Joseph Priestley died on this day, the 6th of February, in 1804.
Me I think of it as a holy day, a feast for a radical saint.
Priestley was a scientist, political radical, and one of the more influential founders of the modern English speaking Unitarian movement.
He was born into a comfortable dissenting family in Birstall, Yorkshire, on the 24th of March, 1733. His brilliance was noted very early. At four he could recite the entire Westminster Shorter Catechism. He also quickly learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.
Everyone assumed he would become a minister. And in 1749 during a severe illness he had a spiritual experience that left him with a stutter and absolutely certain of universal salvation. As he rejected the strict Calvinism of his family religion, and with that critical connections, he assumed the door to ministry was closed.
Priestely moved to Lisbon, working for a relative, while continuing his studies. There he mastered French, Italian, German, Aramaic, and Arabic. He also turned his attention to natural philosophy, the current form of scientific investigation. Returning to England he found his place among the Rational Dissenters. He resumed theological studies and was ordained.
The rest of his life was devoted to rational religion, science, and radical politics.
He is best known today as a scientist. As a chemist Priestley is generally acknowledged as the discoverer of oxygen. He also put it to practical application developing soda water. He was also an early investigator of the properties of electricity.
Priestley’s rational religion melded his fascination with natural sciences and his concerns with God and ultimacy. The core thread running through Priestley’s preaching was his insistence that human reason rather than divine revelation was the secret of our possibility. If you want to know God, study the world. In short, Rational Religion. He became one of the founders of the Unitarian movement in England, collaborating with and supporting the work of Theophilus Lindsay.
His radical politics was his downfall in England. He was an outspoken supporter of the French Revolution. In 1791 a series of riots, much of them focused on him as a dangerous thinker, and the proposal some of his books be included on library shelves, led to the burning of his home, laboratory, and church. All in all the rioters burned four chapels, several businesses, and twenty-seven houses. Later the King, George III, is said to have said, “I cannot but feel better pleased that Priestley is the sufferer for the doctrines he and his party have instilled, and that the people see them in their true light.”
Priestly fled the country just ahead of a series of arrests and the notorious “1794 Treason Trials,” coming to the warm embrace of America. Taking refuge in Philadelphia, he gave a series of sermons which would result in the gathering of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, the first church in America to claim the name “unitarian.”
Soon he settled for good in Northumberland county in rural Pennsylvania. There he formed another Unitarian congregation. During his lifetime they mostly met in his home. After his death the congregation built and dedicated a building. While it is no longer used as a church, the congregation that continues in a pretty straight line as another of the communities he founded flourishes as the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Susquehanna Valley.
And I personally am delighted that a Zen Buddhist group meets there as the Joseph Priestley Zen Community.
May his influence and blessings on this world continue…