2021-07-31

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.


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