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.

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