Priestley was a man of The Enlightenment, notable scientist, minister. He founded the Unitarian church but his political ideas forced him to leave England for a new USA.
Scientist, Ordained Minister, Radical Thinker of The Enlightenment
Joseph Priestley was living at the right time for an innovative thinker. The Enlightenment valued rational human reasoning after a period where blind faith and obedience to religious and political authorities had been required. As a result modern scientific thinking blossomed in a supportive atmospheres, building on the work of pioneers such as Galileo Galilei.
Joseph Priestley was a free thinker which manifested itself in the three threads of his life: science, religion and society. That radical thinking allowed him to challenge and question the accepted norms in science, religion, society and politics. However the religious and political establishment had not lost complete influence and they, and the mobs, challenged Priestley’s ideas.
He was closely involved with other great thinkers of The Enlightenment through The Club of Honest Whigs in London and others across the world, especially Benjamin Franklin from America. They shared a long friendship through meetings when Franklin was living in London and frequent correspondence.
Minister of Religion
Joseph Priestley was from a family or religious nonconformists but his views put him on the fringes of even that radical movement. He preached to a small congregation and his first book, The Rudiments of English Grammar, set out to apply the rigour that had always been applied to Greek and Latin to English. As a result of that work he was recruited as a language tutor, he apparently spoke six, although he soon added politics and modern history to his subjects.
Scientists, Amateur and Eminent
Like many educated men at this time Priestley was fascinated by the new science of electricity and started conducting experiments and studies in “natural philosophy”. It was a time that the amateur (in the original sense of lover or enthusiast) could produce important discoveries. His work on electricity and involvement with the Honest Whigs effectively led to his election to The Royal Society.
His subsequent work on the nature of air and how animals consumed what we now to be oxygen from the air and plants replace it led to the award of the Copley Medal by The Royal Society. Unlike most modern researchers, and many contemporaries, Priestley shared his findings freely often when his interpretation was half-formed. This is part of the reason that Joseph Priestley has perhaps not had the full recognition that should be his due.
This growing eminence led to sponsorship of his research by William Petty, Earl of Shelburne, in return for maintaining Shelburne’s library and tutoring his sons – activities which were to give him time for his scientific enquiries,.
Radical Social, Political and Religious Ideas
Priestley continued to think freely across many fields including on religion and society. He challenged the orthodox view of the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ. With Reverend Theophilus Lindsey he founded the first Unitarian denomination based on such ideas.
He was to take these ideas further and his History of the Corruptions of Christianity challenged what he saw as the supernatural trappings that had been applied to Christianity over time and by religious authorities. This was to lead to a friendship with the American President, Thomas Jefferson, for whom the Corruptions of Christianity explained his own difficulty with his belief.
However the reaction to it in Britain was extremely critical in many quarters. Priestley’s sermons and subsequent writing did nothing to take the heat out of the antagonism by much of the establishment. It eventually came to a head in Birmingham when Priestley only just escaped from a mob and went into hiding. Eventually this led to his emigration to the new United States of America.
Exile and Influence in the Fledgling United States of America
Priestley settled in Pennsylvania where his ideas continued to cause problems and he became estranged from the president, John Adams. However they were eventually to be reconciled and they spent their last years in regular correspondence
A Readable Story of the Jospeh Priestley, The Enlightenment and Founding of America
Steven Johnson has written a very readable book that tells the story, almost a thriller in the twists and turns, of one of the most important but frequently forgotten British scientists and intellectuals. The Invention of Air is first and foremost a story about a man; a brilliant thinker but perhaps naive about the impact of his ideas in a changing world.
This is a compact book that can be enjoyed by anyone and it does not need a religious, scientific or political interest to be enjoyed and appreciated. The Invention of Air is highly recommended.
The Invention of Air, Story of Joseph Priestley (2009, ISBN:978-0-141-04435-4) by Steven Johnson is sub-titled “An experiment, a journey, a new country and the amazing force of scientific discovery” which encapsulates the story. It is published in paperback by Penguin at £9.99.