Joseph Priestley, the son of a cloth-dresser from Leeds, was born in 1733. After the death of his mother in 1740, Joseph lived with his aunt, a person with strong nonconformist religious views. Priestley went to the local grammar school but after three years ill-health forced him to return home. Joseph was a brilliant student and with the help of local teachers, Joseph became proficient in physics, philosophy, algebra, mathematics and several different languages.
After his health improved, Joseph Priestley entered the new nonconformist Daventry Academy in Northamptonshire, where he studied history, science and philosophy. At Daventry he read David Hartley's Observations of Man (1749). Priestley was deeply influenced by Hartley's views on free will and the notion of human perfectibility through good education.
In 1755 Joseph Priestley became a minister at the Presbyterian church at Needham Market. Three years later he moved to Nantwich in Cheshire. Priestley also opened a small school where he developed his ideas on education. He was especially interested in exploring how science could improve the quality of human life. In 1761 Priestley was appointed as tutor at the dissenting Warrington Academy in Lancashire.
While at Warrington Joseph Priestley wrote Liberal Education for Civil and Active Life (1765). In the book he stressed the importance of science, arts, modern languages and history and argued they were better suited than the classics for those students who wanted a career in industry and commerce. This was followed by a book on science The History and Present State of Electricity (1767). In the book Priestley put forward the theory that the history of science was important because it showed how human intelligence discovers and directs the forces of nature, as well as illustrating the general progress of mankind.
Joseph Priestley now turned his attention to politics. In 1768 his book The First Principles of Government and the Nature of Political, Civil and Religious Liberty was published. In the book he argued for the development of a political system that maximizes civil liberty. In a statement that was to have an influence on the work of Jeremy Bentham and his ideas on Unitarianism, Priestley wrote: "The good and happiness of the members, that is the majority of the members of the state, is the great standard by which every thing relating to that state must finally be determined."
These three books brought Priestley to the attention of Richard Price and Benjamin Franklin. Both men became friendly with Priestley and encouraged his work in science and politics. After long discussions with the two men, Priestley wrote The State of Public Liberty in General and of American Affairs in Particular (1774). The pamphlet attacked the British government for depriving the colonists their rights and liberties.
Priestley's political beliefs made him unpopular with the British government. Church leaders were also concerned with the religious views expressed by Priestley in books such as The History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782) and History of Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ (1786). The books developed Priestley's ideas on Unitarianism. They also included attacks on such doctrines as the virgin birth and the Holy Trinity. Many people, including King George III, became convinced that Priestley was now an atheist.
Priestley moved to Birmingham where he became friends with businessmen and scientists such as John Wilkinson, Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton and James Watt. Whereas Priestley's scientific work, for example, his discovery of oxygen, was welcomed, his religious and political views were constantly getting him into trouble. Priestley and his friend Richard Price became leaders of a group of men that became known as the Rational Dissenters. To the government, these were dangerous men.
Hostility towards Joseph Priestley increased in 1791 when he wrote a pamphlet defending the French Revolution. Priestley argued that he believed the events in France increased the chance of "universal peace and goodwill among all nations" as it made possible an "empire of reason". His predictions that the French Revolution heralded a change in the role of the monarchy upset King George III. The king and his supporters particularly disliked Priestley's view that in future monarchs will be the "first servants of the people and accountable to them". Priestley now obtained the nickname 'Gunpowder' after he expressed the view that it should be placed "under the old building of error and superstition".
In 1791 Priestley published A Political Dialogue on the General Principles of Government. In the book Priestley expressed similar political ideas to those expressed by Tom Paine in the Rights of Man. Later that year Priestley took part in forming a Constitutional Society in Birmingham. Tories in the city made inflammatory speeches attacking Priestley's political ideas and this resulted in a mob breaking into his house and destroying most of his papers, books and scientific equipment.
After the Birmingham riots Priestley moved to London where he taught history and science at New College, Hackney. Priestley experienced a great deal of hostility in London for his political and religious beliefs and in 1774 he decided to emigrate to America. He settled in Pennsylvania and over the next few years he wrote several books on Unitarianism. Priestley also established the first Unitarian Church in America.
Joseph Priestley died on 6th February, 1804.
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