In 2009, Foundery Pictures released Wesley, A Heart Transformed Can Change the World, a biography of John Wesley, the 18th-century scholar, cleric and founder of Methodism. But that movie might not have been possible had it not been for a Centre College professor and his odyssey that began on Centre’s campus more than four decades ago.
For nearly two centuries, since Wesley’s death in 1791, the personal diaries of the theologian had remained a mystery to scholars. The entries were a highly detailed account of Wesley’s progress in “holy living” and contained much of the early thinking by the religious scholar—thinking that became the basis of Methodism.
Unfortunately, he wrote them in a code of abbreviations, ciphers, number systems, symbols and shorthand that appeared to be unbreakable. While the Methodist church grew and thrived, the daily thoughts and activities of its founder seemed to be lost to history as they lay untranslated in the Methodist Archives Museum at Oxford University.
In 1969, Dr. Richard P. Heitzenrater was a young assistant professor of history and religion at Centre. That year, on a visit to the Methodist Archives, he made a once-in-a-lifetime discovery that still reverberates today. While flipping through a diary credited to the 18th-century literary figure James Hervey, he found an error of attribution: the diary actually belonged to Benjamin Ingham, a member of Wesley’s inner circle at Oxford University, and this text included a basic key to Wesley’s unbroken code.
Later, while on sabbatical, Heitzenrater was able to convince museum officials and the British government to allow him to bring 10 of the existing 12 diaries back to Centre, where they were kept in a safe inside a vault in the Grace Doherty Library. Heitzenrater says he was very confident in the security of the priceless diaries while they were here.
“I purchased a small safe box for them and kept it locked in the small closet-like room off the rare book storage room, which was kept locked also,” he says. “Although there was a little window in that area, hardly anybody knew the stuff was there, and I didn’t broadcast it much.
“It was particularly interesting when the story broke in the Manchester Guardian and was picked up by the Associated Press and carried around the world, since they told the story as though the whole development had just taken place (in 1976 or ’77), whereas in fact, much of it went back to 1969 and before,” Heitzenrater remembers. “We even did an interview in the room housing the rare books (at the front west area of what is now Crounse Hall) with a TV station from Lexington. In any case, I was getting calls from reporters for newspapers in Los Angeles, New York, London, Washington, Sydney (yes, Australia), and all over the place. It was a riot there for a while.”
In 1977, Heitzenrater accepted a position created especially for him at Southern Methodist University and moved to Dallas with his wife, Karen. “The hairy part was moving [the diaries] 850 miles to Dallas in 1977 when we started teaching at Southern Methodist University,” he says. “We packed the little safe box in our station wagon and headed on out, hoping not to be in any sort of wreck. The startling part was in 1979 or so when the British Methodist Church neglected to renew the permit for my taking the material out of Great Britain and threatened a million-pound fine if the diaries were not returned within 60 days. I ended up carrying them in my briefcase by air to Atlanta, switched them to a friend who was headed to London, and they returned home safely and in time.”
Heitzenrater has since become one of the world’s foremost authorities on Wesley’s writings. He is currently the William Kellon Quick Professor of Church History and Wesley Studies at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. He is general editor of the Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, which includes his work in the seven volumes of Journals and Diaries. He also is the author of several books on Wesley and the history of Methodism.
“I’m studying a significant person in a fascinating era, using unpublished primary material from his own hand,” Heitzenrater has said. “Those circumstances rarely occur in the life of a historian.
“Quite honestly, I didn’t think that my enthusiasm for Wesley or his diaries would persist as long as it has—nearly 50 years now,” he continues. “The publisher of one of my main books, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, has just asked me to do a special 20th-anniversary edition, which sounds like fun. It has presently been translated into six foreign languages and is in process in a couple of others. I’ve continued to work on Wesley through all these years (with over a dozen books and nearly six dozen scholarly articles and chapters), and am now the general editor of the 34-volume Wesley Works Project, which has published 16 volumes to date. I’m presently checking the final page proofs for another volume that will appear in March.
“Although I retired from teaching at age 70 in 2009, I still carry on with lecturing on Wesleyan topics in various locations—in this 12-month period that will include Malaysia, California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Alabama and Manchester, England. I have published most of the diaries, and hope to finish them up in three or four years.”