Unlocking the Code
How Richard Heitzenrater’s Discovery Shaped the Course of Wesleyan Studies

By Sally Hicks

In the summer of 1969, Richard Heitzenrater sat in the Methodist Archives in London, carefully opening antique books and turning back their pages. He was looking for clues.

Photo by Les Todd / Duke Photography
Richard Heitzenrater

In the previous two and a half years, Heitzenrater had spent thousands of hours reading Methodist founder John Wesley’s personal diaries, trying to unlock the dots, letters, numbers, charts, shorthand, and abbreviations Wesley used. Heitzenrater’s focus—and the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation—was the five diaries Wesley kept while he was a tutor at Oxford.

Each day during his visit to London, Heitzenrater arrived about 8:30 a.m. in the basement of the Epworth Press, where the archives were housed. The archivist opened a big metal door like a bank vault’s, unlocked a barred, prison-like door inside that, and ushered Heitzenrater into the small room lined with bookshelves. Then the archivist locked him in. The American graduate student was let out only for lunch and tea.

Heitzenrater, 29, had a listing of the archive holdings from Frank Baker, the legendary Wesley scholar and collector who was his dissertation director at Duke. He was eager to open the black tin box that contained Wesley’s diaries, which until then he had seen only as photocopies. But as a historian, he was trained to leave no stone unturned. He had a few weeks, enough time to take each item in the archives off the shelves and read it.

About a week and a half into his visit, Heitzenrater pulled out a book listed by Baker as a diary “in abbreviated script.” When he opened the book, he instantly recognized the abbreviated script. It was the same as Wesley’s, with one important addition: it had a key.

This diary was written by Benjamin Ingham, a friend of John and Charles Wesley at Oxford. Ingham noted that he'd learned the cipher from Charles, who had learned it from John. Following this were three pages of abbreviations and their meanings.

“You just wanted to grab somebody walking by and say, ‘look at this!’ I rattled the bars and yelled out for the archivist to come over," Heitzenrater recalls.”My memory is that I was kind of incoherent.”

Finally Heitzenrater had unlocked the code that Wesley used to record-often hourly-his activities, thoughts, and attitudes. Heitzenrater had guessed at some notations: br for breakfast; r for read; wr for write. But others eluded him: What did gtr mean, for example? Or iti? What was the difference between p and P? The Ingham diary explained that p was private prayer and P was public prayer; gtr meant “mostly religious talk;” iti meant "vicious talk.”

Wesley started keeping his diary at Oxford during Lent of 1725. It was a common practice of the day, intended to promote personal piety by measuring and inspiring self-improvement. Wesley’s cipher kept his writing secret and allowed him to write more quickly. Although there are gaps, he continued writing until the week before his death in 1791. In all, there are about 25 years of surviving diary entries.

Heitzenrater became the first scholar in the world to read them accurately.

Photo by Les Todd / Duke Photography
“I liked the detective work side of it,
figuring things out.” — Richard Heitzenrater

“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.

Photo by Les Todd / Duke Photography
John Wesley began keeping his diary at Oxford during Lent of 1725. He continued to make diary entries until the week before his death in 1791.

“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.

Maddox notes, for example, that the origin of fossils was still being debated in Wesley’s day, and that he lived at a time when people thought the world was only 5,000 years old.

“What does that mean to our notion of God as Creator?" Maddox says.”What would be a Wesleyan response to questions Wesley never talked about?”

As a center of Wesleyan scholarship, Duke Divinity has a long tradition of pre-eminence in considering such questions. Heitzenrater assumed the mantle from Baker, Albert Outler, and Robert Cushman; today Duke’s Wesleyan experts include Maddox, Kenneth Carder, Warren Smith, Geoffrey Wainwright, Laceye Warner, and others.

Photo courtesy of Duke Divinity School Archives
Legendary Wesley scholar and collector Frank Baker, who served as Heitzenrater’s dissertation director at Duke, encouraged him to choose a topic that would be “center stage and groundbreaking, like working with Wesley’s diaries.”

Divinity School Dean L. Gregory Jones says the school’s goal is to continue to add strength in the Wesleyan tradition, not only by hiring scholars of John and Charles Wesley, but also by seeking out people whose scholarship draws on the "living tradition.”

“How does the Wesleyan tradition maintain its life and vitality in the early 21st century?" asks Jones. He says he’s grateful for Heitzenrater’s contributions as a teacher, scholar, and participant in the life of the school.

“You don’t replace that kind of wisdom and experience and love for the institution-you simply try to build on this legacy and stand on his shoulders going forward," Jones says.

‘Still Puzzling Over It’

Even after the "aha" moment in the Methodist Archives, the diaries continued to absorb Heitzenrater. He would sometimes ponder an entry for years, comparing it to previous writings, letters, and other events of the time. Gradually he pieced together Wesley’s system, which was not only idiosyncratic, but changed over time.

“I liked the detective work side of it, figuring things out," he says. It is painstaking work: Heitzenrater filled file cabinets with 4-by-6-inch notecards detailing which books Wesley read, how much he paid for them, all the people he met, what is known about them, what happened to them.

Once Heitzenrater was sitting in a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London when he had an insight into a recurring string of letters that he had wondered about for years: ecappshscptb. He suddenly realized that each letter corresponded to part of the morning and evening prayer: e stood for "scriptural ejaculations," or sentences from Scripture. Then followed confession, absolution, Lord’s Prayer, psalm, scripture, hymn, scripture, creed, Lord’s Prayer again, thanksgiving, blessing.

Even today, he spreads his photocopied diaries across his desk, poring over the spidery handwriting. The information is in the process of being digitized.

Heitzenrater, who will turn 69 in November, has the trim build of an athlete and still has a quiet excitement about his work. He speaks softly, methodically turning pages back and forth to show cross-references, and pulling out various sources to help wrest meaning from the words. Within easy reach of his desk are floor-to-ceiling shelves with hundreds of books, many from Baker’s collection.

Crowded on the shelves and tables are evidence of Heitzenrater’s wide-ranging interests. Busts and statues of John and Charles Wesley are squeezed among the volumes. His collection of Swiss cowbells sits on shelves, tables, and his desk, along with track trophies-he was the 1,500 meter gold medalist in the 1993 State Games of North Carolina for runners age 50 and older. High on one shelf sits a one-quarter-scale working replica of a Franklin printing press, which he made.

Sitting at his desk, Heitzenrater points to a notation at the bottom of a diary page: "P,V, L. U, P, C.” Underneath there are two words in Greek, then "Unl" and "Mark. Cold.”

Photo by Les Todd / Duke Photography
Heitzenrater’s office reveals his wide ranging interests. In addition to booklined walls and shelves full of Wesley memorabilia, there is a collection of Swiss cowbells, numerous track trophies, and the one-quarter-scale working replica of a Franklin printing press that he made.

“I don’t know what this means yet," Heitzenrater says. P,V, L, and U appear to mean "proud, vain or unclean thoughts,” based on a reference on the same page. But what about Unl? Unless? Unlimited? Mark could be the Gospel of Mark, or a mark like a notation. Cold could refer to physical temperature or to spiritual "temperature," which Wesley often described as cold or indifferent.

And once he has figured out what Wesley wrote, Heitzenrater has to figure out what he meant.

“It’s now 2008, and I'm still puzzling over it," Heitzenrater says.”If you get discouraged, you shouldn’t be a historian.”

Renaissance Man

As much as he has loved spending his career among old volumes, Heitzenrater’s interests spread beyond his scholarly work. His field may be the 18th century, but he’s a Renaissance man.

He has worked on a farm and owned a printing company; he ran track and cross-country as a Duke undergraduate for the famous coach Al Buehler and has been a track official; he sings bass in the Duke Chapel choir and plays the saxophone; he is a master wood craftsman.

He created the black locust wood cross in the Jones Prayer Room, for example, and the three-sided bulletin board in the entrance to the Westbrook Building. Heitzenrater has moved two tobacco barns to his property in Sylva, N.C., and is in the process of moving and rebuilding a third old barn. He designs websites and uses PowerPoint with video for class lectures. He’s also a photographer.

Heitzenrater designed the Divinity School logo of a cross and a boat when he was working on his master’s degree. He earned all three of his degrees at Duke, and sent all three of his children here.

“The breadth of his curiosity and competency is quite extraordinary,” Jones says.

Even Maddox—a leading Wesley scholar himself, and head of the Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition—says working with Heitzenrater “can be a bit intimidating. He’s always got six or seven irons in the fire.”

‘Have I Done Everything for the Glory of God?’

Heitzenrater grew up in rural, upstate New York. His father, uncle, and grandfather were Methodist ministers and his sister was a nurse, so he arrived at Duke in 1957 thinking he'd become a medical missionary. But he changed his mind after a course on Christian history.

“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.

Photo by Les Todd / Duke Photography
Heitzenrater’s “Redemption” cross, which hangs in the Jones Prayer Room, was among the works of art commissioned by the Divinity School for its 2005 addition. Both “Redemption” and Heitzenrater’s sermon, “The Best of All is, God is With Us,” are featured in the new book With God in Mind: Sermons on the Art and Architecture of Duke Divinity School.

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.

Story continues >>
Copyright © 2008 Duke Divinity School. All Rights Reserved.
magazine@div.duke.edu  (919) 660-3412