Those of you who paid attention in school will remember Joseph Priestley as the eminent British scientist known mostly for the discovery of oxygen. But Priestley did much more than this.
Priestley was born in 1933, the son of a cloth finisher. He was sent for a time to live with his grandparents at age one. His mother died in childbirth when Priestley was seven, and in 1741 when he was nine his father remarried and he went to live with his wealthy aunt Sarah. His parents were Presbyterians, but his aunt Sarah was a Calvinist. Despite her Calvinism, aunt Sarah was very liberal-minded and once a week held a gathering at her house. Her guests included many dissenting ministers. This was probably where the very bright young Priestley first began to question orthodox religious dogma
When he was 13, Priestley nearly died of tuberculosis. This would not have been surprising, since only half of the population lived to the age of 15, and the life expectancy was 35. Both Priestley’s wife and sister Sally were ultimately to die of TB.
The near death experience had a profound effect on Joseph and he resolved never to waste another moment of his life and became obsessed with efficiency. It is said that he never slept more than six hours a night.
By the time he was ready for higher education, Priestley had already taught himself seven languages and had read numerous books on religion, philosophy and other topics. His Aunt Sarah desperately wanted Joseph to be a Calvinist minister, but the elders in his church decided his views were “not quite orthodox” and he was rejected. This enraged Priestley, and on the spot he rejected Calvinism and became an Arian, a belief that denied the divinity of Christ and the holy trinity.
Priestley enrolled at the liberal academy, Daventry, where he spent three years preparing to be a dissenting minister. Anyone who did not belong to the Church of England, including Catholics, presbyterians, Calvinists, Quakers, and of course, Unitarians were dissenters.
Priestley became a dissenting minister, but faced difficulties. Ministers in those days were paid on the basis of their success and because of a serious stutter coupled with his unorthodox views, he was not paid very much. To escape his misery, he spent his time writing books and papers on a wide variety of subjects. During his lifetime, he produced 150 books, pamphlets and papers.
In 1762, at the age of 29, he married Mary Wilkerson, age 17. He conquered his stutter, was assigned to a new church, and became successful. He had always been interested in science, but his full emergence as a scientist did not occur until after he met and became great friends with Benjamin Franklin in 1765. Priestley was 32 and Franklin 61. At Franklin’s urging, Priestley wrote a book, “The History of Electricity”, which made him famous throughout England.
Priestley is best known for his discovery of oxygen, but in truth he was not first. Both Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish chemist, and Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier had discovered oxygen earlier, but Priestley got the credit because he was the first to publish. Lavoisier, “the father of modern chemistry” and the creator of the periodic table of elements, coined the name “oxygen”.
But Priestley did many other things:
• He discovered that carbon was a conductor of electricity.
• He discovered that sap of a certain South American tree could be used to erase pencil marks, and coined the term “rubber”.
• He discovered that water could be infused with carbon dioxide to create soda water, a pleasant drink. He was not interested in making money from this discovery, but a contemporary named Johann Jacob Schweppe saw the potential and patented a process for making carbonated water.
• He discovered nitrous oxide and its properties as “laughing gas”. Year later, it became the first widely used anesthetic.
Priestley continued preaching, writing and doing scientific experiments for the next 32 years. In the mid 1780s, things started to heat up in France. The French Revolution started in 1889 with the storming of the Bastille, and the overthrow of the monarchy. The execution of Louis XVI in 1793 was very disturbing to the British as well as the Spanish and other European monarchies. France and England went to war in 1793 in a war that would last until 1915, ending with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. At the start of the war, England immediately clamped down on dissenters of all stripes. The Inquisition was revived in Spain.
Joseph Priestley, openly sympathetic to both the French and the American revolutions, was in jeopardy. When a mob burned his house in Birmingham in 1791 he fled to London. Rioters also destroyed 27 houses and four dissident churches in Birmingham. The Priestleys managed to survive there for the next two years, but always in great jeopardy.
On April 7, 1794, Priestley left Britain forever, arriving in New York on June 4 after a difficult 8-week voyage. On May 8, 1794, while the Priestleys were at sea, Antoine Lavoisier was guillotined.
In the new country, they were immediately courted by various political factions vying to gain Priestley's endorsement. Priestley declined their entreaties, hoping to avoid political discord in his new country. In Philadelphia Priestley gave a series of sermons and helped found the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. Offers of positions in Philadelphia were declined, and the Priestleys moved to Northumberland, Pennsylvania to make their home.
This brings us to Priestley’s connection to the Unitarian Church in Charleston. Material in our Docent Notebooks tells us that our first Unitarian Minister, Anthony Forster, became a Unitarian when he married the granddaughter of Joseph Priestley.
In doing research for this presentation, my compatriot Dave Elder and I discovered that this story, alas, is not true. Forster was married to the daughter of Joseph Gales, a woman named Altona. Joseph Gales was a Unitarian, born in 1841 in Eckington, England. He became a prominent printer and publisher, publishing works by such as Thomas Paine and Joseph Priestley. It is likely that Gales and Priestley became close friends. Gales was also a liberal and a supporter of the French Revolution, and when war broke out in 1893, he became a target. He fled to Hamburg, leaving his wife and children behind. They were reunited in Altona near Hamburg, Germany, and while there, a daughter, named Altona, was born.
March , 2008