National Unitarian Fellowship

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Revd. Dr. Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley

The inscription on the inkstand reads "To Joseph Priestley LLD etc. on his departure in exile, from a few Members of the University of Cambridge who regret that this expression of their esteem should be occasioned by the ingratitude of their country: Wm Frend, James Losh, John Twedell, Godfrey Higgins" and in April 1794 this was packed into a trunk as he sailed to America, a moment surely for him to reflect on his past life.

Priestley was essentially a religious man, primarily a Minister and though he was an innovative scientist, theologian and political reformer it was his Unitarianism that was the core of his life.

Born in the village of Birstall in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1733, by 1762 he was teaching at Warrington Academy and in 1765 was in London and had definitely become a Socinian holding that Jesus was a man like other men.

His three outstanding characteristics were his unending search for the truth, his optimism about the future - "The morning is upon us and we cannot doubt that the light of day will increase and extend itself more and more into the perfect day" - and the sheer volume and variety of his work and publications. His miscellaneous works alone number over 20 volumes and vary from a "History of the Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ" to an essay on "The First Principles of Government".

Apart from this his scientific work went on apace. In 1772 his first papers were read at the Royal Society. He made experiments with different kinds of air and in 1774 observed dephlogisticated air (oxygen) and after the publication of his "History of Electricity" was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1774 he was, together with Benjamin Franklin, present at a meeting in Essex Street, London to hear Rev. T. Lindsey preach - the first congregation to actually call itself Unitarian.

By 1780 he was Unitarian minister at the "New Meeting" in Birmingham.

Shortly before this the French Revolution had started and Priestley and his friend and fellow Unitarian Josiah Wedgwood were among many enthusiastic radical supporters. Priestley saw it as "a liberating of all the powers of man". He foresaw also that colonies would disappear and "no part of America, Africa or Asia will be held in subjection to any part of Europe".

The backlash came in 1791 when on the anniversary of Bastille Day a mob gathered in the evening and systematically wrecked Priestley's New Meeting Church and its library, burned it and then went on to his house and laboratory, "the best in Europe", destroying these and finally going on to burn the houses of seven more Dissenters.

Priestley escaped but decided it was time to go. He was welcomed in America and offered the Professorship of Chemistry in the University of Pennsylvania. In 1796 he gave a series of discourses at the new Church of Universalists in Philadelphia from which the American Unitarian Universalist Church grew.

He died in 1804. This year we remember the bi-centenary of his death and give thanks for his life.

Dorothy Archer - January 2004