John Pynchon, sermon notebook with shorthand (American Antiquarian Society)


This is not the cover but the outermost remaining page of John Pynchon’s sermon notebook. If it looks familiar, that might be because this is the image that ended up on my book cover.

Jeremiah's Scribes: Creating Sermon Literature in Puritan New England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013)

Jeremiah’s Scribes: Creating Sermon Literature in Puritan New England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013)

(The cover gets many compliments, by the way, but I can’t take any credit. The designer, John Hubbard, did a wonderful job of transforming my lousy little snapshot into this intriguing close-up image. I never noticed until the design was completed that the page is filled with the word “complain,” a feature of the cover that continually amuses me.)

You’ll notice also that there are many symbols interspersed in the notes. It was fairly common practice to use some kinds of symbols (and abbreviations) in transcription. Some were made up, and some were adapted from existing shorthand systems. Here, the young John Pynchon (probably about 14 when he kept these notes) probably uses symbols for common words. Even without knowing the full system, it’s sometimes possible to figure out from context what a specific symbol means when the notetaker creates a hybrid text like this.

I’m always struck when I look at this notebook that a fourteen-year-old boy already finds need to incorporate shorthand into his writing. Elsewhere, Pynchon flips the notebook upside down and records Greek vocabulary in the opposite direction, filling in the blank spaces at the ends of sermons. Apparently some knowledge of shorthand systems was a great tool for students.

When I sent the my book off for publication, there was some uncertainty about who exactly this notetaker was. The catalog record at the American Antiquarian Society reads “[Pinch/Pyncheon?, John]. sermon notes; possibly those of John Pinch (1625-??).” Only after the book was in press did I hear from David Powers, who has done the remarkable work of cracking John Pynchon’s shorthand for his work on the minister Georege Moxon. When I send him this image, he was able to confirm that the notetaker was indeed the same John Pynchon and that he was about 14 years old when he made these notes. (More on David Powers work in another post!)

Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

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