Heitzenrater became the first scholar in the world to read them accurately.
“Some historians go a lifetime and never have that kind of experience," he says of discovering the Ingham diary.”It was mind-boggling.”
A Lifetime Project
Finding this Rosetta Stone of the Wesley diaries allowed Heitzenrater to complete his dissertation, which examined the incubation period for Wesley’s thought and the organizational beginnings of Methodism.
But it was just the beginning of a lifetime project for Heitzenrater, now the William Kellon Quick professor of church history and Wesley studies at the Divinity School. He will retire at the end of the academic year.
Heitzenrater has published more than a dozen books, including Wesley and the People Called Methodists. An ordained pastor, he has been deeply involved in the academy and the church.
Heitzenrater has been teaching at Duke since 1993, after serving on the faculties of Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology and Centre College of Kentucky. In 1986, he succeeded Baker as the general editor of the Wesley Works Editorial Project, an effort to produce a critical edition of more than 30 volumes of the works of John Wesley. In January, he was honored by the American Society of Church History for his lifetime of academic achievement.
Fellow faculty member Randy Maddox, who has collaborated with Heitzenrater for years on the Wesley Works Project, says his colleague is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading Wesley scholars.”He’s at the top of the list," Maddox says.
Sarah Johnson, also a historian of American religion, worked for Heitzenrater when she was a graduate student at Duke.
“You are sitting with this man who has done this incredible work, who is a stickler for details and has forgotten more about John Wesley than I’'ll ever know,” says Johnson.”But in working with him, you don’t feel like he’s trying to catch you doing something wrong.”
Johnson, now an assistant professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., says it takes a special person to look at the "squiggles and dots and see the promise in it.”
Part of that promise is not just the sport of finding out what Wesley ate for breakfast, but also the gift bringing the past to bear on the present.
“He feels that learning about Wesleyan history isn’t just an interesting and antique past, but is helpful to us as we navigate current situations as the church goes on into the future," Johnson says.