Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

2. Joseph Priestley: Firebrand Philosopher

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

2. Joseph Priestley: Firebrand Philosopher

Article excerpt

Discoverer of oxygen, carbon monoxide, and carbonated water, father of Unitarianism, pioneer in liberal education--the wonder is not that Joseph Priestley accomplished so much in his seventy-one years but that he ever found time to write about it all. His current bibliography lists 128 titles, not counting periodicals or multiple editions. More than half are on religion and Biblical commentary, yet not even J. T. Rutt's mammoth twenty-five-volume edition of the Works could contain all he wrote on education, politics, science, and history besides. That bulk, while the chief obstacle to seeing Priestley plain, resulted from an impassioned zeal for illuminating other men's minds, a zeal that burned so deep as to be almost self-consuming.

Son of a Yorkshire cloth finisher, he went to live with a childless aunt after the death of his mother. A strict Calvinist, his aunt joyed to see the inner light radiating from a four-year-old who had memorized his catechism, and began at once to prepare him for the ministry. When tuberculosis cut short his stay in grammar school, she nourished both mind and spirit at home. From the age of thirteen, he began taking shorthand notes on the sermons he heard, then writing them out at home as a means to developing facility in composition. By age sixteen he had mastered Hebrew along with Greek and Latin, and his aunt, realizing his ill health could stand in the way of his being a minister, had him learn modern languages should he have to assume a career in commerce. Thus, by age nineteen, when he was able to return to formal schooling at the new Daventry Academy, his learning was such that he had liberty to indulge in whatever subjects he chose. He chose Chaldee, Syriac, Arabic, and mathematics.

At Daventry he also read chemistry, laying the groundwork for the experiments that would bring him lasting fame, and there he absorbed Hartleyan psychology for the doctrine of philosophical necessity that would shape his religion and politics. More important for his career, however, he also absorbed the educational ideas and methods of the liberal dissenters. As a class, dissenters were denied access to the universities and thus denied entry to positions in state and church. The academies, really colleges, had been established to train their youth for their own churches and whatever choices of life were open to them. The staff at Daventry were introducing a new spirit of inquiry, embracing politics and recent findings in science and mathematics. By the time he left the academy in 1755, then, Priestley had combined his early classical training with a deep commitment to doing something about contemporary problems through education. Education, he felt, provided the means to overcome the political liabilities imposed upon dissent. This could be done through re-examining the historical bases of those liabilities and ultimately of religion itself. This is what he set out to do by educating himself first and then teaching others what he had learned.

But first he had to make a living. Leaving Daventry for a post as assistant minister in a small Suffolk chapel, he at once fell into double jeopardy because of his religious views and from an inherited stammer that made preaching as painful to him as to his hearers. With financial help from his aunt, he went down to London for speech therapy which gave temporary relief from the stammer. But being in London gave him the chance to read deeply in church history and to discover scriptural support for his Arian view that Christ must be understood as subordinate to God. Such views of the Trinity narrowed the range of ministerial posts open to him until, in 1758, a like-minded congregation invited him to minister among the salt mines of Nantwich.

There he immediately implemented his ideas on schooling dissenters to overcome their civil restrictions. His system embraced progressive training from the cradle through the academy--catechism classes for the little ones, grammar school for their older brothers and sisters too (an innovation, although the girls were taught separately), and an academy for the oldest boys. …

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