Science in Christian Perspective



Priestley, Nonconformist Minister
Raymond J. Seeger
(NSF Retired)
4507 Wetherill Road
Bethesda, MD 20816

From: JASA 36 (December 1984):

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) was a remarkable person! He was a nonconformist not only in religion, but also in politics and in science.

Son of a Yorkshire weaver and dresser, he was brought up to be a Presbyterian minister. Although poor health interrupted his formal education, he excelled in languages and, on his own, studied Semitic ones. At home he had as a tutor a dissenting clergyman, who had been a student of Colin Maclaurin, the mathematician; he read S'Gravesande's "Elements of Natural Philosophy." At nineteen he entered a nonconformist academy to prepare for the ministry.

Enthralled with David Hartley's "Observations on Man," he tended to adopt heterodox sides of almost every question. He had already begun to form some doubts as to the divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures and supernatural influences (except miracles).

Priestley had inherited stuttering, which he never quite overcame; he adopted a conversational style of speaking in public. At the age of twenty-three he received his first call, to a chapel in Suffolk. Since his congregation dwindled he had to supplement his income by teaching classics and mathematics. His next ministry was at a more broad-minded chapel in Cheshire. Here he started a school and bought a small electric machine and air pump. This successful venture led to his appointment, at thirty-two, as tutor of languages and belles-lettres in the Warrington Academy (between Liverpool and Manchester). In the same year he was awarded an honorary LID. by the University of Edinburgh (Oxford and Cambridge were not open to dissenters) for his Chart of Biography.

Meanwhile, he had fitted up a small house as a laboratory, primarily for electrical experiments. Priestley was an enthusiastic and zealous amateur. For him natural philosophy was a great adventure; he had a predilection for science and mathematics. His persistent curiosity led him to explore many interesting byways, although he tended to explain away his discoveries as due to happenstance. On a trip to London (1765) he met John Canton and Benjamin Franklin, who recommended that he write a History of Electricity. One fourth of the published book (1767) consisted of his own investigations. He determined the electrical conductivity of various substances. Most important, however, he noted that the inside of a metal container charged electrically on the outside was not at all charged; he inferred an inverse square law of force-experimentally verified 1784-5 by Charles Coulomb. At thirty-three he had been made a fellow of the Royal Society.

At thirty-four he was called to a chapel in Leeds, where he remained six years. During this period he developed pneumatic chemistry by the simple device of collecting gases over mercury instead of the customary water. (His innovative techniques influenced the whole teaching of chemistry.) Priestley himself analyzed what he called various types of "airs," e.g., alkaline, nitrous, phlogisticated, dephlogisticated, et al. He received the Royal Society Copley Medal for his identification of the last in 1774 (wrongly named Oxygen (acid-forming) by Antoine Lavoisier, whom he had met in Paris). In modern terms he isolated nitrous oxide, nitric oxide, carbon monoxide, ammonia, sulphurous acid, gaseous hydrochloric acid, and silicon fluoride. He noted that plants inhaled oxygen and exhaled carbon dioxide in daylight; that sound is more feeble in hydrogen but louder in carbon dioxide than in air. He discovered "aerated" (carbonated) water. It is truly amazing how Priestley, without any general knowledge of chemistry and with only limited apparatus, became one of the outstanding chemists of his time-based solely on his ardor, industry, and ingenious manipulative skill. Strangely, this stubborn nonconformist persisted in believing in the discarded idea of phlogiston until his death.

During this time he also published thirty-four works, mostly theological; in particular, "Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion." He had concluded that the 39 Articles of the Church of England should be reduced to one, viz., the religion of Jesus Christ, that the "livings" of all clergy should be the same, that the clergy should have only clerical duties, and that every member of a community should have as a civil right, regardless of his church affiliation, the freedom to serve his country in any civil capacity for which he was otherwise qualified. In his own case, in 1771 an invitation to join Capt. James Cook on his second voyage was vetoed by church personnel. As he himself admitted in 1772, Presbyterians then were more likely Socinians than Christians, (cf. the l6th-century Sozzini's, who denied the divinity of Christ; we would probably use the more modern term Unitarian).

One essay (1768) dealt with "First Principles of Government and the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty." He believed government should not interfere with the life, liberty, and property of members of the community. True freedom exists only if anyone can aspire to the highest office. In 1773 Priestley was invited by Lord Shelburne, a Whig statesman, to be nominally his librarian-actually an intellectual advisor. During this employment he published 23 works, including 4 on gases. His increasingly radical philosophy compelled him to resign voluntarily this position.

At forty-seven he retired to Fair Hill near Birmingham, the flowering of the new industrial society, where he could live comfortably on his Shelburne pension (he refused two government pensions in order not to jeopardize his independence). He was able to carry on his research with generous grants from some friends; at the same time he enjoyed the informal (full moon) meetings of the Lunar Society. He was happy for eleven years, particularly when invited to be the minister of the New Meeting in Birmingham (said to be the ,'most liberal" in England). Priestley was relieved from weekday chores by a colleague; he himself started a nonconformist Sunday school to rival the establishment one started there earlier; he became involved in the public library. In 1785 he wrote "The Importance and Extent of Free Inquiry" and "A History of Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ." Five years later he published all his "air" researches and a "History of the Corruptions of Christianity" (a historical approach to philosophical theology), which infuriated both Calvinists and Lutherans. Two years earlier he had given a sermon against the slave trade.

Priestley had always been sympathetic to the principles of the American and the French Revolutions. (He declined, however, membership in the National Convention of France.) Although he did not attend the local dinner honoring the second anniversary (14 July 1791) of Bastille Day, he did not escape the frenzied mob, incited by scurrilous handbills and forged letters, which sacked and burned the Meeting Houses, as well as the homes of prominent dissenters. Priestley escaped to London where he found himself not only attacked by the Church and King Party, but even shunned by most fellows of the Royal Society. The Courts were lethargic in meting out justice; they made meager recompense for his losses, which included invaluable manuscripts and notes.

In despair, at sixty-one, he and his family set out courageously for the New World. They settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. (In 1785 he had been made a member of the American Philosophical Society.) From 1791 to his death he published thirty works; he declined the chairmanship of the University of Pennsylvania Department of Chemistry. Nevertheless, when he lectured at the Universalist Chapel in Philadelphia he was regarded more as a curiosity than as a thinker. At seventy-one he died and is buried in a cemetery near the Susquehanna River; his house is now a historic monument with a laboratory museum adjoining. The National Institute of France published the obituary of this associate, but the Royal Society made no mention of his death. The American Chemical Society has as its most prestigious award the Priestley Medal.

Whatever Preistley touched-religion, politics, science bears the indelible stamp of a man who was independent and bold, candid and courageous. Thomas Jefferson, with whom Priestley sympathized and corresponded, particularly with respect to public education, remarked, "I have read his 'Corruptions of Christianity' and 'Early Opinions of Jesus,' over and over again; and I rest on them ... as the basis of my own faith. These writings have never been answered."

"The scientist, even when he is a believer, is bound to try as far as possible to reduce miracles to regularities; the believer, even when he is a scientist, discovers miracle in the most familiar things."

Natural Law and Divine Miracle R. Hooykaas (1959)