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Divinity code cracked by student

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Coded religious documents, which left generations of academics baffled for centuries, have been cracked by a student at the University of St Andrews.

Jonny Woods (pictured above), a third-year divinity undergraduate, has become the first person in the world to read some of the hundreds of pages of shorthand notes left by famous Baptist leader Andrew Fuller.

Fuller (1754 to 1815), 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 changed the history of the Baptists.

Such was his international standing, Fuller was later offered honorary doctorates by both Yale and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), which he modestly declined.

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.”

Dr Steve Holmes, Head of the School of Divinity at the University, 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.”

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

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Hundreds of pages of his sermons (sample pictured above) are held in the archive of Bristol Baptist College. On examining them, Dr Holmes found one headed in longhand ‘Confessions of Faith, Oct. 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 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 that the two texts were the same, Dr Holmes recruited Jonny Woods through the University’s Undergraduate Research Assistant scheme to help.

After just a few weeks Jonny 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.

The translations of these two sermons are now with the Baptist Quarterly, the leading academic journal for Baptist studies, 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.


Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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7 thoughts on "Divinity code cracked by student"

  1. Great “Rosetta Stone” story. Thanks for grabbing this, I think we’ll all be the richer for it.

    Just one note on the world “brangles” that was mentioned in the Christianity Today interview with Caleb Lindgren: If you’d read Dorothy L. Sayers’ “The Nine Tailors”, you’d have recognized it in a heartbeat. At one point, the senior bell-ringer at Fenchurch St. Paul says of the youngest ringer, Wally Pratt, that he’s always getting imbrangled and the context makes the meaning obvious although I’d never heard the word before myself.

    But good job!

  2. Lakis Michael says:

    Great achievement. Well done!

  3. Steven Thompson says:

    Well done Jonny Woods, and thank you St Andrews News for publishing this successful “code-cracking” work by a current St Mary’s student.

  4. Charles Coventry says:

    Very interesting as a piece of codebreaking. I’m not a theologian, but have a family history interest in the Baptists. One of my mother’s cousins, George Maitland was Baptist minister in Rothesay, Isle of Bute, and later in St Andrews, maybe retired? Here at Edinburgh University from 1983-1991 I worked on a thesis for the degree of M Litt, “A textual and editorial study of the Gillies collection of Gaelic poetry under Dr (now Professor) Donald E(achann) Meek whose father was Hector Meek, Baptist minister of Tiree (information about him from George Maitland. “Hector” is conventionally used as an English equivalent of “Eachann,” although probably not actually connected.

    Among my family Baptists were “bogeymen” like “Wee Frees” because they stayed alive without alcohol. From my contacts with them through my Gaelic studies from beginners’ class to M Litt I have every admiration for those I know of both denominations. Incidentally, for totally scientific reasons I can’t take alcoholic drinks or desserts or manage smoking.

    Charles Coventry

  5. Riaan says:

    This is really amazing!

    When and where can we read the translated sermons? We would love to be able to get our hands (or eyes) on it.

    Keep up the good work.

    Blessings all the way from South Africa.

  6. Philip Bradfield says:

    All sounds (looks?) exciting – well done indeed

    Philip

  7. MaggieR says:

    The article seems a bit misleading… The student translated the document, but only after the DR HOLMES solved how to do it.

    Dr Holmes cracked the code; Mr Woods transliterated the text.

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