1945 - NUF - 2004


Issue 173 February 2004


Joseph Priestley

It is the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Joseph Priestley(1733-1804) on 6 February. Such anniversaries are often the occasion for hagiographical writings which ask no questions. Priestley would have been the last person to have indulged in reflections of that sort. His life was characterised by ceaseless questing and he would expect that those who followed him would scrutinise critically his work and his legacy.

Over the last thirty years there has been a renaissance af scholarly interest in Priestley and his contemporaries. He was a man whose work was of first rate importance in a whole series of fields. Scholars have sought with different degrees of success to construct a coherent view of his many creative contributions. This has not always been appreciated by Unitarians who have sometimes been impatient with the degree of attention accorded him. But all traditions contain within them dominant figures, and the fact that Priestley holds the attention of scholars from many different disciplines ensures that far the foreseeable future at least he will continue to be a source of interest and fascination. I shall begin with a general account of his life and work and then take just one aspect of his thought which I believe is still thought provoking today, that concerning toleration.

Joseph Priestley was born at Birstall, near Leeds, the eldest son of a cloth manufacturer. His mother, from a farming background, died giving birth to her fifth child in the winter of 1739/40. At the age of nine, Joseph was sent to stay with his uncle and aunt, John (d.1745) and Sarah Keighley (d.1762), who was childless and looked on Joseph as her son. She nursed him through severe ill health, apparently tuberculosis. His family were of devout Dissenting stock, and Sarah had always hoped that he would go into the ministry. He had learnt Latin and the elements of Greek at a local free school, probably Batley Grammar School, and he learnt Hebrew from a local dissenting minister. He was introduced to Newtonian mathematics by Rev. Haggerstone, a former a pupil of the distinguished Newtonian expert, Colin Maclaurin. He had also studied French, German and Italian. As a Dissenter, he would be unable to complete his university studies unless he was prepared to conform to the Church of England. Since he opposed all religious tests, whether imposed by Churchmen or Dissenters, he entered the liberal Dissenting Academy at Daventry. Fortunately, it was an ideal institution for a precocious student. His student diary shows that the intellectual and social atmosphere there was vibrant. Both teachers and pupils spent much time discussing contentious issues. When he left the academy in 1755 he was well-equipped to cope with advanced ideas in a whole range of subjects which concerned enlightened thinkers. He became assistant minister at Needham Market, Suffolk. He was not a success. His theology was too unorthodox for the congregation and he suffered severely from a stammer. His attempt to supplement his paltry income through teaching failed dismally. After three years, he accepted a ministry at Nantwich, Cheshire, where, in contrast, his heterodoxy was accepted and the school he established was a notable success.

Priestley stayed for three years. His reputation as a teacher was growing, especially following the publication of The Rudiments of English Grammar (1761). In 1762 he became tutor in Languages and Belles Lettres at the recently revived Warrington Academy (1757-1784), which quickly became the most distinguished liberal Dissenting Academy in England. In this Priestley played his part, publishing in the year of his arrival, The Theory of Language and Universal Grammar. By the time Priestley left the academy in 1767 for the ministry at Mill-Hill Chapel Leeds, he had become noted for his immense energy, distinction and versatility. The University of Edinburgh had awarded him an honorary doctorate in Law 1764; two year later he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. While he was in Warrington, Priestley married Mary Wilkinson, daughter of Isaac Wilkinson, the ironmaster. A woman of great character, she proved to be a wonderful support for Joseph throughout a busy and eventful life. They had four children.

At the time he left Daventry Academy in 1755, Priestley was an Arian of sorts, that is, he believed in the special mediating role of Jesus between God and man. However, he soon began to question the doctrine of the atonement, and he submitted a manuscript on the subject to Caleb Fleming and Nathaniel Lardner, who published part of it, but already found some of his views on the authority of the scriptures too radical. Nonetheless, in Priestley's recollection, it was through the reading of Lardner on the Logos when he first came to Leeds that he became a Socinian. With his characteristic energy, he pressed on with his researches into Scripture and the early Church, and published his views in a series of major works, notably the Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion (1772), History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782), An History of Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ (1786) and A General History of the Christian Church (1790-1803) His ambition was the same as that of Lardner, namely to show that it is the orthodox who were heterodox and the heterodox who were truly orthodox. What is more, unlike Lardner, he was public and assertive in his views, and he forced the pillars of orthodoxy to engage in open debate with him. In fact he exasperated and exhausted them. His leading opponent, Samuel Horsely, Archdeacon of St. Albans, having attempted to refute the History of the Corruptions , refused to read the History of Early Opinions . Priestley's aim was to restore Christianity to its primitive simplicity. By the end of his life he had reduced the essentials of faith to a belief in the Resurrection, in the exemplary life and teachings of Christ, whom he described as a 'messenger from God', and in the doctrine of rewards and punishments and of a future life, with the prospect of salvation even for the reprobate. Even on the day he died he was revising his work and answering his critics.

While at Leeds Priestley's scientific genius became apparent. He also gained a reputation as a political philosopher - he published his Essay on the First Principals of Government in 1768 - and a radical, with his public support for the cause of the rebellious American colonies. In 1773, he took up a position as tutor and librarian to the Earl of Shelburne, with whom, in the following year, he made his only visit to Europe. During his six years in the earl's service, Priestley contained his radical tendencies and devoted himself to science. In 1780, he accepted a call to New Meeting Birmingham. A centre of science and industry, Priestley was happier than at any other time in his life; he also resumed his radical career, advocating parliamentary reform, universal toleration and the separation of church and state. This was the time when he became embroiled in a fierce controversy about the nature of the early church, which Priestley claimed to have been Unitarian.

He welcomed the French Revolution and was the first victim of the English reaction to those events, directed initially by the powerful voice of Burke. Local celebrations of the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, 14 July, 1791 were used as the trigger for attacking Priestley. His house, laboratory and library were destroyed, and he and his family were forced to flee to London. There, Priestley was co-pastor at Hackney and he lectured at New College Hackney. His situation remained fraught with danger, and in 1794 he emigrated to the United States. He set up home in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where he spent the rest of his days.

Joseph Priestley was a key figure in the later phase of the English Enlightenment. His contribution to a great range of subjects was outstanding. He lent character and gave confidence to the movement. Emphasizing the candid expression of opinion, he believed that prejudice and ignorance could be combated by open-minded enquiry and plain speaking. Many aspects of his thought appear to characterised by a free-wheeling experimentalism, a willingness to welcome new ideas and change for change's sake. That is misleading, however, for his ideas were held together by a profound belief in God's providential superintendence, in the conviction that it was our duty to pursue truth, that God had framed the world in such a way as to encourage man to seek truth through experimentation even in government, and finally that the end result would be man's happiness, and a world 'paradisiacal beyond what we can conceive'. Such ideas were the source of fear for those who clung to orthodoxy in religion, opposed change in the constitution in church and state, and adhered to the status quo in government and society.

Contrarily they inspired a whole range of thinkers: Jeremy Bentham, who secularised Priestley's utilitarianism; liberal Dissenters who were excited by his positive demonstration that the early Church was Unitarian and that open enquiry led neither to Deism nor atheism; liberal Roman Catholics, such as Father Joseph Berington, who shared his anti-clerical outlook and were grateful for the inclusion of Catholics in his argument for wider toleration; utopian thinkers, like William Godwin, who were persuaded by his doctrine of philosophical necessity; early Romantics who were excited by his development of Hartley's associationism and his preaching that these notions would lead to the transformation of the world (some even hoped to join him in Pennsylvania creating a pioneering utopian or 'pantisocratic' scheme); and, finally, political radicals in the 1790s who were grateful for Priestley's refusal to renege on his beliefs. 'Violence is temporary, truth is eternal', he declared following the Birmingham Riots. Such beliefs and conduct were consistent with his scientific work, now his main claim to fame. He was an amazingly fertile thinker and experimenter. He was a major participant in the chemical revolution, sharing with Scheele the credit for first isolating oxygen. He refused to go along with developments in quantitative chemistry led by Antoine Lavoisier, but his isolation of innumerable gases, and his discovery of photo-synthesis, in 1772, arguably his greatest achievement, contributed hugely to the growing knowledge of nature. For him nature was God's creation; his studies were intended to further man's understanding of eternal verities, to be of permanent benefit to mankind, and to transform the world. Science, however, was just part of his fundamentally religious quest. It was never an end in itself.

Religion and toleration:

Priestley belonged to the tradition of liberal Protestantism which can be traced back to Erasmus. It emphasized scriptural sufficiency and doctrinal economy. Like John Locke he believed that a simple gospel would draw men together. Religious peace and toleration would result. But unlike Locke, and many in that tradition, Priestley was forthright in his views, he combined Reformation combativeness with the tradition of Renaissance humanism. There was, however, one major problem for Priestley, namely that the religion he professed was illegal, tolerated only by connivance. Priestley was prepared to risk the wrath of the authorities in order to publish his ideas. He did not believe that toleration should be bought at the price of understating one's views, or of not criticising views which he considered to be flawed. He engaged almost all religious groups at the time in controversy - orthodox Protestants, Roman Catholics, the Jews and the Swedenborgians. Enlightenment thinking has been 'criticised generally for its impatience with the superstitious beliefs of the time. 'Voltaire's 'Ecrasez I'infâme' became its crusading slogan. Priestley regarded many traditional beliefs as superstitious, but he did not make the relinquishing of such beliefs a requisite of toleration. He insisted neither on a test of good citizenship nor a modification of beliefs or traditional behaviour as the price of toleration. In this he differed from many enlightened thinkers. Most followed Locke in believing that the natural right to liberty of conscience was subject to certain conditions, including a belief in God, and in the sovereignty of one's state. He excluded atheists and Roman Catholics and would by the same token have excluded Muslims. Priestley's attitude, which he regarded as a development of Locke's, was refreshingly different. He believed that religion should not be a concern of the state.

He expounded these views in his Essay on the First Principles of Government, notably in section five and six on religious liberty from which the citations below are taken. He argued that,

'The duties of religion, properly understood, seem to be, in some measure incompatible with the interference of the civil power...
... I must think the authority of the magistrate opposed to God, in every case in which human laws impede the use of my faculties in matters of religion.'

Priestley believed that human establishments of religion impeded free enquiry, for they biased citizens in favour of the state sanctioned religion. Further, if the magistrate has the right to 'to establish any mode of the Christian religion, or the Christian religion in general, a Mahometan governor must have the same right to establish the Mahometan religion.'

'The authority of God and conscience may always, with equal justice, be opposed to human authority.'

Priestley made the case for the toleration of all, including heathens and atheists, and for the complete freedom of expression. All should be allowed to 'to judge for themselves and think as they please in matters of religion', as well as to proselytize as they wished. At the same time, Priestley had no hesitation in believing that some religions were 'fundamentally false' and that others were partly erroneous. His plea for toleration formed an aspect of a wider argument for creating a free society in which the pursuit of knowledge was encouraged. Toleration was for him not a matter of quiet acceptance or of quiescence:

'Whatever be the religious opinions ... that I think are agreeable to the word of God, and of importance to the happiness of mankind, I look upon myself as obliged to take every prudent method of propagating them... '

The propagation, or reformation of Christianity, is comprehended in the general idea of promoting useful knowledge of any kind, and this is certainly the-duty of every man, in proportion to his ability and opportunity.'

Priestley had no hesitation in accepting that new ideas could be unsettling, could be objectionable to many and might even turn the world upside down.

Toleration in the Priestley fashion is an uncomfortable doctrine. It is the antithesis of those who think that toleration is a synonym for indifference. In a recent interview on "Five Live" the Bishop of Durham said that toleration was an Enlightenment invention, that it was a Iow grade word. He belongs to the camp that believes that toleration means anything goes.

Although Priestley's doctrine is a radical and vigorous version of Enlightenment thinking on toleration, he was not alone in thinking that toleration was a vital issue. It needs to be remembered that questions of toleration as perceived at the time were primarily about religion and about the legal status of minority religions. As defined by Dr. Johnson, 'toleration is allowance given to that which is not approved'. It is not allowance given to that which does not matter. Johnson was a high Anglican and for him religious toleration was sufficient if it allowed freedom of worship.

But for Priestley, since true religion should be freely enquiring religion, it also involved the separation of church and state and freedom of expression. It meant that citizenship and religious adherence were quite independent of each other and that all should be equal citizens independent of belief. The Bishop of Durham it appears is unhappy with the idea of toleration because he is opposed to gay bishops. We have no idea what Priestley would have thought on the issue. He may or may not have regarded such a development as erroneous - that would be a matter of scripture - but he would not deny the right of a church either to ordain gay priest or to forbid their ordination. He would prefer a church to be a voluntary institution, if Christian, bound by scripture but allowing freedom of interpretation. He himself was proud of Rational Dissenters and asserted their superiority within Dissent. But for him individuals should be free to worship as they wished, whether or not he thought their ideas erroneous, and they should be free to express their views.

Whereas it is idle to speculate about Priestley's opinions on many issues which concern us today, one aspect of his idea of toleration was worrying then and should still give us pause for thought. He believed so clearly in the value of freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry as the only way of furthering knowledge of the truth, that he did not consider whether the cause of toleration could be harmed by his fearless investigation of hallowed truths. He refused to accept that candid free inquiry should be disciplined by consideration of the consequences of publishing challenging ideas. Some of his contemporary Rational Dissenters warned him against his selfassertiveness. Most agreed with his principles but worried about his tone. Priestley's confidence in the progress of truth overruled all concerns about expediency.

Today few would subscribe to Priestleian style optimism and we are more sensitive to the dangers of confrontational debate, yet we have not found a way of balancing the right to freedom of expression including the right to challenge views considered to be erroneous, against considerations of the offence which may be caused by forthright candour. In terms of Priestley's ideas, these problems are about the free speech aspect of his thinking on toleration. In other respects his ideas on toleration can more confidently be regarded as of some relevance to a multi-cultural society. If Locke had been alive at the time of the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, he would have believed that Muslims who regarded it as binding were not worthy of citizenship and of toleration. He may not have favoured taking action against them on pragmatic grounds, but for Priestley the. question was simple. So long as Muslims remained within the law, they should be tolerated. On the other hand he may well have been so outspoken on the issue that he endangered his own life - as he did by his forthrightness in his own lifetime. Given his providentialist outlook, he would argue that free enquiry was too precious to be limited by concerns about social harmony.

A central aspect of his political philosophy was his emphasis on the general public well being - 'salus populi est suprema lex'. Priestley defined public well being in terms of happiness, but it is unclear as to whether he meant the happiness of all or of the majority. One might think that the application of the principle of toleration would vary according to whether he meant all or the many. But Priestley did not address the issue, primarily because he assumed that free enquiry would lead to the progress of knowledge which had to be a good in itself. The ways of providence, Priestley conceded, were sometimes puzzling, but he was confident that everything would work out well in the end.

A major reason for uncertainty as to how he might have applied his principles today is that his belief in God's benevolent superintendence would have been severely tested by the horrors of the twentieth century.

In his otherwise excellent study, A Tolerant Country? Immigrants, Refugees and Minorities in Britain (1991), Colin Holmes fails to note that the key questions concerning toleration were first discussed in relation to religious minorities. He notes how the British tradition of tolerance has been invoked in the twentieth century. At the time of the Nottingham and Notting Hill Riots in 1958 a conservative M.P. declared that Britain had 'hitherto always been regarded as the very cradle of liberty and tolerance...' That view conceals more than it reveals. The pedigree for such ideas goes back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688/9 and the Act of Toleration, as it came to known, of 1689. Yet the act was very limited, it applied only to Trinitarian Protestant Dissenters and even that limited toleration was contested. Only with the Hanoverian regime did the Glorious Revolution become a matter of self satisfaction. However, Roman Catholics, Unitarians, Jews, Deists, atheists were excluded and it would be a long time before they would be not only tolerated but accepted as full citizens. Priestley's Essay on the First Principles of Government was the first major work to make the case for universal toleration and to attack the prevalent complacency about the British tradition of liberty and tolerance. He himself paid the price for his outspoken articulation of his views, but he helped to ensure that liberty and toleration were not to be taken for granted and that the real tradition of toleration in Britain is a dynamic and questioning one. Those like Priestley, who have asked the awkward questions and provided candid and contentious answers, are proof that toleration is not necessarily a matter of complacency, indifference and quiescence. Indeed, toleration itself is endangered by the belief that it is a Iow grade word.


Note: a modern edition of Priestley's Essay on the First Principles of Government can be found in Peter Miller ed., Priestley's Political Writings , Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Martin Fitzpatrick, this month's contributor, was a Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Associate in the Department of History and Welsh History, at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He was co-founder and is co-editor of the journal Enlightenment and Dissent. He is the brother of Austin Fitzpatrick, the present President of the General Assembly.

Articles are always welcome for Viewpoint so why not try your hand at writing about a subject which interests you or which you feel passionately about.

Articles for Viewpoint to:- The Editor, P. Silk

Created by John Wilkinson .
Copyright © 1999-2004 [Sharp Rock Graphics] All rights reserved.