Student cracked coded religious documents which academics baffled for centuries

A divinity student has cracked coded religious documents which had left academics baffled for centuries.

Jonny Woods, 21, 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.

The third-year University of St Andrews undergraduate was able to convert the shorthand after an academic traced a longhand equivalent.

Fuller, who died in 1815, was the son of a poor tenant farmer in Cambridgeshire and became a leader of the British Baptist denomination.

He 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, from Northern Ireland, said it was an “honour” to be able to crack the coded language.

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.”

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 the crucial documents will offer insight into Fuller’s meteoric rise within the Baptist denomination, by revealing the early development of his thought.

Hundreds of pages of his sermons are held in the archive of Bristol Baptist College.

But they remained inaccessible until Dr Holmes found one headed in longhand, “Confessions of Faith, Oct. 7 1783”.

He knew this was the date of Fuller’s induction into the pastorate of a church in Kettering, Northamptonshire.

And he knew that Fuller 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, 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 – which was used to help experts read Egyptian hieroglyphics.

It allowed 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.

Dr Holmes is continuing to edit Fuller’s wider collection of sermons for a major new critical edition of his work.

By Arthur Vundla

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