UU Minute #49

Joseph Priestley, part 3

The Unitarian spirit arises from curiosity, learning, and the quest for truth. Experience and evidence are our authorities – not the words of authority figures. Joseph Priestley exemplified our Unitarian spirit.

At age 32, Priestley met Benjamin Franklin, who encouraged an interest in electricity, which led, two years later – 1767 -- to publication of The History and Present State of Electricity, a 700-page tome which included reports of some of Priestley’s own discoveries.

Priestley anticipated the inverse square law of electrical attraction, discovered that charcoal conducts electricity, and noted the relationship between electricity and chemical change.

Priestley’s democratic values connected with his approach to science. His book on electricity used history to show that scientific progress depended more on the accumulation of “new facts” that anyone could discover than on the theoretical insights of a few geniuses. For Joseph Priestley, prejudice and dogma of any sort was an obstacle in both science and religion, and his emphasis was on facts over doctrine, whether in science or in religion.

The same year, Priestley moved with his family from Warrington to Leeds to be minister at Mill Hill Chapel. On the side, he began intensive experimental investigations into chemistry.

He was 35 when his second child, Joseph Junior, was born. At age 36 he met and formed a friendship with Theophilus Lindsey, then Vicar of Catterick. Of Lindsey, Priestley would write,
"I never chose to publish anything of moment relating to theology, without consulting him."
He was 38 when his third child, William, was born. At age 39, Priestley published the first of what would be six volumes published over 18 years on Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air. That’s where he published his findings later recognized as the discovery of oxygen – Priestley’s greatest claim to fame.

NEXT: New Meaning


UU Minute #48

Joseph Priestley, part 2

Joseph Priestley, founder of Unitarianism in both England and America, was a prodigious theologian and scientist.

1752: At age 19, Joseph Priestley attended Daventry, a dissenting academy, where his theology shifted further leftward. He became, as he would later say, a “furious freethinker” and a Rational Dissenter – a school of thought emphasizing rational analysis of both the Bible and the natural world.

Having already abandoned Calvin’s doctrine of unconditional election, he now renounced Calvinist doctrine of original sin, and atonement, rejected the Trinity, and embraced the Unitarian teaching of human perfectibility. At Daventry, the goal that would occupy Priestley’s life began to take form: to construct a Christian philosophy in which both religious and moral "facts" could be scientifically proven.

He became a minister, continuing scientific studies and experiments on the side. At age 22, he began serving a dissenting congregation in Suffolk. At age 25, he accepted a call to serve a congregation in Cheshire. There, he established a school, which succeeded well enough that, at age 28, he was offered a teaching position at Warrington Academy.

At age 29, he married Mary Wilkinson, and the next year they had a daughter, Sarah.

During this period, he wrote histories, narrating an optimistic story of humankind continually progressing both scientifically and ethically. For Joseph Priestley, the study of history was a moral imperative because it allowed people to perceive and to advance this progress. Everyone needed to understand this, so Priestley promoted the education of middle-class women, which, in mid-18th century England, was unusual.

The Joseph Priestley story continues in our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: Joseph Priestley, part 3


UU Minute #47

Joseph Priestley, part 1

The first Unitarian church in England, we have seen, was begun in 1774 – two hundred years after the first Unitarian churches had begun in Transylvania and in Poland. Theophilus Lindsey in London started the first one, and by 1790 there were two – the second in Birmingham, started by Joseph Priestley.

A few years later, 1794, Priestley sailed to Philadelphia. From there he moved on to settle in what was then the wilderness backwoods of Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Before that move, while in Philadelphia, he gave a series of sermons. Twenty of Philadelphia’s intellectual leaders, inspired by those sermons, and directed and encouraged by Priestley, then formed the First Unitarian Society of Philadelphia in 1796 Jun 12 – the first congregation in the country to name itself Unitarian.

So Joseph Priestley was a founder of Unitarianism in both England and America. Who was he?

Priestley was a chemist, a natural philosopher, a theologian, grammarian, and political theorist who published over 150 works. He was quite the polymath – reminiscent of our earlier founding figure, Miguel Serveto. He
“stands as one of the outstanding embodiments of the Enlightenment, that cultural movement blending philosophy, science, and reason.”
At age 16, Priestley had become seriously ill and believed he was dying. Raised as a devout Calvinist, he believed a conversion experience was necessary for salvation, but doubted he had had one. This emotional distress led him to question his theological upbringing, to reject Calvin’s doctrine of election and to accept universal salvation. We could say he was a Universalist before he was a Unitarian.

More about the life of Joseph Priestley in our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: Joseph Priestley, part 2