Meet the Student-Professor Team Who Cracked Famous Baptist Leader Andrew Fuller’s Shorthand

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For years, scholars have been tantalized by Andrew Fuller’s sermon notes. They’re written in an idiosyncratic shorthand that, thus far, no one had been able to track—until recently.

A student-professor team at St. Andrews University recently cracked the code of Fuller’s shorthand. Jonny Woods, 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. Under the supervision of Dr. Steve Homes, Head of the School of Divinity at St. Andrews, Woods has translated a number of Fuller’s early sermons. Woods and Holmes hope their discovery will lead to a full translation of all of Fuller’s shorthand writings and provide insight into Fuller’s meteoric rise within the Baptist denomination.

Caleb Lindgren, theology editor at CT, recently sat down with Woods and Holmes to hear about their research and learn what it was like to be the first person to read a two-hundred-year-old sermon from a pivotal figure in Christian history.

CT: First, it would be helpful to have some background on Andrew Fuller. Who is he and why is he important?

Holmes: Andrew Fuller is a leader of one of the two streams of the British Baptists in the later 18th/early 19th century. He’s part of the Particular Baptists, the Calvinist stream. His historical importance is twofold.

First, he wrote a book—and it really is the book—called The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, which dragged the Particular Baptists, especially those round London, into the Evangelical Revival in the 18th century. Fuller’s book gave rise to the warmhearted evangelical Calvinism that became the hallmark of British Baptists until now really. Certainly someone like Spurgeon would look straight back to Fuller as the key figure who defined his theological tradition.

Secondly, along with William Carey, Fuller founded what we now call the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) in 1792. This was the very first of the modern Protestant mission movements. Carey went over to Serampore in India. Fuller stayed home and alongside pastoring his church started this amazing itinerant ministry, traveling the length and breadth of Britain, collecting money, encouraging people to pray, and disseminating news.

Carey’s the first missionary; Fuller is the first one saying that missionaries need an organization, need support, need prayer, need giving, need people to channel news back and forth, need people to recruit and train and send out more missionaries. And so in those two ways, he’s a very, very significant figure.

CT: Getting more specific about this project and this research, why haven’t we been able to read his early sermons before now?

Holmes: Fuller’s own practice in terms of his writing of his sermons—insofar as he did write them down—was to write them in his own shorthand system. Because he was just writing for himself, nobody has been able to read it.

Among Fuller’s immediate contemporaries, John Rippon, another significant Baptist leader, had his own shorthand. We’ve got several other examples. My best guess is it’s something to do with paper being expensive. If you write on one page what would have taken you three, then it’s a win.

CT: What indicated to you that the shorthand could be cracked?

Holmes: This past summer, I was the latest in a fairly long line of Fuller scholars to make the trip to Bristol Baptist College where Fuller’s notes are kept in the archive. I assumed I wouldn’t be able to read them either.

As I was going through the manuscripts, making notes, I noticed that every sermon had a longhand heading indicating the date and the text. So I thought, well, if nothing else, I might come away with some interesting dates or trends in his preaching.

And then near the end, I came to a page which was headed “Confession of Faith, October 7, 1783.” And I knew that that was the date of his induction into a new pastorate of a church in Kettering. And I knew that he’d been required, as was the custom back then, to give a confession of his own faith as part of that service, that it had been recorded I think in the church meeting minute book, and it had been printed in one of the very first biographies, written by his son.

So I looked at this and thought, Well, if that is the same text, and it looks like it could well be, then we might be able to put that next to the printed version and this thing we’ve got what is purported to be a key but wasn’t very helpful, and out of the three of them start to make some sense of how it works. And that was the hope, and at that point it was no more than a pious hope.

CT: There was some sort of purported key then?

Holmes: Yeah. So we’ve got this thing that says “Key.” It’s written by his son and really it’s just the alphabet with a sign underneath each letter. And that’s well-known. Everyone had looked at it. Everyone had tried to use it to get into the shorthand, and no one had made it work.

CT: How did [undergraduate student] Jonny Woods get involved with the project?

Holmes: When I came back here [to St Andrews], I asked the folks at Bristol Baptist College if I could have electronic copies of the key bits of the text, which they very finely supplied, and then the teaching semester hit me like a train.

I’d done just enough work to say, “I think this is possible.” I knew we have this great scheme at the University of St Andrews where there’s money which allows us to pay undergraduate students to help us in our research.

CT: Jonny, did you think you could do it?

Woods: I really wanted to think I could [crack the code]. When Steve explained it to me, it seemed doable. I hadn’t spent a lot of time looking at the text, so I didn’t realize quite how messy it all was, but the logic sounded really good. So I determined to at least make sure that if it could be done, I was going to do it.

CT: At what point in the process did you feel that it was definitely possible—that you were going to be able to do it?

Woods: I spent the first month or two months just solely looking at the “Confession.” Each word I came across I was putting into a sort of dictionary [of Fuller’s shorthand]. And so the list of words was building and building.

There are 20 articles [in Fuller’s confession of faith] and toward the end of article 17 or 18 on the “Confession,” I was trying to test whether I could do it without looking at the typed-up version Steve had given me. And I actually realized that I could do quite a lot of it without the prompt. And so it was maybe toward that phase that I got really excited at the thought of looking at the sermons.

At one point, I decided to have a go at a random sermon, to see how much I could do. I didn’t get all of it but got enough to give Steve enough faith to point me in the direction of a couple of sermons he really wanted us to do first.

CT: So Dr. Holmes, there were particular sermons that you specifically wanted to see?

Holmes: So, when Jonny came to me and said, “I think I can do this,” I picked two sermons. Fuller had grown up in a little village in Cambridgeshire called Soham, been converted into the church there, and became its pastor really quite young, 21 or 22 [years old]. He served there as pastor for several years and then received a call to a much bigger church in a town a few tens of miles away.

Fuller really struggled with this call for about two years. We’ve got his diary from the period, and he’s agonizing over this decision to leave. One moment he feels he should go, another he feels such a kind of love for this little church that’s nurtured him. I knew there were two sermons that were preached on his last Sunday in Soham, morning and evening. And I thought if we can get into this, that’s where I want to start because those are going to be really, really interesting.

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Source: Christianity Today