Baker Collection Offers Unique Resource for Wesley Studies

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Monday, April 25, 2011

The April 15 opening of the Divinity School Library exhibit, “Methodical Researcher: Frank Baker Interprets the Wesleys,” marked the 101st anniversary of Frank Baker’s birthday and highlighted the Frank Baker Collection of Wesleyana and British Methodism, a resource celebrated as critical to the future of Wesley scholarship.

Featuring manuscripts and published writings by and about John Wesley (1703-1791), his brother Charles (1707-1788), and other members of the Wesley family, the collection contains the second largest number of Wesley publications in the world and has more than 50 titles representing the only known copies.

‘A Treasure’

When he arrived at Duke Divinity School from England in 1960, Professor of Church History Frank Baker brought with him a library of Wesleyana weighing nearly four tons and filling over 90 crates and cartons.

Frank and Nellie Baker, with volume one of John Wesley’s Letters, in his studyThe collection represented more than 20 years of Baker’s life as a fulltime British Methodist pastor in central and northern England, where he built his library of Charles and John Wesley works and established himself as the pre-eminent Wesley scholar of his generation.

In May 1961, Duke University purchased part of Baker’s library, and the acquisition became the genesis of the Baker Collection.

The late Donn Michael Farris, Duke Divinity School librarian, wrote in support of the purchase, "I have no hesitancy in saying that the Baker collection is the most significant collection in the field of religion that the university has ever had the opportunity to purchase, Certainly, it is the kind of bibliographical treasure which becomes available to any library but very few times in its history.”

From 1964 through 1996, Baker, who retired as professor emeritus of church history in 1980, made annual contributions of more Wesley editions and other titles to the collection. In October 1997, he gave the remainder of his scholarly collection to Duke University. He died in his sleep two years later at the age of 89.

Baker Interprets the Wesleys

Enid Hickingbotham, one of the Bakers’ three children, and her husband, Dyson, of Wake Forest, N.C., attended the April 15 reception and exhibit opening.Roger Loyd with Enid and Dyson Hickingbotham

The exhibit, which continues through June 30, coincides with “Celebrating Charles Wesley and Frank Baker,” the Twenty-second Annual Meeting of The Charles Wesley Society to be held June 22-24 at Duke Divinity School.

Professor of the Practice of Theological Bibliography Roger L. Loyd, who followed Farris as librarian, described the growth of the collection in “A Long Journey Completed: The Baker Collection Comes to Duke,” (PDF) published in the American Theological Library Association Summary of Proceedings 55 2001, p 103-107.

“Nowhere else can one find the number of original Wesley printed items (more than 2,500), combined with microfilms and photocopies of virtually all the others, and a wide collection of other documents on 18th-century England,” said Loyd.

Heitzenrater Breaks Wesley's Code

Among the rare items in the Divinity Library exhibit are:

  • Hymns and Sacred Poems by John Wesley and Charles Wesley. London: Printed by Strahan and sold by James Hutton, 1739; and
  • Richard Heitzenrater’s letter of July 31, 1969, to Frank Baker, who was directing Heitzenrater’s Ph.D. at Duke.  In meticulous script, he describes his discovery of the Benjamin Ingham diary, which helped him understand the shorthand in John Wesley’s diary. “I was so excited I could hardly see straight for an hour,” wrote Heitzenrater.

“This collection is critical to attracting succeeding generations of Wesley scholars to Duke where they can continue in the tradition of Baker and (W.K. Quick Professor Emeritus of Church History and Wesley Studies Richard) Heitzenrater,” said Loyd.

“By coming here, scholars will have unparalleled access both to primary sources in the printed collection, and to the resources of the Center for Studies in the Wesley Tradition currently led by Professor of Theology and Wesley Studies Randy Maddox.”

Supporting Wesley Studies

The Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition offers a growing set of online resources to support study of John and Charles Wesley. Members of the Duke Divinity faculty within the Wesleyan tradition devote some portion of their teaching or scholarship to topics relating to the tradition. Divinity staff members provide leadership to the center’s educational outreach, and to invited research fellows.

An annual Summer Wesley Seminar led by Richard Heitzenrater and Randy Maddox promotes research, writing, and publication in the field of Wesleyan studies broadly conceived. This seminar supports the work of up to 10 scholars engaged in serious study of the Wesleyan heritage. Scholars are provided with access to the research resources of Duke University, and are gathered for conversation and study with others working in various areas of the field.

While scholars gather once or twice a week to share expertise, the seminar is designed to allow them to devote the majority of their time to research and writing.

Photo of Frank and Nellie Baker by Jim Thornton, Durham Herald-Sun, about 1993. Courtesy of the Bakers’ daughter, Enid Higginbotham.