Joseph Priestley

On this date (under the Old Style calendar) in 1733, chemist and discoverer of oxygen Joseph Priestley was born in Fairhead, England, near Leeds, the oldest of 6 children. Destined for the ministry, Priestley realized he rejected much of Calvinism, and decided to attend a Dissenting seminary, Daventry Academy. Priestley worked as a minister while conducting scientific experiments, and then secured a position at the Dissenting Academy, Warrington. He was eventually ordained in the Dissenting ministry, and became an early founder of Unitarianism in England, at a time when Dissenters could be deprived of their citizenship and Unitarianism was not lawful. He produced carbonated water, and isolated eight gases in the air, including oxygen, and is considered to have laid the foundation for the science of chemistry. Priestley wrote The History and Present State of Electricity (1767) at the encouragement of his colleague, Benjamin Franklin. Priestley's History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782) was burned and reviled for its rejection of the Trinity, predestination and divine revelation. In it, Priestley averred that a pure form of Christianity had been corrupted. This was followed by History of Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ (1786). A General History of the Christian Church to the Fall of the Western Empire was finished in 4 volumes by 1803. A defender of the French Revolution, Priestley lost his laboratory and home in Birmingham when they were stormed and burned down by mobs. Priestley's membership in the Royal Society was also withdrawn and he was burned in effigy. Priestley and his family immigrated to the United States in 1794, with hopes of setting up a model community, but settling for building a house in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, that contained a built-in lab. After weathering so much criticism himself, Priestley is notorious among freethinkers for writing of Benjamin Franklin: "It is much to be lamented that a man of Dr. Franklin's general good character and great influence, should have been an unbeliever in Christianity, and also have done so much as he did to make others unbelievers." Priestley is a founder of the first Unitarian Church in America. D. 1804.

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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