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.

CT: How did it go?

Holmes: A week after I’d given them to [Woods], I got an email from him with an attachment saying, “Here’s the text of the first one.” And I think I got the “eureka moment” that Jonny never got, because he’d been slogging and getting better and better. And even reading the sermons, he’d kind of been going word by word, painstakingly. And then I got to open this document and read the sermon that no one had ever read before.

CT: Jonny, you never had a “eureka moment”? Did it ever hit you that you were reading something that no one else has read before?

Woods: Definitely not in these first two sermons because it was so new to be working on and it was quite difficult at times.

Over Christmas break, Steve had given me a couple more to work on, and they were the funeral sermons. Toward the end of one of those sermons, Fuller recorded a number of stories about the woman who had just passed away.

That felt really special to hear about an incredible woman and hear stories of her faith, especially toward the end of her life. To know that no one had even known this woman existed for over 200 years and to be the first person to hear, that was probably the best.

CT: Jonny, how much did you know about Fuller before this? Do you feel like you have a greater appreciation for him than you did before?

Woods: To be honest, I hadn’t actually heard of Fuller before Steve approached me. I think the first time we met, he gave me a collection of the sermons, the “Confession of Faith,” kind of all the documents I needed alongside a biography of Fuller, so that I could try to understand this man. And oh my word, what a man.

I started to get really excited about working on his sermons when I learned about how big an impact he had and just the impact he had with The Gospel Worthy of all Acceptation and BMS was incredible. But just him as a person from the diaries and what people said about him—I was quite in awe of the faith and humility that really comes across. So I was excited to get to share more of him with the rest of the world.

CT: What was the process for translating the sermons like? How did you work together on them?

Holmes: Jonny did a first draft, and then I went through to make some suggestions of alternative readings and so on. And then we sat down together with a big screen and electronic copy and went through them piece by piece.

We had various arguments about whether certain words existed. We were sitting there at one point, and I said, “Okay, this word?” And Jonny says to me, “That looks like brangles.” I said, “Yeah, I know it looks like brangles, but it isn’t, is it. Because brangles doesn’t exist.”

Every couple of minutes Jonny said, “It really does look like brangles.” And after about 15 minutes of this, I pulled out an 18th-century dictionary and discovered that brangle was an 18th-century word.

CT: Really? What does it mean?

Holmes: It means arguments, confusions, and dissensions, that whole kind of thing. It’s quite a nice word, actually. Over here it alliterates very well with Brexit. [Laughter]

Sometimes it would go the other way round. At one point Jonny said, “I couldn’t make any sense of this sign at all.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s a number two with ‘nd’ written next to it.”

CT: How many of Fuller’s sermons have you translated? What is the next step?

Holmes: In terms of fair copy that’s ready to be published on the general editor’s desk, we’ve done just those two Soham sermons, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the Baptist Quarterly.

Jonny’s then been working on this collection of five funeral sermons. I haven’t really had time to look at yet, but we think those make another nice, little collection, which we’ll send to a journal.

Really after that, we’ve got some hundreds of pages of this early collection that we started working on. There are another few hundred pages of much later material but in the same shorthand. That’s in Kettering, where his church was. We haven’t seen those yet, but we think they could be worked on. And just in the last week, because of the news story, we’ve discovered another 80-page notebook of material in his shorthand that, interestingly, dates from quite close to the formation of the Mission Society.

CT: Are there indications of Andrew Fuller’s missionary proclivities and support in the early sermons from what you’ve seen so far?

Holmes: I don’t think we’ve seen it yet. But we hope so.

This new set [of sermons] really—because they date from the late 1780s to the early 1790s, just as the missionary idea is taking fruit and they’re getting excited about it—I really hope that we’ll get something there. Kang San-Tan, the general director of BMS, and I have already talked about that a bit just on the Facebook feed. It’s certainly on the radar.

What I really hope to see from the early sermons as we work through the whole collection is some sign of how he goes from one place to the other. He’s born to a poor farmer family with almost no education as a child. Then we rediscover him at age 30, writing The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, which is so powerful and significant that it changes his denomination. How does his mind develop?

The other thing is the publication of sermons was a massive business in the 18th century. People would publish special sermons or polish something they’d been working on. But we never hear about the ordinary pulpit. Here we’ve got just the notes that Fuller took with him to church Sunday morning by Sunday morning. In terms of a new glimpse into the history of the churches at the time, I think that might actually be interesting and significant too.

CT: Jonny, what’s next for you? Do you want to keep working on this research?

Woods: Well, definitely my plans after university have become a bit less clear now. We’ve discovered another few hundred sermons. For the short term, anyway, I just want to do as many of these as I can. The dream would be to get the whole lot. I would love to be involved in it. But as long as someone does them I’ll be happy.