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

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