UU Minute #52

The Priestley Riots

You’ll recall that Theophilus Lindsey founded England’s first Unitarian church in 1774, in London. In 1780, the Birmingham New Meeting called Joseph Priestley to be its minister. Under his ministry the congregation became England’s second Unitarian congregation. Priestley was 47.

In 1782, Priestley published A History of the Corruptions of Christianity. He argued that primitive Christianity had been Unitarian, that Jesus Christ was a mere man who preached the resurrection of the body rather than the immortality of a nonexistent soul.

With Priestley now the leader of the Unitarian dissenters, Unitarianism was a revitalized movement. Congregations began springing up around England.

Then came the French Revolution. Unitarians supported the political upheaval across the channel, seeing in it the prospect of humanity freed from despotism and superstition. Conservative leaders in England, however, were horrified by French peasants overthrowing the social order. As England grew increasingly frightened by the turmoil in France, Unitarians were attacked for supporting the revolution – denounced as enemies of church and state. Hostility to dissenters broke out in the Birmingham Riots of 1791, also called the Priestley Riots, since he was a central target of the rioters’ ire.

Rioters attacked or burned four Dissenting chapels, twenty-seven houses, and several businesses. As the rioters approached the Priestley house, he and Mary, his spouse, barely had time to evacuate. They fled from dissenting friend to friend. Priestley's valuable library and his laboratory were looted and razed to the ground, his manuscripts lost in the flames.

Joseph and Mary Priestley fled to London, and three years later – 1794 – sailed for America where, as we have seen, Joseph Priestley established a Unitarian Church in Philadelphia before settling in Northumberland.

NEXT: Our Puritan Roots

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