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.

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