The Liberal Dissenting Churches Become Openly Unitarian under the Leadership of Joseph Priestly, 17501804


    We have seen in a previous chapter how the Presbyterian churches rapidly became liberal after the division at Salters’ Hall. The movement among them might be described as a “liberal drift,” for it was not a concerted movement with either program or leaders. No one was particularly trying or wishing to form a new denomination, or to reform an old one. There were many able men among their ministers, but only two or three stand out above the rest for the influence they had in bringing about a change of beliefs. One of the earliest of these was Dr. John Taylor of Norwich, who in 1740 published a work on Original Sin which powerfully attacked the orthodox doctrine on that subject, and not only had great influence in England, but also did much to root out this doctrine in New England. Another was Dr. Richard Price1 one of the leading Dissenting ministers in the London district, and a strong friend of the American colonies at the time of their Revolution, who helped undermine the orthodox beliefs by his printed sermons on the nature of Christ (1786), in which he strongly defended the Arian view. But by far the most influential of those that led the Presbyterians to acknowledge Unitarian beliefs was Joseph Priestley.

Priestley was in many ways the polar opposite of Lindsey. He was an extreme Dissenter, while Lindsey was by temper a devoted Churchman. He was a clear-thinking rationalist, while Lindsey was a man of fervent spiritual religion. Priestley welcomed religious controversy as a way of clearing up the truth, while Lindsey shrank from it. Priestley devoted his spare time and thought to science, Lindsey gave his spare time and money to charity and work among the poor. Yet they were united in close bonds of rare friendship for over a generation.

Joseph Priestley was born at a little village near Leeds in 1773, the eldest son of a cloth-maker. When he was six years old his mother died, and he was brought up by an aunt. She was a deeply religious woman, and having brought him up in the strictest religious habits in the Independent Church she encouraged him to become a minister. Being never very robust he was the more serious-minded and diligent in his studies, and early in his teens had learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and he eventually became master of half a score of foreign languages. Although brought up a strict Calvinist, he early showed an independent mind, and when he sought to join the church he was refused admission because he could not say he believed he shared the guilt of Adam’s sin. Nor would he enter the academy in London where it was proposed to send him, for he had now become an Arminian in belief, and could not sign the creed which was set before the students twice a year to keep them straight in the faith. So he went to a new academy at Daventry, where he was enrolled as its first student, and there began his studies for the ministry. Very free discussion of both sides of all questions was encouraged here, and as he found himself taking the liberal side of almost every question he soon had become an Arian.

His studies finished, Priestley accepted the first call that came to him, and became minister of a Presbyterian congregation at a little village in Suffolk, with a salary of but 30 a year, refusing an extra stipend which he might have had had he been willing to subscribe a creed, and trying to eke out this scanty salary by teaching. He set to work with great industry in his church and in the prosecution of further studies; for he was an incessant worker, methodical in his use of time, and never allowing a moment to go to waste, and throughout his long life he seldom lost an hour of work through illness. Results were not encouraging. He was hindered by an inherited tendency to stammer, which made him a poor public speaker; but worse than that, he was steadily moving further and further from orthodoxy, dropping one belief after another; and as they discovered this, members of his congregation gradually fell away from his services and withdrew their support until he was often in want, and was hardly able to keep out of debt. He was glad therefore after three years to accept a call to a more liberal congregation at Nantwich in Cheshire. The congregation was small but sympathetic; and as it made no great demands on him, he was able to supplement his meager salary again by teaching from seven to seven, with no holidays. Hard as this labor was, he much enjoyed it, and was able to buy some books and scientific apparatus; and he found time to write a book on theology, and an English grammar on an original plan.

The reputation he made by his teaching at Nantwich led to his appointment, after three years, as teacher of languages at Warrington, in a new Dissenting academy where all three of the teachers were Arians. Here he spent six happy years, in which he published several works growing out of his teaching, one of which led the University of Edinburgh to make him a Doctor of Laws. In this period he also met Dr. Franklin in London, and with his encouragement wrote a History of Electricity, and he was soon afterwards elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, which later gave him the supreme honor of its gold medal for his discoveries in chemistry.

While at Warrington, Priestley continued to preach, having by very patient practice somewhat overcome his habit of stammering; and as his teaching was bringing him only the barest living, he accepted in 1767 a call to the Mill Hill Chapel at Leeds, the largest Dissenting congregation in the north of England, where he spent the next six years. Happy to be doing again the work of his first choice, he threw himself into it with great energy, was diligent in preaching, in visiting his people, in instructing the young, and in organizing the congregation. Finding many of the liberal Dissenters slipping away to the Methodists, whose movement was then sweeping over England, he wrote a tract appealing to them to be true to their convictions and not let themselves be carried away by popular emotion. Thirty thousand copies of this tract were circulated, and together with others had a great effect in arousing loyalty. He also continued his studies in theology, and published several new volumes on the subject; and now giving up Arianism he became a full-fledged Unitarian, believing in the simple humanity of Jesus, a doctrine which until now had been professed by very few in England. It was in this period that he first met Lindsey and gave him his sympathy.

For recreation in leisure hours Priestley continued his experiments in electricity, and began important experiments in the chemistry of the air which led him later to the discovery of oxygen,2 and thus made him one of the founders of modern chemistry, and one of the most distinguished scientific men of his age. The fame he thus won brought him a proposal to accompany Captain Cook as astronomer on his second voyage around the world; but as some clergymen of influence opposed him on account of his religious views, the appointment was denied him. Soon afterwards, however, when he was offered a position as literary companion to Lord Shelburne, with a large salary, and much freedom to pursue his studies in theology and his experiments in science, the conditions were too attractive to resist. He continued in this position for seven years. Traveling on the Continent with his lordship he was received with high honor by the scientific men of Paris. They generally professed to be atheists, while he did not hesitate to declare his belief in Christianity; whereupon some of them told him he was the only person of sense they had ever met who professed to believe in the Christian religion. He continued his scientific studies, published more volumes on theology or philosophy, and when in London saw much of Lindsey and gave him great help in his new work. The war with the American colonies was now going on, and Priestley’s sympathy with them was undisguised, while his patron’s sympathies were on the other side. Priestley therefore resigned his position in 1780, and as he was soon called to be one of the ministers of the New Meeting at Birmingham he again returned to the pulpit.

Now began the happiest and most influential period of Priestley’s life, though it was to end in tragedy. He was the most liberal of the Dissenting ministers, and the New Meeting was the most liberal congregation in England, so that they suited each other well. It was a famous church, containing not a few distinguished men. It was agreed that he might devote himself to studies and writing during the week, and serve the church only on Sundays, while his colleague was to have the care of the parish. He performed his part of the duties faithfully, preaching mornings, and in the afternoon teaching or catechizing his young people, sometimes as many as a hundred and fifty of them, taken in three or four classes one after another. He continued his experiments in science, and also got deeper and deeper into theology, publishing two of his most elaborate and important works, History of the Corruptions of Christianity 3 (1782), and History of Early Opinions concerning Jesus Christ (1786). Previous writers had generally stopped with trying to show that the early church was not Trinitarian but Arian. In these works Priestley contended that the earliest belief about Christ was purely Unitarian, and that the doctrines which arose later came of the corrupting influence of pagan philosophy upon Christian thought. He insisted that the orthodox worship of Christ was sheer idolatry, and that Arianism was little better.

These writings brought down upon him bitter and even vicious attacks, especially from Archdeacon Horsley, with whom a controversy went on for some eight years. Priestley’s great fame as a scientist had drawn much attention to his theological works, and it was feared that they might have disastrous effects upon the clergy. Horsley therefore sought, by magnifying certain incidental errors into which too hasty writing had led Priestley, to prevent such a result by discrediting him as a competent authority in theology, and as perhaps even dishonest, and on this ground he excused himself from attempting to answer Priestley’s main argument. So far as the Church of England was concerned, Horsley succeeded in his purpose, for but a handful left the Church to follow Priestley; but with the liberal Dissenters Priestley’s prestige was immensely increased. Each year he would publish a volume of Defences of Unitarianism to meet the attacks that were being made on them; and as he was the first powerful champion they had had since open speaking became safe, they rallied to his standard, while he in turn powerfully molded their thought and confirmed them in their beliefs.

Eleven years, the happiest and most fruitful of his life, Priestley lived in Birmingham. Sundays he devotedly served his church; weekdays he spent in studying and writing on theological subjects, or in his scientific experiments. Meantime clouds were beginning to gather over his head. His bold and repeated attacks on the Trinity made many converts to Unitarianism, and prevented many others from slipping over to the Church of England, and his church grew rapidly. The clergy of the town, who from the first had shown much bigotry towards him, began violently to abuse him from their pulpits and in print, calling him infidel, atheist, and no better than the Devil himself ; but he defended himself ably, and showed much better spirit than his opponents.

Yet fiercer opposition came upon him when he championed the cause of the Dissenters in their effort before Parliament to have the Test and Corporation Acts 4 repealed. These laws, passed more than a century before, were designed to exclude Dissenters from all offices in the municipal and national governments; and although they had now long lain un-enforced or suspended or evaded, so that prosecution under them had become practically unknown, Dissenters held office only under humiliating conditions, and with the knowledge that at any time the rigor of the law might fall upon them. For more than half a century now no attempt had been made to have them repealed; but as Dissenters had not long since been relieved of subscription to the Articles of Religion, and the government was believed to be liberal, it was felt that the time was ripe for them to agitate for full rights. The orthodox Dissenters did little about it, but the liberals took up the movement actively, with Priestley as their ablest and most active champion.

The High Church party opposed the movement with the greatest bitterness. Taking advantage of the known sympathy of Priestley and other liberal Dissenters with the French Revolution, which had lately overthrown the most corrupt state and church in Europe, but had now begun to run into dangerous excesses, they used every means to make it appear that church and state were also in peril in England, and that the real purpose of the Dissenters was to overthrow the Church of England and dethrone the king, and that Priestley and his followers were really conspirators and traitors in disguise. The petition to Parliament was defeated thrice in succession, and the attempt was for the time abandoned,5 but the High Church party would not be appeased. Edmund Burke by his writings and his speeches in Parliament, and the clergy throughout the kingdom, tried to inflame the minds of the people against Priestley. Attacks upon him in Birmingham, and upon other Dissenters elsewhere, were made with fresh fury. Meantime the Revolution in France had got out of hand and was running into widespread violence and bloodshed, so that many conservatives in England were honestly nervous with anxiety lest revolution should cross the Channel. Every means was therefore used to fill the popular mind with the notion that Dissenters were dangerous radicals who were plotting treason.

At last in 1791, on a date decided on beforehand,6 the train which had been carefully laid was fired at Birmingham. A drunken mob of several thousand was gathered from the lower classes, with minds poisoned and inflamed by the High Church clergy and their party. They burnt Priestley’s and another Dissenting meetinghouse, plundered his library, scattered his manuscripts, the labor of years, destroyed his scientific apparatus, burnt his house, and would gladly have murdered him, but that he was warned just in time and barely escaped with his life. “Church and King” was their slogan, as if to overawe and discipline conspirators against the Constitution and government of England; but their real motive was religious bigotry against Dissenters in general, and in particular against the Unitarians and their leader, Dr. Priestley. Three days and nights the mob raged and pillaged, with no serious attempt made to control them until soldiers were sent from a distance. A hundred or more houses, and several meetinghouses, were burnt, torn down, or sacked, practically all of them belonging to liberal Dissenters, whose property loss was a quarter of a million pounds.

The High Church party openly exulted over the lesson they had taught to show the Dissenters their place, and the clergyman who had done most to stir up the trouble was soon afterwards rewarded by being made a bishop. Out of several thousand rioters fewer than twenty were finally put to trial, and the trial was a farce. Only six, known to be desperate criminals anyway, were convicted, and of these two escaped punishment. The victims of the mob recovered at law but little more than half of their losses.

Deep sympathy was shown Priestley from many quarters, and money was sent him by many friends. Addresses of sympathy poured in on him from many societies in England, France and America. The French voted him a citizen of their new republic, and appointed him to a seat in their National Assembly; but at home religious bigotry continued to do its work against him. He never found it safe to return to Birmingham; but he sent back, to be read from the ruins of his meetinghouse, a sermon on the text, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Going to London, he was soon chosen minister of the church at Hackney, to succeed his friend Dr. Price who had lately died. Here he preached for some three years, also teaching theology in a liberal college nearby, and happy in the frequent society of his dearest friend, Lindsey.

Yet even in London, life was made almost intolerable for him. He could scarcely get a house to live in, nor could his wife get a servant. Shunned by his former friends, and threatened by his enemies, he knew not at what hour some new charge of sedition might be trumped up against him, and he be sent into exile a prisoner, as had already happened to one of his friends. His sons had already been driven from their positions and had emigrated to America. Thither he followed them in 1794. He was received with distinction at New York and Philadelphia, and at length joined his sons at Northumberland, a new settlement on the Susquehanna. Here he spent the last ten years of his life, happy in the freedom of the New World, though even here he was calumniated from the pulpit and in the newspapers. In his new life he continued as of old to study, carried on his scientific experiments, and published books in defense of his views of religion to the very last. Winters he would go into Philadelphia where he often preached or lectured, and formed congenial friendship not only with scientists and scholars, but with eminent statesmen like Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, as he had previously done with Franklin in England. He died in 1804.

Priestley was an extraordinary man, for the variety of his interests and the vast amount of work he accomplished apart from his ministry. Not counting his scientific writings, his works fill twenty-five large volumes, and cover a wide range of subjects. The world at large remembers him as a great pioneer of modern chemistry, and as almost the most famous scientist of his time; but to him the study of science was only an incidental recreation. Far more than this he loved theological study, and his chief delight was to propagate Unitarianism. Of all subjects in the world he regarded religion as by far the most important; and his favorite occupation was the work of the Christian ministry, which he declared to be the most important, useful, and honorable of all professions. He was a man of the most devout personal religion, and of unshakable trust in God; and despite all his sufferings he never wavered in his faith that God had ordered all for the best.

Priestley’s theology was a singular combination of some views that even now seem pretty advanced, and that quite shocked the Unitarians of his own time when they were first expressed, and of others that liberal thinkers have long since left far behind. He denied the miraculous birth of Jesus, and believed that he was born at Nazareth, with the same physical, mental, and moral imperfections as other human beings, and that his character was only gradually formed and improved. At the same time he believed the miracles to be literally true, and attached to them the greatest importance as the very foundation of Christianity. He also looked for the literal fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and expected the second coming of Christ; and although he believed that the soul is a function of the body and dies with it, he believed that God will at the last day restore each soul to life by its own miraculous resurrection.

Whatever he believed he preached out boldly and without apology or hesitation, defending and urging his views ably and fearlessly. This was in marked contrast with the practice of most preachers of his time, who were timid in speaking out what they thought, for fear lest the old law against blasphemy be revived. The example of this intrepid champion of free thought and free speech put courage into the hearts of the liberal Dissenters. He did much to break down Arianism among them; and as he boldly proclaimed Unitarian views and adopted the Unitarian name, and urged that the liberal Dissenting churches ought to accept it, many of them did so. He assisted in the formation of the earliest organizations for bringing the scattered and disunited liberal churches together for common effort. As their most active spokesman and writer he helped them to realize what they stood for as contrasted with the Church of England or the orthodox Dissenters. Thus he roused the slumbering body of English Unitarianism into active life, infused spirit and conviction into its members, and together with Lindsey deserves to be regarded as one of the two modern founders of the movement that exists today; the organization and life of which, during the nineteenth century, remains to be spoken of in the next chapter.

Back Next
Click here to open the frame set built to read this document.
Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
Copyright released by Wilbur's grandchildren.
For comments of technical support, e-mail  the Webmaster at [ webmaster at pacificuu dot org ].