The website of the Newington Green Meeting House lists one Joseph Priestley amongst the intellectual friends of the influential Richard Price: in fact, it was he who preached the sermon on the occasion of Price’s funeral, and succeeded to his ministry at the Gravel Pit Chapel.
Priestley was a major figure of the British Enlightenment1 and a notable polymath… Remembered today primarily for his isolation and identification of seven gases, including oxygen, in his own day he was known also as a vigorous advocate of Unitarianism and of liberal reform of government, education, and theology2
The story of Joseph Priestley is complex and crowded, and embraces the major themes of the turbulent 18th century: the educational system, Gentlemen’s clubs, political revolution and dissent, and the impact of free thought on the populous. He was caricatured by Gillray, acquired the nickname Gunpowder Joe, and even had riots named after him. In the 20th century, he had the distinction of having two entirely separate entries in the Dictionary of National Biography, one devoted solely to his scientific achievements for which he is now best known, and the other to his theology, which occupied the greater part of his intellect throughout his life.
He was born on 13th March 1733 in the village of Birstall, a few miles south of Leeds, in what is now West Yorkshire, his birthplace commemorated by a statue in the modern market place. The first born of six children of Jonas Priestley, a cloth-dresser and finisher, he was sent away to live with his maternal grandfather from the age of one year, and later returned, only to be brought up by his paternal aunt after his mother’s death when he was six years old. A precocious child and a natural scholar, from an early age he showed a strong aptitude for learning and even whilst at local schools, he was tutored in Greek, Latin and Hebrew.
The extended Priestley family were all ‘fervent dissenting Calvinists’. By Priestley’s own description, his aunt was ‘an open-minded Presbyterian who welcomed all neighbouring preachers however heretical if she thought them good and honest men’. Her intentions for the young Joseph were originally aimed at the Ministry, although he later had designs on commerce, for which he added French, German and Italian to his repertoire3.
Disbarred from the traditional universities of Oxford and Cambridge because of his beliefs, he eventually settled into Daventry Academy, Northampton in 1752, which, under the leadership of Phillip Doddridge (1702-1751), had developed the reputation as being one of the finest of the dissenting academies, training some of the leading non-conforming ministers of the time. Priestley flourished in this atmosphere of intellectual freedom inherited from Doddridge, whose legacy was a teaching practice based firmly on the dialectic principle of reasoned debate. Priestley was later to adopt this approach throughout his writings, and it was to make him one of the most contentious theologians of his time: as a rational dissenter, he believed that truth was ultimately to emerge from the conflict of contending ideas. He also believed that education was the key to shaping people and the world’s future. To Priestley, ‘Knowledge was a light and a guide, a right and a weapon’.4
After matriculating from the Academy and occupying various not entirely happy or successful appointments, he eventually took up a post as tutor at the prestigious Warrington Academy where he taught from 1761 to 1767. Here he found a happy and supportive academic community of like-minded people. Amongst his friends was John Aitkins, the theological tutor, and Priestley and his wife became life-long friends with their daughter Anna Laetitia (1743-1825) who was later to find fame as a poet and essayist under her married name of Barbauld. In May 1762 he was ordained minister and in June of the same year married Mary Wilkinson (1743-1796), their first child, Sarah being born in April 1763. Mary was the daughter of an influential iron-master of the time, and both her brothers were also heavily involved with the early days of the Industrial Revolution. At Warrington, he was remembered as an ‘innovative educational philosopher’, teaching a variety of subjects but emphasising natural history, natural philosophy and modern history, his broad concept of the latter encompassing all social, economic and cultural aspects of a society as well as its government and laws.5
Priestley was either a teacher or a minister all his life, and, after leaving Warrington Academy he returned to the ministry, eventually settling happily in Birmingham from 1780 onwards. Throughout this time, he was exploring both his own theology and the natural sciences through his philosophy of knowledge through empiricism and undertook numerous scientific experiments and writings. Always conceding that ‘science’ was but a side-interest of his, his work was outstanding and he is credited with numerous firsts as a ‘pneumatic chemist’, the most important of which was the isolation and characterisation of eight gases, including nitrous oxide (Laughing Gas) and what was to become known as oxygen, along the way introducing the concept of carbonated water for its health benefits.6 He was awarded the Copley Medal, the highest accolade of the newly founded Royal Society, and also made contributions to the understanding of electricity, and of photosynthesis and respiration.
According to his contemporaries, Priestley was ‘slight and eager, with a long nose, bulging eyes and gentle mouth, he was a comical figure at first glance. He had a disconcertingly lopsided face, walked with a kind of disjointed bird-like trot, and talked non-stop at a rattling speed, the flow chopped into jerky waves by a terrible stammer.’ By his own description, he overcame this stammer by reading ‘very loud and very slow every day’.7 Despite this, ‘(b)y the time of his death in 1804, Priestley was a member of every major scientific society in the world and friend or correspondent of major scientific, intellectual and political personages in many different countries. Author of more than 150 books, pamphlets and articles, he had engaged successfully in controversy with theological, philosophical and political opponents and participated in the founding of British Unitarianism, pneumatic chemistry and the philosophical schools of utilitarianism and associationism.”8
A leading figure in the Lunar Society of Birmingham (more of that another time) he made and kept many loyal friendships throughout his life amongst leading thinkers and industrialists, including the American polymath and founding father of the United States Benjamin Franklin, and Richard Price, radical Unitarian minister at Newington Green. Priestley never faltered in his pursuit of rational argument, a trait which labelled him in the mind of the popular press as a dangerous insurgent. Dubbed the ‘arch-priest of Pandaemonium Liberty’, and ‘Gunpowder Joe’ for a particularly inflammatory pamphlet, he became a familiar figure in satirical cartoons.9
In April 1791 he preached the funeral address of his friend Richard Price in a strongly optimistic tone despite the turmoil of the contemporaneous revolution in France:-
While so favourable a wind is abroad, let every young mind expand itself, catch the rising gale, and partake of the glorious enthusiasm
But on his return to Birmingham, it was clear that trouble was brewing: fuelled by a variety of causes, not least of which was a growing distrust of the intellectual elite, public anger was directed towards the Dissenters in general and Priestley and his property in particular, culminating in the ‘Priestley’ or Birmingham Riots which raged for four days in the July of that year. He was forced to flee Birmingham and sought refuge with Theophilus Lindsey, a long-standing and close friend in London, subsequently taking a house in Clapton, and the position of minister at the Gravel Pit Chapel, Hackney (1791-1794) in succession to Price.10
In 1794 he left England for Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where he died in February 1804. He preached his last sermon11 at the Gravel Pit Meeting in March 30th 1794. His address was published alongside numerous personal letters of support and praise. He concludes:-
‘…(T)hough calumniated and execrated, by many, this has been compensated by the warm attachment of many; which may encourage persons in similar situations to persevere in what appears to them to be right, fearless of any consequences that may result from it.’
He also expressed his satisfaction in the ‘unusually crowded audiences, consisting chiefly of strangers; thinking it to be a symptom of abating prejudice and of the prevalence of better information than has hitherto obtained. The time, I hope, is approaching, when all delusion will vanish; when men and things will be seen in their true light; and the prevalence of truth will, no doubt, be attended with an increase of general happiness. Farewell.’
1 for more background, see British Museum: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/galleries/enlightenment
2 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Joseph Priestley Robert Schofield. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/22788
3 Unglow, Jenny: The Lunar Men: The Friends who made the Future 1733-1810. Faber & Faber 2002. p72.
4 Unglow: p71
5 Unglow: p72
6 for more background see: https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/powerful-effervescence
7 Unglow: p71-76
8 Schofield, Robert The Enlightened Joseph Priestley: A Study of his Life and Work from 1773 to 1804. Penn State University Press (2004) p3.
9 Unglow: 435-449
11 being The Author’s Farewell Discourse to his congregation in preface, annexed to his letter of resignation on the occasion of leaving the country. Joseph Priestley, L.L.D. F.R.S. 1794 https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=evans;idno=N20980.0001.001
Sources of information and further reading:
The Lunar Men: The Friends who made the Future 1730-1810 Jenny Unglow Faber & Faber 2002
The Enlightened Joseph Priestley: A Study of Life and Work from 1773 to 1804 Robert E Schofield Penn State University Press 2009
https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/joseph-priestley – and linked articles of relevance, including one on the fashion for carbonated water.
https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp03658/joseph-priestley?search=sas&sText=Joseph+priestley&OConly=true for several of the cartoons featuring Priestley
http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/book/lookupname?key=Priestley%2C%20Joseph%2C%201733-1804 – for a full list of all of Priestley’s work online