You are here

The Obfuscated Journals of Charles Wesley

I managed to chase down a copy of Prof Kenneth Newport's paper, 'Charles Wesley, 'Warts and All'" which talks about the "encrypted" portions of Charles Wesley's journal. This is part of my search for pre-computer examples of encrypted documents, which seem rare, as opposed to encrypted messages, which seem relatively common.

From a cryptographic and security standpoint, I'd say that Wesley's journals were obfuscated and not encrypted. Wesley used a form of shorthand that, though personalized to some degree, was taught to students of Oxford and Cambridge. It is also reported that his own brother used the same sort of shorthand. Thus, Wesley's diary entries may have been unreadable by most of the literate public, but  readable by the relative handful of university graduates who had learned that writing method.

Newport is a "Pro Vice Chancellor" at Liverpool Hope University, and the University's press release refers to Newport's work as "cracking a code." Newport isn't quite so dramatic in his own paper. He refers to Wesley's obscured writing as "shorthand" that follows the style of John Byrom (1692-1763).

I haven't managed to track down an authoritative-looking source on the history of Byrom's shorthand, but there are lots of second-hand  (and no doubt third- and fourth-hand) reports floating around the Web. Informal histories (i.e. Wikipedia and its "sources") suggest that Byrom's method existed by 1720 and was taught at both Cambridge and Oxford in the 1700s. Byrom was granted a patent for his method in 1742. Both Wesley brothers allegedly used Byrom's method in their private journals. Byrom's method was not "published" in a form available to the general public until shortly after his death (1767). Charles Wesley himself appears on a list of "subscribers" to a proposed publication of Byrom's method in the late 1740s.

Thus, Wesley's diary wasn't so much encrypted in the classic sense as it was obfuscated. Newport's paper refers to Wesley's shorthand as an "idiosyncratic" form of Byrom's method. Thus it seems likely that others trained in that shorthand style may have been able to read his journal, including his own brother.

This is interesting: Wesley's threat model did not include his own brother, nor the hyper-literate class of eighteenth-century intellectuals who had attended Oxford or Cambridge.

Professor Newport includes a telling anecdote about the Wesley brothers and secret communication. One of the shorthand sections of Charles Wesley's journal described an evening when he and his brother were visiting a close mutual friend and talking about Methodism. The conversation became heated, with brothers Charles and John arguing a sore point regarding their authority over Methodist preachers. The discussion made John very uncomfortable, and he shifted to Greek to prevent  their friend from understanding his words.

The distinction between encryption and obfuscation is not meant to belittle the effort Newport faced in decoding Wesley's journal. Longhand manuscripts are almost a code in themselves, and the shorthand undoubtedly made interpretation incredibly difficult. While Newport's paper did not really discuss the challenge of interpreting 250-year-old shorthand, the University's press release claims that he was greatly helped by the fact that Wesley had also transcribed various Gospels into the same shorthand.

According to his paper, Newport planned to publish a new, more complete version of Charles Wesley's journals in 2008. It doesn't appear to be available yet. The latest version I see on Amazon is dated November, 2007 (in two volumes: One

and Two).


Newport, Kenneth G. C. "Charles Wesley ‘Warts and All'". Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, 56:4 (2008), 165-188. ISSN 00432873.

"Historic Charles Wesley Code Cracked by Hope Professor," press release, Liverpool Hope University, (undated, probably mid-August, 2008).

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer