“I thought, 'How could I go to church every Sunday … for 18 years and not hear anything substantive about Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Martin Luther?'" he says.
After earning an undergraduate degree with honors in history, he decided to become a seminary history teacher. When it came time to choose his Ph.D. dissertation topic, he shared his ideas with Baker, who told him to aim higher than the "footnote-type topics" Heitzenrater had proposed.
“Why don’t you do something center stage and groundbreaking, like working with Wesley’s diaries?" Heitzenrater recalls.
He remembered that Wesley had had a failed love affair with a woman named Sophy Hopkey, and had entered it all in code in his diary.”Immediately when he said it, I thought, ’sophy Hopkey. We could find out more about that.'”
Heitzenrater did learn more about Wesley’s ill-fated relationship with Sophy Hopkey, whom Wesley met when he traveled to Georgia between 1736 and 1737. After Sophy left him to marry another man, Wesley refused her communion, a scandalous move.
“That’s always been misinterpreted in a sense because it sounds like it was simply a whim. But he did find a rubric in the prayer book to back him up," Heitzenrater says. Wesley justified his action because she was not penitent—but Heitzenrater says Wesley also was naïve and didn’t understand Sophy.
“He just was not tuned in with reality, practical reality, and how to deal with people," he says.”He didn’t know how to respond to a woman who was trying to move him along toward marriage.”
But the diaries revealed more than just the details of the affair. The early diaries in particular examined a period of Wesley’s life that had been ignored by Methodists more interested in Wesley’s evangelism than his high-church Anglicanism.
Wesley’s preoccupation is typified by the question he asks himself over and over, "Have I done everything for the glory of God?”
“He’s probably more aware of living in the presence of God than anyone else I've ever known, for better or for worse," Heitzenrater says.” He’s almost obsessive about it. After you've lived with the man at this level, and you've seen his ups and downs, what you come to realize is, here’s a guy who’s trying very hard to do the best he can in everything.”
‘I Have Fun … and They Pay Me.’
Although he would no doubt be embarrassed by the comparison, the same might be said for Heitzenrater.
As he contemplates retirement, he says he’ll be happy to have more time without teaching and committee work. (he’ll leave his faculty duties in December and spend the spring semester on leave.) He and his wife, Karen, will continue to live in Durham where they can sing in the Duke Chapel Choir and have access to the library. But they will spend more time at their cabin. The third barn needs finishing.
So does the Wesley Works Editorial Project, which Heitzenrater will continue to direct as general editor after he retires. Sixteen volumes are completed, and the project is about half done. Maddox will take over as the on-site editor and will push ahead with plans to finish publishing editions both in print and online.
One piece that remains: the transcription and publication of the Oxford diaries, which Heitzenrater began nearly four decades ago. After that, he will revise his dissertation, which Baker advised him to let "sit on a shelf for a while.”
As he enters retirement, Heitzenrater still sees promise in those squiggles and dots.
“The life of scholarship is not an easy road. But it has been exciting and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I have fun, day in and day out, and they pay me. What better arrangement can you come up with?
“It’s really pretty exciting. I just wish I had about 50 more years.”
Sally Hicks is editor of Faith & Leadership, an online publication of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, going live in 2009.