The Oxford Diaries

In this episode, we step back from the story of Methodism to discuss the puzzle of John Wesley's diaries and how that puzzle was solved.

Episode 33

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s Episode: The Oxford Diaries.

We must take a moment to break with the historical narrative of Methodism in order to understand the key to how we can even tell the story of Methodism: John Wesley’s diaries. We will discuss the substance of Wesley’s diaries in the next episode, but the puzzle that they have presented to Wesley scholars over the years is fascinating in itself.

John Wesley kept a diary from a few months before his ordination in 1725, up until his death in 1791. Many of the volumes are lost. As well, many of the early volumes were all written in a coded shorthand that nobody fully understood until about 50 years ago.

Wesley’s early use of the diary was to keep track of his temptations and sins as much as his daily life, and so the code was a tool to keep those sins private. He did not personally create this method, yet he used it continuously until he left England in 1735.

For more than a century after Wesley’s death, nothing was published about the diaries while works on Wesley himself and Methodism in general were voluminous. Part of this had to do with a desire of Methodists to discount the pre-1738 John Wesley. Aldersgate held such a large shadow over the movement and John Wesley himself, at times, seemed to discount his own thoughts before that date. The other big issue was a lack of access to the diaries as well as a lack of a true cypher to understand them.

In 1907, Nehemiah Curnock began to decipher them and publish sections of them in his complete works. Curnock’s breakthrough took place in a dream he had, as he writes in a footnote of volume 1 of his editions of the journal.1 Unfortunately, Curnock’s key was not total and left much of the work to be finished by later generations.

A few generations later, the young methodist preacher, Richard Heitzenrater, solves the mystery. Prof. Heitzenrater taught me about Wesley and inspired my own love of this history and this period. He is currently finalizing the Wesley Works edition of the Oxford Diaries which will be a huge leap forward on our understanding of this period and the diaries themselves.

He writes the following in the preface to his dissertation on Oxford Methodism. I am going to quote at a significant length because this is really Prof. Heitzenrater’s story to tell.

The discovery by the present writer which shed light on Wesley’s method was not as dramatic, but equally as exciting to a mind increasingly bantered by the tedium of constant con­fusion with respect to certain entries in the diaries. After two and one-half years of study, having gone completely through the five Oxford diaries at least twice, I finally had an opportunity to examine the manu­script holdings of the Methodist Archives in London. Through the kindness of Dr. Bowmer, many hours were spent in the strong room, sifting through volume after volume, trying to look at everything that might have any bear­ing on the history of the Oxford Methodists. One item that had caught my eye in an early listing of the holdings of the Conference was a volume noted as the "Diary of J. Hervey, 1733-34; in abbreviated script." Upon opening the small volume, similar in external appearance to many of the Wesley notebooks that make up the heart of the Colman Collection, it became immediately apparent that this diary was not only of the same exact style as the later Oxford diaries, but that it contained more explicit information than Wesley’s diaries events and conversations, and the many columns of the format were given headings, opening up vast stores of coded information in this diary and in Wesley’s as well. In addition to this, the diary covered a period for which there was no Wesley diary extant.

The gradual realization that this was not actually James Hervey’s diary, but rather Benjamin Ingham's, was of less real significance than what came to light in the front of the book. Inscribed at the top of an intro­ductory page was the note: Charles Wesley, A.M., Student of Christ Church, Oxford, taught me the following Method of keeping a Diary. I became acquainted with him, and his Brother John Wesley, A.M. and Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxon, through Charles Burton…”

Thereupon follows three pages, double-columned, of abbreviations used in this particular example of the Wesleyan method of keeping a diary. Some of the entries in the list served to verify guesses which I had made of fairly obvious meanings of some of the abbreviations in Wesley's diaries: br—breakfast; ch— came home; r— read; wr— write. Others had not been quite so obvious before, particularly with respect to specific distinctions intended by the diarist: tr— transcribe; tra— translate; p— private prayer; P— public prayers; x— daily examination; Ex— general examination; nb— necessary busi­ness; rt— religious talk. Some of the abbreviations would probably have remained forever behind the cloak of secrecy without this key: gtr— mostly religious talk; iti— vitious talk; j)— dead in prayer; •:• — fervent in prayer (and several other "degrees of attentiveness").

The excitement of that discovery was breath-taking, but again just the prelude to more long hard months of digging back through page after page of complex diary entries. Although not all of the problems presented by the cipher were solved by Ingham’s diary, many doors were opened to a fuller understanding of Wesley's diaries.2

Heitzenreiter lays out the cipher itself in an essay published in 1988.

First is a cipher which is a combination of substitution and transposition ciphers. In the substitution aspect of the cipher, Wesley uses numbers, dots, or symbols for the vowels he wishes to write. In the transposition aspect, he occasionally switches consonants so that when he writes down a letter such as ‘d’, he may indeed mean the consonant on either side, e.g. for a ‘d’, he would use a ‘c’ or an ‘f’. To further complicate matters, Wesley at times applies the transposition rule to to substitution aspect of his cipher. That is to say, while 2-4-6-8-10 or 1-3-5-7-9 may in either case substitute for a-e-i-o-u, Wesley occasionally…uses a number such as 3 or 4, which would normally indicate an ‘e’, to mean an ‘a’ or ‘i’, the vowel on either side of the ‘e’…

A second feature of his ‘code’…is the persistent and heavy use of abbreviations…For example, in a typical early morning entry from the early 1730s, Wesley shows that he was asking himself certain ‘questions’ for the day, proceeding with his self-examination, and then reading the Bible - simply by the letters ‘qxb’.

A third aspect of the ‘code’ is Wesley’s use of symbols other than letters or numbers. Besides symbols within the cipher to indicate particular letters, Wesley also uses special symbols to indicate words and phrases. In addition to these, he develops a rather interesting set of symbols to indicate ‘degrees of attention.’ He uses six variations of the dash, above or below other entries, with or without a tail going uyp or down, to indicate these ‘degree’, six attitudes that range from very negative to very positive…

Wesley also works into his ‘code’ several number schemes. He uses numbers to indicate a variety of things on the diary page, from the simple notation of the time of day to the rather complicated hourly listing of his resolutions broken and resolutions kept…

A fifth element of his ‘code is the use of eighteenth-century systems of shorthand. Wesley used two different shorthand schemes: Weston’s starting in 1734, changing to Byrom’s shorthand in 1736.3

As Wesley changes so does the content of the diary. He starts very simply in 1725 with longhand that becomes more coded. Each day might by a few lines. By 1734, he switches to what is called an ‘exacter’ diary with a full page for each day and columns.

To be a Methodist did not mean you had to keep a coded diary. But the diaries existence and method help us to understand who John Wesley was as well as the times he lived in.

In our next episode we will follow the code-breaking trail of Prof. Heitzenrater in order to learn about John Wesley’s life in the late 1720s as revealed in the Oxford Diaries themselves. Next time on the History of Methodism.


Richard Heitzenrater, John Wesley and the Oxford Methodists, 1725-1735, Diss. (Durham: Duke, 1972).

Richard Heitzenrater, “Wesley and his Diary”, in John Wesley: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by John Stacey (London: Epworth, 1988).

John Wesley, The journal of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., sometime Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford : enlarged from original mss., with notes from unpublished diaries, annotations, maps, and illustrations Volume 1, ed. by Nehemiah Curnock (1909).

  1. John Wesley’s Journals 1:72n: Curnock writes about himself in the third person. “He had discovered a place, far on in the Diary, where ‘:’ meant, and could only mean, ’12.’ This, as a clue, proved useless, until in a dream he saw that ‘2’ stood for ‘a.’ This was the first ray of light.” ↩︎
  2. Heitzenrater, John Wesley and the Oxford Methodists, ix-x. ↩︎
  3. Heitzenrater (1988), 12-14. ↩︎