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Mass. 15-year-old unlocks secret of 1759 sermon

By Jenn Smith
The Berkshire Eagle / August 5, 2012
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MONTEREY, Mass.—Shelby M. Sebring has gotten a taste of what Robert Langdon must have felt like while cracking the Da Vinci Code.

The 15-year-old from Hancock recently unlocked the secrets of a 1759 sermon, while serving as a Young History Scholar intern at The Bidwell House Museum.

Sebring, who just finished her freshman year at Pittsfield High School, happens to love Colonial history and is an aspiring cryptographer.

As Barbara Palmer, executive director of the museum, explains, each intern is encouraged to do a research project of their choosing during their two-week program. When she found out about Sebring's interests in code, she prompted the intern to take a crack at deciphering some sermons written by the enigmatic Rev. Adonijah Bidwell, the museum's namesake.

"I've always wanted to be a docent. I love history," said Sebring, daughter of Tamala and Barry Sebring.

Raised in a military family, Shelby and her brother, Raynor, who served as a college intern for the museum, have moved a lot and visit historical sites while on the road.

"Some people go to Six Flags for vacation. We go to Williamsburg," Shelby said.

But for two weeks in June, she immersed herself in a paid internship program at The Bidwell House Museum.

There Sebring learned that Bidwell served as the first minister in "Housatonic Township No. 1," -- today's Tyringham and Monterey.

In the 18th-century parsonage, Bidwell wrote his sermons in a private code: a mixture of early forms of English, Greek, Latin, symbols and shorthand.

"Not much is known about the reverend. The only writings we have here are sermons, all written in code," Palmer said.

"Most is in plain English, but there is shorthand and symbols like this," said Sebring, pointing to a swirl-like mark on a photocopy of an original page. "See? This looks like a snail."

Palmer said over the decades, many people have taken a look at Bidwell's sermon texts, "but to my knowledge, no one has been able to or taken the time necessary to crack Bidwell's code."

Sebring started her work with a Christmas gift, a book titled, "Codes, Ciphers and Other Cryptic and Clandestine Communication: 400 Ways to Send Secret Messages from Hieroglyphs to the Internet" by Fred B. Wrixon.

She also used an online guide to 18th-century shorthand and penmanship, Biblical references and "common sense" to chart the four-page sermon, titled "Proud." It is labeled with three dates: 1759, 1761 and 1783.

Sebring filled three notebooks, first by writing down all the recognizable English, then mapping the numbers and symbols, and then trying to substitute words for the symbols in a way that made sense.

"There was a lot of guess and check," Sebring said, noting that she has no background in Greek, Latin, middle English or the Bible.

Eventually, she figured that the numbers in the sermon referred to Bible verses. Ultimately, Sebring revealed an eight-page typed sermon about why people should be wary of exhibiting pride.

Palmer said that in Bidwell's time, township residents were required to attend services during which a sermon could last several hours.

"It was hard to read about the admonitions of being proud. It sounds quite negative. At the same time, the text is an affirmation of faith at that time," Palmer said.

Sebring worked day and night, and beyond the scope of her two-week internship, to crack Bidwell's code.

Palmer called the student's effort one of "great passion" and "diligence." She also lauded the contributions of the museum's seven other high school and one other college interns this summer.

"They've all added value here," said Palmer.

Sebring is in the process of moving to Virginia with her family, where she will become a sophomore at Randolph-Macon Academy, a flight school.

"I'm sad to see her go, but I'm eager to share her work with our board and hope it inspires other to continue the work," said Palmer.

As for Sebring, although moving on, she said she'll take a great lesson with her: "This is the start of proving to myself that I can actually do this when no one else could."

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