PRIESTLEY, JOSEPH: English theologian and scientist; b. at Fieldhead in the parish of Birstall (28 m. s.w. of York), West Riding of Yorkshire, Mar. 13, 1733; d. at Northumberland, Pa., Feb. 6, 1804. He was the son of a cloth-weaver, and was brought up in the dissenting family of his aunt after 1742. Intended for the dissenting ministry, he mastered Latin and Greek at Batley grammarschool (1745), learned Hebrew under a Congregational clergyman, and studied also the rudiments of Chaldee, Syriac, and Arabic. His theological studies were interrupted by symptoms of tuberculosis, but were resumed in 1756 at Daventry Academy. Repelled by Calvinistic doctrine he embraced Arianism (q.v.) in distress that he could not feel a proper repentance for the sin of Adam. He became acquainted with David Hartley's Observations on Man, a book which exercised a decisive influence on his speculations, which also was ranked by him next to the Bible. He embraced Hartley's theory of association carrying with it the necessarian doctrine and in 1754 became a scientific determinist. In 1755 he became Presbyterian minister at Needham Market, Suffolk, but his success was impeded by an impediment in speech. He continued his theological studies and soon came to reject the doctrines of the atonement, the inspiration of the Bible, and all direct divine action on the human soul. In 1758 he became minister at Nantwich, Cheshire, and established a flourishing school, and in 1781 vas appointed tutor in languages and belles-lettres at Warrington Academy. He was ordained in 1782; and removed to Mill Hill Chapel, Leeds, in 1767; became later a Socinian; in 1769 set on foot The Theological Repository, an organ of critical inquiry; and in 1773 entered the new religious movement under the Unitarian name (see UNITARIANS).
He then retired to Leeds, where he founded a circulating library and in 1773 removed to. Calne, Wiltshire, as literary companion of the Earl of Sherbourne, which gave him leisure for study, during which his scientific experiments developed rapidly. Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit (London, 1777), followed by Philosophical Necessity (1777), defined his position, which he called materialism He had adopted the theory that matter consists only of points of force (1772); the doctrine of the penetrability of matter suggested itself before 1772; and after 1775 he had abandoned the distinction between soul and body for homogeneity. In 1780 he removed to Birmingham, where he was amply supplied by friends with funds for his living and for experiments, and the same year was made junior minister of the New Meeting. In his Greek Harmony of the Gospels (1777) he limited the ministry of Christ to a period of little more than a year; and his rejection of the doctrine of the virgin birth and of the impeccability and intellectual infallibility of Christ, and the opinion that he was born at Nazareth, were expressed in The History of Early Opinions concerning Jesus Christ (Birmingham, 1786). The best-known of his theological writings was History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782). From 1786 Priestley issued an annual defense of Unitarianism and in 1791 concurred in the formation of the Unitarian Society. Supporting the principles of the French Revolution, he was one of the organizers of the Constitutional Society of Birmingham; and on the night of July 14, 1791, after the fall of the Bastile, a riotous mob burned his church and house with all his books, papers, and apparatus. He escaped by flight to London, and was partly indemnified after a legal contest covering nine years. He then settled down as morning preacher at Hackney, London, where he also continued his scientific pursuits and lectured on history and chemistry in Hackney College. He removed to the United States in 1794 and settled at Northumberland, Pa. There he held public services in his own house, and after 1799 in a wooden building, and succeeded in establishing a Unitarian society at Philadelphia. He worked out his doctrine of universal restitution, upheld Biblical institutions against those of oriental antiquity, annotated the whole Bible, and completed his General History of the Christian Church (Northumberland, 1802).
Priestley was a pioneer in the erection of chemistry into a science, in the investigation of gases, and the discovery of oxygen. He was a warm friend of Benjamin Franklin, whom he first met at London, after 1762. He was a member of the Royal Society from 1766 and was elected one of the eight associates of the French Academy of Sciences in 1772. He wrote a History of the Present State of Electricity
BIBLIOGRAPHY: His own Memoirs was edited and completed by his son Joseph, London, 1805, reprinted, 1904, best ed. by T, Cooper and W. Christie. 2 vols,. London, 1806; Priestley's Scientific Correspondence, ed. H. C. Bolton, was privately printed, with biographical sketch and bibliographical notes, Brooklyn, 1893. As a source for his life the sketch in the Universal Theological Magazine for Apr., 1804, is essential. Consult further, besides the work of J. T. Rutt, ut sup.; J. Corry, The Life of Joseph Priestley (2 eds.), Birmingham, 1804; T. Belsham, Zeal and Fortitude in the Christian Ministry Illustrated, London, 1804; G. L. Cuvier, Éloges historiques, Paris: 1880; W. Sprague. Annals of the American Unitarian Pulpit, pp. 298-308, New York, 1885; Lord Brougham, in Works, vol. i., Edinburgh, 1872; F. Hitchman, Eighteenth Century Studies, London, 1881; Leslie Stephen, Hist. of English Thought in the 18th Century, New York, 1881; B. Schoenlank, Hartley and Priestley die Begrfinder du Associationismus in England, Halle, 1882; H. Sidgwick, Hist. of Ethics, London, 1888; T. E. Thorpe, Joseph Priestley, London and New York, 1906. Sidelights are cast by Miss C. Hutton, Reminiscences of a Gentlewoman of the Last Century, Birmingham, 1891; J. B. Dale, The Dawn of Radicalism, New York, 1892; J. H. Allen, in American Church History Series, x. 154-159, 187, New York, 1894; I. W. Riley, American Philosophy, The Early Schools, pp. 398-407, New York, 1907; DNB, xlvi. 357-378 (extended, with a very full account of his literary works and a useful index of references to letters published in various places and also to books containing scattering details).
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