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

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