It has been noted in an earlier chapter that after the Assembly at Salters' Hall there seemed to be a marked decline in vigor among the Dissenting Churches. Indeed, for nearly a full century after the passage of the Toleration Act, there was grave concern over the marked let-down in religion, morals and manners, both among the Dissenters and in the Church, though we shall here be concerned chiefly with the situation in the non-subscribing congregations inheriting the Presbyterian tradition. For this general lukewarmness in religion many and various reasons were alleged,1 some superficial and others fundamental; but in the main they amounted to this: that the Dissenters, being now relieved from galling oppression, were no longer spurred on as before to devotion to their cause, and finding themselves ‘at ease in Zion,’ for the time lost their sense of the deep importance of their mission, as one demanding loyal, active allegiance. Hence among Non-conformists of every order religion seemed to have lost its inspiring power.2 Presbyterianism in especial had become a coldly intellectual religion, whose preachers discoursed mainly on abstract themes, with little appeal to the feelings or the will, and their movement seemed no longer to have any convincing reason for continuing to exist. In short, if their whole cause was not within another generation or two to disintegrate and die out, a sense must be aroused of its vital importance, and its distinguishing principles and views must be emphasized afresh both for defence and for aggressive effort. This new impulse was to be given largely through the influence of a leader that now arose in the person of Joseph Priestley, in whom the development of our movement in its next stage may be said to have been largely embodied.
Joseph Priestley,3 who was beyond doubt the most influential figure in the earlier history of the Unitarian movement in England, and has also been judged one of the most remarkable men of the eighteenth century,4 was born in 1733 in the little hamlet of Fieldhead some six miles southwest of Leeds. He was the eldest child of a domestic clothmaker in narrow circumstances, and his mother died when he was but six years old. Both before and after this he was brought up by his grandmother and by an aunt, a strict Calvinist, who gave him devoted care until he went away to school. His early teachers were Dissenting ministers in the neighborhood. He was a precocious youth, showed an eager and inquisitive mind, was deeply interested in religious matters, was an omnivorous reader, and looking toward the ministry became well grounded in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Before leaving home for his studies at the Academy he wished to become a member of the Independent Church in which he had been brought up; but from visiting ministers he had learned to dissent from Calvin on some points, and when the Elders discovered that he did not feel a proper repentance for Adam's sin, they judged him not quite orthodox and refused to admit him. He was in fact already verging toward Arminianism.
His aunt would normally have sent him to a Calvinistic Academy in London; but when he learned that a student there must subscribe ten Articles of Calvinistic faith, and repeat the act every six months, he was unwilling to comply. It was therefore decided that he should go to Dr. Doddridge's well-known Academy at Northampton; but before he could do so Doddridge died, and his Academy was removed to Daventry, where Priestley was the first student enrolled. His three years here were stimulating, for of his two tutors one was an orthodox Calvinist, while the other was inclined toward heresy, and the students were about equally divided. Entire freedom of inquiry was encouraged, and students were encouraged to study the arguments on both sides of disputed questions and to discuss them freely; wherein Priestley found himself in nearly every case taking the heretical side; so that whereas he had entered the Academy a moderate Calvinist and a believer in freedom of the will, he left it a determinist and an Arian.
His prospects in the ministry can not have been too flattering, for he had inherited a tendency to stammer in public speaking; hence he cheerfully accepted the first modest opening that offered, as assistant to a superannuated minister at Needham Market in Suffolk, where the stipend from his small congregation was never more than £30 a year, so that but for gifts from outside friends he would have suffered serious want. Yet he took up his work vigorously, preaching practical, helpful sermons, catechizing the young and lecturing to adults. As he continued his serious studies of Scripture he found his convictions sensibly changing, and ere long he abandoned belief in the atonement and in the supernatural inspiration of the Bible. Though he was careful not to give offence by bringing heresies into the pulpit, it was presently discovered from his conversation that he was an Arian; hence his congregation fell off, and he found himself in serious straits. But at just this juncture he was invited to be minister of a small but friendly congregation at Nantwich in Cheshire, and removed thither in 1758, there to spend three happy years. As the demands made upon him were light he supplemented his salary (as many Dissenting ministers of the time were accustomed to do) by opening a school, teaching thirty boys and a few girls from seven to four each day, and private pupils after this until seven in the evening. Laborious as this daily round was he greatly enjoyed it, and won a high reputation as a teacher.
Meantime a very promising Academy on liberal principles had been established in 1757 at Warrington some twenty miles away, and Priestley was called thither to be tutor in the languages and belles-lettres. His fellow tutors were able scholars and progressive in spirit; and all were Arians in doctrine and determinists in morals. Only the Rev. John Seddon of Manchester was as yet a Socinian, whereat, Priestley observed, ‘we all wondered at him.’5 The social and intellectual atmosphere was delightful, and Priestley was happy in his work, and stimulating in his teaching. He was, however, not long satisfied to be teaching only languages and belles-lettres; hence he broadened his field to include not only English grammar and rhetoric, composition, oratory and logic, but English history, the English constitution and law, the principles of government, colonial administration, and economics, so as to provide the young men with at least the rudiments of knowledge in fields in which as citizens they might take an intelligent part. The result of these studies upon him was that he thus matured himself for the influential part he was destined through his writings to play in the discussion of public affairs relating to the war with the American Colonies, the French Revolution, and the agitation for justice to the Dissenters.
While at Warrington Priestley used to spend a month each year in London, gaining stimulus from the eminent men whom he there met in liberal circles both religious and political. It was thus that he came to form an intimate friendship for life with Dr. Richard Price,6 and with Dr. Benjamin Franklin, then in London in the interest of the American Colonies, Priestley was entirely happy in his situation and work at Warrington, but he had now married, and he found his meager salary insufficient for the needs of his growing family, with his wife in uncertain health; so that when in 1767 he was invited to become minister of the influential Mill Hill congregation at Leeds near his early home, he gladly returned to his chosen calling; for he declared that he ‘could truly say that he always considered the office of a Christian minister the most honorable of any upon earth.’7
At Leeds Priestley enjoyed six exceedingly happy and harmonious years. He renewed his attention to theological subjects, which he had at Warrington been obliged to neglect, and now, having carefully reread Lardner's Letter on the Logos, after the author's death, he ‘became what is called a Socinian,’ thus leaving his Arianism behind. He at once attacked his new duties with energy. He had now for some time felt that the Dissenting interest was losing ground, and was much concerned over the Dissenters' apparent indifference to their cause, and the lukewarmness and lack of zeal prevailing especially among those whom he chose to call Rational Dissenters. Hence he published for the use of his congregation a series of tracts seriously commending a general practice of daily family worship, the catechizing of children, and the maintenance of church discipline among adult members. In order to revive the attention of Dissenters at large to their true principles, which they seemed little to understand or value, he also published A Free Address to Protestant Dissenters as such,8 a straightforward and serious call to Dissenters to remember their high calling and the cause for which their fathers had greatly suffered, to hold fast its teaching without wavering, and to honor it by their daily lives: This address was widely approved, and did much to restore the tone of those to whom it was directed; and it was followed the next year by An Appeal to the Serious and Candid Professors of Christianity, in six doctrinal tracts, designed to confirm in the principles of liberal religion any members of his own congregation that were tempted to be either drawn away by the emotional appeal of the Methodists, then very numerous at Leeds, or on the other hand were inclined to slip into Deism. These had great influence, and eventually reached a circulation of 60,000 copies.9 From this date as a turning-point one can trace a revival of devotion and active zeal for their cause among the rational Dissenters.
Priestley took particular interest in the systematic religious instruction of his young people; forming them into classes to be taught as in an Academy, and the children into classes to be instructed in a scripture catechism. For the older classes he completed a work long in hand, and now published as Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion (1772–73), which set forth the main principles and doctrines of Dissent, with the grounds of them. This may be noted as the first attempt since Biddle's Two-fold Catechism in 1654 to set forth the essential faith of liberal Dissenters (hardly named Unitarians as yet) as a fully rounded system. It was, not controversial in tone, though many articles in the orthodox system were passed by without mention; and it long remained the text to which Unitarians could refer as an accepted witness to their teachings.
His deepened interest now made him feel the need of a medium through which contributors might freely express their ideas and discuss topics of interest. He therefore launched the Theological Repository 10 as an occasional publication in which writers of all shades of thought might bring their views to public notice. Through this many fresh points were brought forward, and free inquiry in religion was much increased; though as sufficient support was wanting, publication was suspended after three volumes (1769–71), and was not resumed until more than a dozen years later. It was in this period that Priestley first made the acquaintance of Lindsey, who had not yet withdrawn from the established Church,11 and began an intimacy with him that was unbroken so long as he lived, and as he later wrote was ‘the source of more real satisfaction to him than any other circumstance in his whole life.’ From Lindsey he imbibed greater zeal for the doctrine of the Divine Unity, and he soon came to submit to his judgment anything that he wrote on theology before publishing it.12 In the Feathers Tavern petition that presently followed, Priestley as a Dissenter could take no part, and he had no expectation of its success, but he followed developments with lively interest; 13 and when Lindsey opened his chapel in London Priestley, now no longer at Leeds, was able to give it his hearty support.
In every duty relating to his office Priestley was assiduous and gave it precedence over every other interest. But it was not in his nature to be idle, nor to waste his labor in vain occupations. Hence when not occupied with professional duties he would seek relaxation in other fields of study. Thus he began to make those excursions in chemistry which were to win him his greatest renown. He had at the outset very little knowledge of the subject, and was forced to contrive his own apparatus and invent his own processes; and at first he made random experiments out of mere curiosity as to what would happen, and so was led from one thing to another. Thus having by accident begun by experimenting on air he presently came unexpectedly to results which led the Royal Society to confer upon him its highest honor, the Copley medal. A year or two later he made his crowning discovery of oxygen (1774), and altogether discovered more new gases than all his predecessors together had done,14 thus winning the reputation of being one of the founders of modern chemistry. It is not to the purpose here to follow his work in this field. He himself professed little more than a casual interest in it, as being for him hardly more than a theologian's pastime. In his personal Memoirs he passes over these achievements in the space of barely more than a page; and twenty years later he wrote, ‘though I have made discoveries in some branches of chemistry, I never gave much attention to the common routine of it, and know but little of the common processes.’15 He was, however, while at Leeds tempted for a passing moment to follow the paths of science. It was proposed to him in 1770 to accompany Captain Cook on his second voyage to the South Seas as astronomer, on very advantageous terms, to which he was ready to agree, and his congregation had already arranged to grant him leave of absence. But before the appointment could be made, some clergymen on the appointing board objected to him on account of his religious principles, and another was chosen.16
In 1773, however, after six happy years at Leeds, came a temptation that it was hard to resist. Though his salary was larger than that of most Dissenting ministers, yet it did not meet the needs of his growing family; and when the Earl of Shelburne,17 to whom he had been recommended by his warm friend Dr. Price, offered him an appointment with a generous salary and a life annuity, with much freedom of action, he yielded after long hesitation to the Earl's importunity and was in his service for seven years. Nominally his position as his patron's librarian and literary companion gave him ample leisure for scientific experiments and writing. Summers he spent at the Earl's country estate at Calne, and winters he was with him in London. Thus he had the opportunity of meeting most of the distinguished men of the day; and he also accompanied his patron on an interesting journey of several weeks through the Low Countries, up the Rhine, and finally to Paris. Here he spent a month, meeting many men of science to whom his name was now well known; and discussing religion with them he found nearly all of them to be professed infidels, while they told him that he was the only person they had ever met with of whose understanding they had any opinion, who professed to believe Christianity.18 It was in order to justify himself and confute them that he afterwards wrote the first part of his Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever.19 Returning to England he continued his scientific work and developed and published the philosophical works he had derived from Hartley.20
Doubtless Priestley's happiest experiences during these years were in the winter months, which he spent with his patron in London. Here he could meet the leading Dissenters, and consult about their common interests, and have intimate conversations with Lindsey and Price. Sundays were sure to find him worshiping in the Essex Street chapel, at whose opening in 1774 he was present, and in whose pulpit he sometimes preached. After the service he would spend the rest of the day at the fireside of the Lindseys. At the Royal Society he had contact with the learned men of the country's intellectual centre; and through the whole of the period when England was stirred up over the war with the American Colonies, he was often one of a group of liberals (the so-called ‘Whig Club’) meeting at the London Coffeehouse to discuss national affairs. One of this group was likely to be Dr. Franklin, who had become his very intimate friend, whom he met nearly every day, and in whose company he spent all of Franklin's last day in England. Yet Priestley was on the whole not too well contented with the sort of life he was bound to lead, and with the society with which he often had to mingle; and when he discovered that in his position he was in some ways embarrassing to his patron, the connection between them was amicably terminated in 1780. He had no immediate plans for the future; but wealthy friends, who were reluctant to see his scientific investigations fall to the ground, contributed a sufficient fund for him and persuaded him to remove to Birmingham. His settlement here, though it was after eleven years to end in crushing tragedy, he considered the happiest period of his life. For Birmingham had not only grown to be a great manufacturing centre, enjoying high prosperity, but it was at the same time one of the centres of intellectual culture in England.
Soon after his removal to Birmingham, Priestley was invited to succeed the Rev. Micaiah Towgood at George's Meeting in Exeter; but he preferred to stay where he was, and within a few months after his arrival the pulpit of the New Meeting fell vacant, and Priestley was at once unanimously chosen to fill the position. It was the most liberal pulpit in England, and the neighboring Midland counties had already been leavened with Socinian beliefs some years before by the Rev. Paul Cardale of Evesham.21 A more congenial environment for Priestley's ministry could therefore not have been found, and he at once accepted the call. Proud to have as their minister the famous scientist, his people willingly made it easy for him to continue his researches. It was arranged that his colleague should have charge of the sundry pastoral duties and visit the members four times a year, while he himself should devote to church work only his Sundays, preaching to the congregation, giving religious instruction to the young people, and catechizing the children. Weekdays he reserved for work in his laboratory, and for the writing that he wished to do.
Priestley took up the duties of his office with energy. In the pulpit while not an orator he was a calm, reasonable and persuasive preacher. In the religious education of the young he was singularly successful, winning both their interest and affection, and their parents' gratitude for his ministry to them.22 Improving on the plan he had introduced at Leeds, he used to instruct three successive classes of different ages before or after the morning service, having in all 150 catechumens. As contributory to this work he now revived the Theological Repository which had been suspended for a dozen years, and which he evidently wished to make the vehicle of some new views at which he had arrived. Thus in one of his articles in this publication he took a longer and bolder step than Dissent had yet ventured, arguing that as Jesus was in all things made like unto his brethren, then he must have had all the frailties of a human being, moral as well as physical; 23 and in another article, on the Miraculous Conception24 he expressed unequivocally and openly the view that Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary. These judgments, which others may have held privately, but no one had as yet openly avowed, at first created great alarm, especially in the mind of Lindsey, though ere long he too had quietly accepted them.25
Of all his writings in his Birmingham period the most important and influential was Priestley's work on the Corruptions o f Christianity,26 and its sequel, in preparation for which he had read widely from Continental scholars. It had hitherto been maintained by orthodox theologians that their doctrine was the doctrine of the primitive Church; though Liberal Dissenters had of late contended that primitive Christianity was Arian. The thesis of Priestley's work, on the contrary, was that the belief of primitive Christianity was Unitarian, and that all departures from that faith must be regarded as later ‘corruptions.’ This thesis he sought to sustain by appealing to the works of early Christian literature, and he applied it not only to the doctrine of Christ and the Trinity, but also to various other orthodox doctrines and usages. It was mainly the part of this work relating to Christ that became the subject of the controversies that followed. The work, written in clear and readable style, proceeds historically to trace the steps though which, through the infiltration of late Greek philosophy, the original Unitarian beliefs were gradually transformed into the dogmas of orthodoxy. Among the leaders of the Church this book at once created alarm, lest a new crowd of converts to Unitarianism might now follow those that had withdrawn ten years earlier with Lindsey. Through translations its influence spread on the Continent, where it was attacked in Germany by the Lutherans, while in Holland Calvinists had it burned by the common hangman at Dordrecht in 1785.27 But the most important controversy was that which now ensued in England between Priestley and Horsley, and lasted for some eight years, to be again revived by Horsley's son thirty years later.
Samuel Horsley,28 born in the same year as Priestley, and like him a fellow of the Royal Society, had received various preferments in the Church, and had become Archdeacon of St. Albans in 1781,where he was esteemed an able preacher and a vigorous administrator. He at once realized the importance of counteracting a teaching that struck at the very root of the orthodox theology, and the next spring he made this the burden of a charge to his clergy, which was at once accepted by the orthodox as a crushing triumph for their view; though it proved to be only the opening action in a spirited controversy between the two champions.29 The battle was in fact preceded by a spiteful attack (under the guise of a review), in the Monthly Review, by an anonymous writer.30 Horsley in his charge to his clergy, addressing himself to the subject of Priestley's work, adopted a skilful tactical method. He declined to go into the doctrine of the Trinity at all, though it was Priestley's main concern; and deeming that all that could be said on that subject had already been said long since, he judged that the most effective attack would be made by destroying Priestley's credit, through proving him incompetent in questions of theology. To this end he picked out a number of points in which Priestley had left himself most vulnerable, and made these the object of his attack. Priestley, writing too hastily, had in fact fallen into some minor inaccuracies, though they were not important enough to invalidate his main argument; but Horsley exaggerated and emphasized them as capital, and there rested his case.
Priestley was not so easily silenced. Owning that he did not dislike controversy, which he esteemed the best method of settling matters in debate, he replied to Horsley's ‘Animadversions’ in a series of nine printed letters in which, while admitting some defects of haste, he defended at length the main positions he had taken. Horsley rejoined the next year in seventeen long letters, repeating the charge that Priestley was incompetent to discuss the subject. Priestley replied in nineteen letters more, pointing out serious lapses in his opponent's positions, and accused him of being a falsifier of history. Three letters more passed, and then the controversy ceased.
It would be an idle task to summarize the course of this eight years' debate, whose subject matter has long since ceased to be of interest to more than a few. Priestley began as one gentleman calmly discussing a serious question with another, but being entirely convinced that his own view was correct he hastily fell into inaccuracies and errors that his acute antagonist was quick to discover and unduly to magnify. While admitting certain minor incidental errors, which did not invalidate his main argument, he retorted by charging Horsley with being misinformed and hence using misrepresentation. In pressing a point he was relentless, and in the tone of controversy he could be exasperating. Horsley on the other hand, speaking from the level of a high ecclesiastic to a mere layman and hence an inferior, was often arrogant, overbearing and even contemptuous in manner, indulged in biting sarcasm, and employed what Priestley regarded as grossly insulting language. While making an impressive display of theological scholarship, he proved to be but repeating the statements of earlier writers, who were shown to have fallen into serious errors themselves; nevertheless he confidently claimed to have won the victory, and declined to continue the controversy. His clergy naturally accepted the claim of their champion; and when it was officially endorsed by his elevation to the see of St. David's in 1788,31 he was placed beyond the reach of further debate. But Priestley too claimed to have won the victory, since his antagonist had withdrawn from the field; and after waiting nearly three years for a reply to his third series he finally addressed to him a fourth series of ten letters, now to his Lordship the Bishop of St. David's, in 1790.32 In the meantime his History of Early Opinions concerning Jesus Christ (1786) in four volumes had appeared, a work of massive scholarship, resting its contentions on 1,500 references to ancient authorities, with a thousand passages translated for all to read and judge for themselves. This work Horsley with haughty scorn excused himself from reading. The result of all was that churchmen as a matter of course accepted the judgment of a Bishop as definitive, and few if any withdrew from the Church; while the liberal Dissenters on the other hand, heartened by their champion, who had boldly faced a proud antagonist and forced him to withdraw from the field, silenced if not confessedly defeated, were more than ever convinced of their cause, and more drawn together in support of it under such a competent leader, and the number of congregations openly adhering to them steadily increased from now on.
It will be recalled that after the failure of the Feathers Tavern petition in 1772 and the relief from subscription granted Dissenters in 1779, these grew increasingly restive under their civil disabilities; and in 1787 their Committee of Deputies thought the time ripe for appealing to Parliament for repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts, which they felt placed them in a humiliating position, and deprived them of the just rights of free citizens.33 Fear was professed that this was but an opening wedge for further changes calculated to uproot the established Church, and endangering the State; and the motion was lost by a majority of 78.34 Two years later the attempt was renewed and the adverse majority was reduced to 20. The Acts were much agitated by both Dissenters and churchmen in public meetings throughout the country, while both parties sought to rally their utmost forces; but certain victory seemed now in sight, and was expected to be won in 1790. Meanwhile the French Revolution had broken out; and while the liberal element, including the Dissenters in general and a minority of the churchmen besides, applauded it as a bloodless overthrow of tyranny in the State and of corruption in the Church, there was also widespread and serious dread lest a spirit of revolution might cross the Channel and overwhelm State and Church in England. Any move to make a change in existing institutions was therefore resisted as dangerous.
Ever since the Revolution of 1688 the Dissenters had been accustomed to celebrate the anniversary (November 5) at a dinner, at which a toast was drunk to ‘civil and religious liberty the world over.’ When now toward the end of 1789 Dr. Price on this anniversary preached an appropriate sermon before the Revolution Society,35 dwelling on the importance of civil and religious liberty, and of striving to render it more complete, and concluding with an eloquent outburst over the spread of liberty through the recent revolutions in America and France, and an expression of his bright hopes for its future, the spirit of the eloquent Edmund Burke was stirred within him. This previously liberal statesman, friend of America and of the Dissenters, now became spokesman of the conservatives in the House of Commons, and had grown more and more alarmed by the rapid succession of events in France, while many of the citizens were on the verge of panic. In reply to Price, therefore, Burke wrote his elaborate Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), attacking both the new French government and the principles recommended by Price to the Dissenters. Where Price and Priestley had seen in the Revolution nothing but good, Burke found little but evil and madness. Hence when the application for repeal of the Acts came up for the fourth time in 1790, instead of being received as had been expected, it was rejected by an overwhelming majority.36
While political hostility to the liberal Dissenters was during this troubled period increasing in the country at large, bigoted hatred on religious grounds was being industriously fomented at Birmingham in particular. The Church of England there was numerically considerably stronger than the Dissenters, though the latter included many of the leading manufacturers, and had long been allowed leadership in the administration of public affairs; but some time before Priestley came upon the scene the clergy had begun to show a more bigoted spirit, and had grown overbearing in relations with the others. Relations grew more strained as time went on, during the agitation for the repeal of the Test Act feeling ran high, and the Rev. Edward Burn, the very popular rector of St. Mary's Chapel, published letters rudely attacking Priestley and his doctrine. It became apparent that a deliberate policy had been entered upon. But it was the Rev. Spencer Madan, rector of St. Philip's, a young clergyman of ability, highly respected in the community, that now became the head and chief excitant of the reactionary movement that ensued, and by his utterances and writings appealing to popular prejudice persistently strove during two years to inflame the public mind against the heretics. With a political background of enmity to the liberal Dissenters, aggravated by the enthusiasm they had expressed at the overthrow of monarchy in France, Madan proceeded from his pulpit to make a deliberate attack upon Unitarians in general and upon Priestley in particular as their chief spokesman, charging both him and them with being enemies of State and Church.37 Priestley was loath to engage in controversy with the clergy of his own town, but in face of all this he could not well remain silent, and he therefore replied in a series of twenty-two published letters.38 In these he vindicated the Dissenters from the charge of being seditious, defended their efforts for repeal of the Test Act, pleaded for complete toleration in religion, answered in detail numbers of mistaken statements and unjust charges made by Madan, and gave a succinct statement of Unitarian principles, and a brief history of the Dissenters; adding also six letters in reply to Mr. Burn. These letters excited general attention, and were more widely circulated than almost any other of Priestley's writings. Madan replied in what Priestley characterized as ‘the most peevish and malignant letter that you can conceive,’39 and there the exchange of courtesies ended; but the fire thus set continued to smolder and gather heat until the middle of the following year, when it burst forth into a dreadful flame in the Birmingham Riots.
A feeling had evidently grown up and been carefully fostered that in view of political dangers something ought to be done to check the influence of the Unitarians and to teach them a lesson; and if attacks from the press had no effect, then the appeal lay to force, and for this nothing was wanting but a suitable occasion, which was presently found. It was but natural that when the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille (July 14) as the beginning of the French Revolution drew near, the friends of liberty should be moved to observe it at a dinner, as they had already done at several places in England in the previous year. Thus in 1791 the friends of the Revolution again proposed such a dinner to be held in Birmingham. With feeling already running so high between churchmen and Dissenters, Tories and Whigs, this was doubtless an unwise move, especially since the Revolution had in two years got completely out of hand, while Tom Paine's Rights of Man advocating the abolition of monarchy had enjoyed an enormous circulation. It later became evident that a plan had been carefully laid by the High Church party to employ mob force to silence the Dissenters at their strongest centre, that a list had been made of their meetinghouses and of the residences of Priestley and their chief leaders, which were marked for destruction, and that leaders were to be imported to direct operations, trusting that an unruly mob would follow them in hope of spoils. It had indeed leaked out that some mischief was brewing, though nothing serious was apprehended, and a dinner was duly announced and was held on the afternoon of July 14 at the Royal Hotel in Temple Row facing St. Philip's churchyard. Some eighty guests attended, both Dissenters and churchmen, and a distinguished churchman presided. Priestley was not present. All passed off quietly, and the party broke up and the diners dispersed about five o'clock.
By eight o'clock a crowd had gathered about the hotel in accordance with the plan, and being disappointed to find the dinner no longer in progress relieved their feelings by smashing all the windows in the place.40 Some one then shouted, ‘To the New Meeting,’ to which the crowd then rushed and having wrecked it set all on fire. The mob were then led to the other Unitarian house of worship, the Old Meeting, and wrecked its interior though it was not set on fire. The cry next rose, ‘To Dr. Priestley's,’ and thither the crowd went, a mile out of town on Fair Hill. He was quietly at home with his family when a messenger came to alarm him that his life was in imminent danger, and he had barely time to escape with his family and was driven away to the house of a friend. The mob ravaged his house, destroyed his laboratory with its valuable instruments, scattered his library and papers, and finally set all on fire. Late at night, as the fugitives were just settling down to rest another messenger came to warn them that Priestley's very life was in danger if he should be found, so they drove him on some fifteen miles further to where his daughter lived, and he never saw Birmingham again. After two days of traveling incognito he arrived in London, the only place where he might feel secure.
Meanwhile the mob had broken open the prisons and turned the inmates loose; and the mad crowd, which had begun ostensibly in defence of "Church and King," was giving itself over to indiscriminate robbery and plunder. The magistrates, who at the start had sympathized with what was being done, and had been unwilling to take any action to quell the disorder, became alarmed and endeavored to scatter the mob with the aid of special officers, but these were soon overpowered. They continued their rioting for two days more, burning various large houses in the suburbs that were known to belong to Dissenters. At length the magistrates sent an appeal to the Secretary of State in London for troops, and a detachment was ordered sent sixty miles from Nottingham, and arrived late Sunday evening. The rioters, after three days of burning and looting, at once melted away. There had been no loss of life except that a rioter was killed by the fall of a coping-stone from Priestley's house, and that some drunken wretches were buried in a wine cellar they had plundered, when the burning wall fell in and ten of them perished. The authorities, though appealed to, had made no serious effort to prevent disorder, and not until Saturday and Sunday did they post notices, saluting the rioters as “Friends and Fellow Churchmen,” and politely requesting them in their own interest to desist from destroying any more houses.41
A half-hearted attempt was made to bring the rioters to justice, and out of a mob of 2,000 fifteen were arrested. The trial at Warwick in August was a mockery of justice, and little serious effort to secure conviction was apparent; yet four were found guilty, of whom two were executed in September, while a third was pardoned by the King, and a fourth was reprieved and escaped his fate.42 Five were also tried at Worcester, of whom two were convicted and hanged. In view of the excesses to which the Revolutionists in France were beginning to run, the weight of public opinion throughout the country was strongly against any that had favored their cause. Though at fearful cost, far exceeding what had probably been intended, the conservative interests had attained their end. The Dissenters were for the present crushed as a threat to the government, and for some time remained quiescent. The attempt was indeed made in the following year by Fox, their champion in Parliament, to repeal the Act that made denial of the Trinity a crime,43 but Burke made an alarmist speech in opposition, and the motion was defeated. The desired end was not reached until 1813. In the three days and nights of rioting some twenty or more handsome residences were destroyed, and a property loss was sustained by the victims estimated as high as £60,000. Under a law of Parliament those suffering by riots were to be indemnified, but the committee in charge of the affair reduced the claims between a fourth and a third; and against a total estimated loss of nearly £4,500 Priestley recovered only £2,500, and that only after a delay of a year and half.44 The King, though professing regret that affairs had gone to such extremes, was satisfied that the Dissenters had been taught a wholesome lesson; and he manifested his approval of what Mr. Madan had so effectually done in the cause of Church and King by advancing him before the end of the year to the see of Bristol, and later of Peterboro. There were of course many in the Church who were far from approving what had been done in their name, but their voice was drowned by the cries of passion.
On the other hand, Priestley received many testimonies of sympathy. More than a score of religious, political or scientific societies at home or abroad presented addresses to him; 45 but not a word of sympathy came from any one on the part of the Church. One honor that now came to him he esteemed above all others. In recognition of the sympathy he had shown with the French, their Constituent Assembly had conferred upon him (along with Wilberforce, Bentham and several other Englishmen at the same time), the honor of French citizenship for both him and his son; and in 1792 he was also invited to be a member of the National Assembly; though he declined the latter honor as one whose duties he was unfitted to discharge.46
The congregations of the New and Old Meetings united to worship together in the Independent Chapel in Carr's Lane until their buildings could be restored, and Priestley at first meant to return on the next Sunday and preach on the duty of forgiving injuries; but his friends advised him that popular feeling against him was so intense that he could do so only at the risk of his life, and the plan was abandoned. The discourse that he had prepared was sent instead and delivered by the minister of the Old Meeting.47 In London Priestley was very warmly received by his friends, and as soon as it was clear that he could not safely return to Birmingham, he settled at Clapton, about four miles northeast of the City; although it was only after much difficulty that he could find any landlord willing to have him as a tenant, or that servants could be had that were not in fear of him.48 His old associates in the Royal Society shunned him, and he felt obliged to resign his membership. On the other hand old friends were kinder and more loyal than ever. They made generous gifts that enabled him to rebuild his laboratory and continue his researches in science. He also published, in two parts, his extended Appeal to the Public on the subject of the Riots in Birmingham, giving a full account of the causes and conduct of the riot, and vindicating both himself and the Dissenters from any charge of disloyalty or sedition. Before the end of the year he was invited by the Gravel Pit Meeting at Hackney to succeed to the pastorate that the death of Dr. Price had left vacant a few months earlier; and he also lectured gratuitously on his favorite subjects to the students of the New College there. All in all his cheerful spirit led him to declare these years as among the happiest of his life.
Nevertheless many circumstances were calculated to make him anxious. After a year the minor annoyances had largely passed away, but the Revolution in France had in 1793 developed into the Reign of Terror, and the panic-struck conservatives in England instinctively thought of Priestley as still a supporter of the Revolution. He had been many times burnt in effigy along with Tom Paine, and had received countless insulting and threatening letters,49 and his prospects seemed to be getting worse rather than better. A reign of persecution had set in, and on even slight suspicion of any word or act that could be interpreted as treasonable, one was in danger of criminal prosecution, to which several of his friends had fallen victims.50 There was no assurance that a trumped up charge of treason might not be brought against him. His three sons, finding all openings barred to them in England, had already gone to America, accompanied or soon followed by other friends.51 The situation bore especially hard on Mrs. Priestley, and but one decision could be made. It was therefore determined to follow his sons, who had sailed the preceding autumn. He presented his resignation to the Hackney congregation late in February, 1794, followed by an appropriate sermon and a statement of his reasons for leaving England; and a month later he preached a farewell sermon on ‘the Use of Christianity, especially in difficult times.’52 They sailed from London early in April, and after eight tedious weeks at sea landed in New York to begin a new life in a new world. Here he was serenely to pass the last ten years of his life, which will be related in a later chapter as a part of the history of Unitarianism in America. It remains to summarize here briefly the character and qualities of Priestley, his contribution to the religion of his time, and his influence upon the development of Unitarianism.
Joseph Priestley's station in general biography has no doubt been determined by his notable contributions to the science of chemistry, despite the fact that he was but an amateur chemist, largely self-taught, who was nearly forty when he began his experiments, and that he conducted them more out of curiosity than with a definite scientific purpose, and never understood what oxygen was even though he had discovered it. Nevertheless his reputation as a man of science won him a wide audience when he dealt with other subjects, and hence gave him greater weight in the field of doctrine. Most educated men of the time were alienated from the traditional and popular concepts of religion; but the man who embraced the new principles of Locke and Hartley with the greatest ardor, and let them most influence his moral and religious thinking; was Priestley, who always held Hartley's writings with a reverence second only to Scripture. For him all evidence for truth, even religious truth, rests on the testimony of the senses. Hence the visible miracles of Jesus, and his resurrection from the dead, as revealed to us in the Scriptures, are to be accepted as evidence that his teachings are true. One's belief in these and similar facts is what he regarded as belief in Christianity.53 Like Locke, he held that no other belief is essential to a Christian than that Christ was the Messiah.
In his later writings, which Professor Huxley considered among the most powerful and clear expositions of materialism and determinism in the English language, he set forth the view that man's nature is entirely material, that the soul is a function of the body and dies with it; and that there is no freedom of the will. These views brought down on him the charge of infidel and atheist; yet he did not deny a future life, but considered that the soul is raised immediately after physical death by a miraculous act of God. Beyond these philosophical principles, and the axioms that God is, and is good, he drew his religious beliefs from Scripture, taken as final authority, though he used critical freedom in rejecting from the record sections (like those relating Jesus's supernatural birth), which he regarded as accretions to the original text; and he confidently looked for the second coming of Christ within a very few years. Hence his opinions were a singular combination of some views surprisingly advanced and others extremely conservative. But he held that Christianity is less a system of opinions than a rule of life, whose end is the moral perfection of the human soul; and he believed that the welfare of the whole human race depends upon its acceptance of Christianity. In his personal life he was a man of deep devotion, who practiced and encouraged habitual public and family worship, reading of the Bible, and observance of the Sabbath, and his profound faith in the eternal goodness of God enabled him to rise triumphant over every misfortune and bereavement.
While in his frequent religious controversies his fearless advocacy of his own views did much to hearten wavering Dissenters in face of the overbearing attitude of the establishment, yet his plain outspokenness of what he held as truth, asking no quarter and giving none, his use of sarcasm and irony upon occasion (though he never stooped to offensive personalities), his insistence that the orthodox worship of Christ is sheer idolatry, and that the Church is but an overgrown fungus upon the body of true Christianity, did all possible to widen a breach that a more conciliatory attitude might have helped to close up. On the other hand, his sharp insight did much to clarify the course of religious thought, and to prepare it for the new light of biblical criticism; and in his studies tracing the development of the doctrine of the person of Christ he practically founded a new science — the history of Christian doctrine regarded not as a fixed deposit, but as a growing process. While he thus opened the way for progress in religious thought, yet his strong emphasis on the intellectual aspects of religion, and his grudging appreciation of the witness of inner religious experience, made it inevitable that though he might influence the development of Unitarian thought for two generations, yet leadership must in time pass to teachers of wider view and deeper insight. Our later chapters must try to trace the process of this transformation.54
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