Johnny Woods, a third-year divinity undergraduate at the University of St Andrews, has solved coded religious documents which went unsolved by academics for centuries.
The documents contain hundreds of pages of shorthand notes by famous Baptist leader Andrew Fuller, who was a leader of the British Baptist denomination and published “The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation,” an influential religious text which changed the history of the Baptists. Fuller was offered honorary doctorates by both Yale and the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, though he declined.
He lived from 1754 to 1815 and was best known for founding the Baptist Missionary Society.
In a press release, 21-year-old Mr Woods, who hails from Coleraine, County Londonderry 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 was 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 St Andrews, added, “When Jonny told me he could read these documents it was an astonishing moment.”
“Andrew Fuller stands as the figurehead, the ‘patron saint’ alost, 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.”
Hundreds of pages of Fuller’s sermons are archived at Bristol Baptist College, where Dr Holmes found one titled in longhand, “Confessions of Faith, Oct. 7 1783”.
Dr Holmes understood that this was the date of Fuller’s induction into the pastorate of a church in Kettering, during which Fuller would have been required to give a confession of faith during the service.
He was curious as to whether a copy of the confession printed in a biography could help him crack the code, leading him to discover the two texts were the same.
From this discovery, Dr Holmes recruited Mr Woods through the University’s Undergraduate Research Assistant Scheme to assist him with the decoding.
After only a few weeks, Mr Woods was able to translate the shorthand, using the longhand version in a Rosetta Stone technique, just as it was used to unlock the secret of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
This allowed Mr Woods to read two of the most historically significant sermons from Fuller’s extensive collection.
Mr Woods’ translations of the two sermons now reside with the Baptist Quarterly, the leading academic journal for Baptist studies, and are currently under consideration for publication.
Meanwhile, Dr Holmes continues to edit a wider collection of Fuller’s sermons for a new critical edition of his works.
Academics hope that with an ability to finally read these documents, they will have a greater insight into “Fuller’s meteoric rise within the Baptist denomination, by revealing the early development of his thought.”