Harvard Square Library exists solely on the basis of donations. If you have benefitted from any of our materials, and/or if making Unitarian Universalist intellectual heritage materials widely available and free is a value to you, please donate whatever you call--even a small amount here: Donate
Joseph Priestley was born at Fieldhead, about six miles south-west of Leeds, Yorkshire, England, on the 13th of March (O.S.), 1733. His father was Jonas Priestley, who followed the trade of a clothier. In his early childhood he was committed to the care of his maternal grandfather, with whom he continued, with little interruption, till his mother’s death, which occurred when he was about seven years old. As his father was encumbered with a large family, his father’s sister, who had no children, took him to live with her, and adopted him as her own. She continued to treat him as her child till her death, in 1764.
By this benevolent and excellent lady, who was in easy circumstances, he was sent to several schools in the neighborhood, and at the same time he was devoting such leisure as he could command to the study of Hebrew, under the dissenting minister of the place, Mr. Kirkby, who subsequently became his instructor also in other branches. With these advantages he had acquired a good knowledge of the languages at the age of sixteen. As his health was poor, and it was apprehended that he was of a consumptive habit, his thoughts were directed to commercial life; and, with a view to this, he learned French, Italian, and German without a teacher. A plan had been formed for placing him in the counting-house of an uncle who lived in Lisbon, and everything was ready for the voyage, when it was found that his health had so far improved that it would be safe for him to return to his studies. He was, accordingly, sent to Daventry Academy, to study under the Rev. Caleb Ashworth. Here he spent three years; and, though he had been educated in the Calvinistic faith, he left the academy a thorough convert to Arianism.
He entered the ministry at a great disadvantage in consequence of a natural impediment in his speech, and this, notwithstanding various efforts to affect a cure, always continued, in a degree at least, till the close of his life. On leaving the academy in 1755, he settled at Needham Market, in Suffolk, over a very small congregation; but the fact that he was not orthodox, when it came to be discovered, was offensive to some of his people, while the impediment in his speech, and his general lack of popular talents, rendered him scarcely an acceptable preacher to the community at large. Here he pursued his theological studies, and quickly became satisfied “that the doctrine of atonement, even in its most qualified sense, had no countenance either from Scripture or reason”; and, in prosecuting his inquiries on this subject, he also reached the conclusion that the apostle Paul’s “reasoning was, in many places, far from being conclusive.” After being at Needham just three years, he was invited to preach to a congregation at Nantwich, in Cheshire; and he, accordingly, removed thither in 1758.
At Nantwich he passed three years much to his satisfaction. Besides performing the duties of a minister, he engaged in teaching a school, and to the more common branches of instruction he added experiments in natural philosophy, to which he had already become attached.
In 1761 he was invited to become a tutor in languages in the academy at Warrington, and here he first began to acquire reputation as a writer in various branches of literature. On a visit to London he became acquainted with Dr. Franklin and several other persons eminent in the scientific world, who encouraged him to execute a plan he had already projected, of writing his “History of Electricity,” which appeared in 1767. This work passed through several editions. He had the year before been elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and about the same time the University of Edinburgh conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Laws. Though it was no part of his duty to preach, while at Warrington, he chose to continue the practice.
In September, 1767, he left Warrington, and took charge of the congregation of Mill Hill Chapel at Leeds. Here he resumed his application to speculative theology which had occupied him at Needham, and which had been interrupted by the business of teaching at Nantwich and Warrington. Soon after his settlement here, he says in his memoir, “I became what is called a Socinian, and, after giving the closest attention to the subject, I have seen more and more reason to be satisfied with that opinion to this day, and likewise to be more impressed with the idea of its importance.” Here he announced the change in his theological views in several different publications, and also wrote a pamphlet or two designed to vindicate the principles and conduct of dissenters. It was during his residence at Leeds that his attention was directed more particularly to the properties of fixed air. He had begun his experiments on this subject in the year 1768, but his first publication appeared in 1772. Here also he composed his “History and Present State of Discoveries relating to Vision, Light, and Colors.”
After a residence at Leeds of six years he accepted an invitation from the Earl of Shelburne, afterwards Marquis of Lansdowne, to reside with him, nominally as a librarian, but really as a companion. Here he was occupied chiefly in scientific pursuits, and in 1773 read a paper to the Royal Society on the different kinds of air, which obtained the Copley medal. In 1774, Dr. Priestley accompanied the earl on a tour to the Continent. They visited Flanders, Holland, and Germany, and, after spending a month in Paris, returned to England. This tour he highly valued as a means of both gratification and improvement.
Dr. Priestley’s publications during the next three or four years brought out his peculiar views—especially the doctrine of philosophical necessity—with great distinctness, and brought upon him a degree of obloquy which evidently diminished the kind regard of his lordship towards him. The result was that the connection between them was, after seven years together, dissolved, the doctor retaining an annuity of a hundred and fifty pounds, according to the original agreement.
Dr. Priestley removed to Birmingham, where he became the minister of a Unitarian congregation. Here he wrote his “History of the Corruptions of Christianity” and his “History of the Early Opinions concerning Jesus Christ.” He published also “Familiar Letters to the Inhabitants of Birmingham,” designed to support the claims of the dissenters for a repeal of the Test Acts. These letters gave great offence, and on the occasion of the celebration at Birmingham of the anniversary of the French Revolution, on the 14th of July, 1791, a mob first burned the meeting-house in which he preached, and afterwards his dwelling-house, destroying his library, philosophical apparatus, and, so far as they could, everything that belonged to him. One hundred years afterwards Birmingham erected a monument to him at the place of this riot, and a statue of him was set up by the University of Oxford, once his relentless foe.
Dr. Priestley repaired to London, where he found friends ready to welcome him. In a short time he was invited to succeed Dr. Price as minister at the Gravel Pit Meeting-house at Hackney. In this situation he found himself, in many respects, easy and comfortable; and he not only had every advantage for pursuing his philosophical and theological inquiries, but was particularly happy in an intimacy with Mr. Lindsey and Mr. Belsham, two of the most eminent Unitarian ministers of the day. He was, however, still, to a great extent, an object of public odium, and the feeling of opposition was not allayed, but intensified, by several of his publications at this period, and he finally made up his mind to cross the ocean, and spend the rest of his days in America. At the time of his leaving England, in April, 1794, several English emigrants had formed a project for a large settlement for the friends of liberty near the head of the Susquehanna, in Pennsylvania. Presuming that this scheme was to go into effect, after landing at New York, on the 4th of June, he proceeded immediately to Philadelphia, and thence to Northumberland, the town nearest to the proposed settlement, intending to reside there until some progress should be made in it. The settlement was given up; but, as he liked the place, he determined to take up his residence there, and there he remained during the residue of his life.
Though Dr. Priestley was highly esteemed by the people of Northumberland, not only for his great intelligence, but for his many private virtues, yet his theological views differed so essentially from theirs that it was impossible for him to exercise his ministry there except on a very small scale. About a dozen Englishmen who resided there at the time were accustomed to meet on Sunday, at his house or the house of his son; and, as the number increased, he made use of a school-room in the neighborhood, and so many ultimately attended that he administered to them the Lord’s Supper.
In the spring of 1796 he spent three months at Philadelphia, and delivered there a series of discourses on the Evidences of Divine Revelation, which were attended by crowded audiences, including most of the members of Congress and of the executive officers of the government. This visit resulted in the organization of the First Unitarian Society of Philadelphia, which after many years of isolation, prospered under the ministry of Dr. Furness and his successors. The next spring he repeated his visit to Philadelphia, and delivered a second series of discourses.
In the spring of 1801 he again spent some time in Philadelphia, and during his stay there had a violent attack of fever, from the effects of which he never afterwards fully recovered. He subsequently suffered, also, at different times from the fever and ague; but, notwithstanding these inroads upon his constitution, his spirits continued good, and he pursued his various studies with nearly his accustomed vigor. On February 6, 1804, he passed away so gently that the moment of his departure could not be exactly ascertained.
Dr. Priestley was married in 1763 to Mary, daughter of Isaac Wilkinson, an iron-master near Wrexham, in Wales, with whose family he became acquainted in consequence of having the youngest son at his school at Nantwich. They had four children—three sons and one daughter.
Priestley is chiefly remembered as the man of science, who discovered the most abundant and most potent element in the world, oxygen. Though untrained in the processes of chemical investigation, he had a natural aptitude for delicate experiments, and he directed his inquiries by a quick and keen imagination and with rare logical ability. With very simple apparatus he discovered and described for the first time nine gases, and made known many of the properties of nitrogen and hydrogen. He was the first to draw attention to the acid compound formed by the electric discharge through enclosed air, and he was the first to catch a glimpse of that wonder-circle of life by which animals and plants nourish one another in the simple act of living. A greater distinction of Priestley is, however, to be found in the fact that he solved the great questions of science as they presented themselves to him without losing his Christian faith. Men of science often find their occupation so absorbing that they fail to reap the happiness that comes of cultivating the life of the spirit. Priestley thought for himself in religion as in science, believed in immortality, and was very sure of God. He valued, as he tells us, his success in the field of science chiefly because it won for him a wider hearing as a Christian teacher.
First-Person Accounts of Joseph Priestley
Dr. C. C. Everett said:
The mind of Priestley was active, sincere, and transparent. He was happy in the time when he lived. It was a time when men were just beginning to feel the special intellectual life which marked the progress of the nineteenth century. The intellectual field was, however, as yet so narrow that one mind could be reasonably familiar with it all.” In science, in political economy, in history, in Biblical study, in theology, he made his power felt. Dr. Martineau has said that the list of his works reads like the prospectus of an encyclopedia. His literary work was immense. At the time of the destruction of his house it is said that the mob waded knee-deep in the fragments of torn manuscripts. Every circumstance of his life set him to some new task. If he was teaching, forthwith treatises on grammar and history flowed from his pen. If he lived by the side of a brewery, he investigated gases. An acquaintance with Franklin moved him to undertake the history of electrical discovery. In all his work he was guided by simple love of truth. It never occurred to him to conceal any convictions that he had. He boldly proclaimed himself a Unitarian, though a less objectionable word would probably have defined his theological position just as well. It is his privilege to be remembered in two widely different capacities, as the scientist who helped to prepare the way for the new chemistry and as the theologian who was largely instrumental in the establishment of Unitarianism in England and America.
The following description of him in his American home was written by one of his Pennsylvania neighbors, Hugh Bellas, Esq.:
The personal appearance of Dr. Priestley, when I first saw him, was that of an aged gentleman, of about five feet nine inches, dressed in black, with a white stock, walking perfectly erect. He usually moved rapidly and acted earnestly when he was engaged in business, whether in his house or in the street; but he often took a deliberate evening’s walk for recreation in the summer. He has been an active pedestrian in England, for he told me he had walked there, in a morning, twenty miles before breakfast. He rode very well on horseback, though not frequently, and I was informed that he had been accustomed to that kind of exercise with the fine horses of the Earl of Shelburne while he lived with him. He usually spoke somewhat rapidly in a tenor tone of voice, without marked impediment, unless under excitement, and then his utterance was but slightly affected.
Near and in front of Dr. Priestley, as he sat in his library, hung the portraits of his friends, Dr. Price and the Rev. Theophilus Lindsey. Some of his metaphysical arguments against the speculations of the former were written in the same apartment, and in perfect friendship they submitted to each other their opposing manuscripts before they sent them off to the press. It was of Mr. Lindsey that, on leaving England, Dr. Priestley wrote that “without his society the world would seem to him, for some time at least, almost a blank.”
To all with whom he had intercourse, and especially to young persons, whatever might be their standing in society, he showed much kindness. I went into an old shoemaker’s shop one morning, about two years after the doctor came to this country, and saw upon his bench a small volume, which I took up, and found to be the first volume of Dr. Priestley’s “Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion.” The old man said the doctor had given it to him as a present, and both he and his wife spoke warmly of his friendly and benevolent disposition, and reprobated, in no very moderate terms, those who condemned him, without, as they supposed, knowing his opinions.
Dr. Priestley’s uncommon urbanity and gracefulness of manners, as well as his intellectual qualities, made him welcome to the most refined and cultivated society. He was always cheerful and courteous, his fair and expressive countenance beaming with benevolent excitement, and his full blue eyes frequently moistened from sensibility. One morning a venerable and strict Presbyterian, old Mr. Montgomery, described in my hearing the various persons who had been with him the preceding evening at a little social party, in some friend’s house, and, after mentioning others, said, “And we had the old doctor among us, with all the benevolence of a primitive apostle.”
The doctor conducted family worship in the morning in his library, reading the prayers in a standing posture. About the year 1799 he commenced preaching in a school-house, a humble log building near his dwelling, to an audience of fifteen, twenty, or more. There he administered the Lord’s Supper, handing the bread and wine to his little grandchildren as well as to any other who chose to partake. A person to whom he gave the elements carried them round to those present who were seated. On at least some of these occasions he was much moved—the tears ran down his cheeks, and his voice struggled for utterance. During public worship he wore the black silk gown, and, after reading the hymn, joined in singing, keeping before him the notes of the tune in his music book.
He was disposed to place full confidence in those with whom he transacted business. As he never took the trouble of learning to count our currency, he handed his money, when he made his little purchases in the stores, saying, “There, Mr. C., you will give me the proper change, for I do not know it.”
In the year 1802 a young gentleman from New England, making a tour for health or pleasure, called upon the doctor, and I soon after inquired who his visitor was. He told me, but I cannot recollect his name, and added, with no little confidence and animation: “A great change is about to take place in New England in favor of Unitarianism. I shall not live to see it, but you may.”