad.

Dr Stephen Holmes from St Andrews told Premier Christian Radio about the time he first thought the theological musings could be read: "These pages of shorthand sermon notes were in an archive at Bristol Baptist College - they kindly allowed me to come and look at them...everybody had said 'you can't read them, nobody knows how to read the shorthand, it's impenetrable' but I thought I ought to go and look".

Dr Holmes took a day to sit with the books and initially agreed that they were too difficult but noticed that the titles were written normally. He then found a 'Confession of Faith' from 1782, of which there exists the same text in archives in a church in Kettering, in normal writing.

Dr Holmes was given electronic copies of all the sermons and the printed copy from Kettering and said he: "handed them all on to Jonny and said 'see if you can do anything with that!'

"I was busy teaching and doing other things and thought every week or so 'I really must check up', and suddenly Jonny appeared and said 'I'm there - I've done it'".

Student, Jonny Woods, had cracked the code using the longhand version and showed Dr Holmes what he'd been able to translate - some fragmentary, others including entire sermon points.

"There were paragraphs of really, really well written sermons and I could hear the cadences of it and I just thought 'this is so exciting, this is such fascinating, interesting, important stuff',

"It's one of the days you live for as an academic - someone puts something new that no one's ever seen before in your hands and you get first go at it."

Jonny became the first person to read the sermons since they were preached and they sent the work to academics round the world and recived many replies from people saying they had tried to do the same thing.

They pair have worked on it hard together since and are lookign forward to translating more. 

Jonny 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."

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