A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature/Priestly, Joseph

PRIESTLEY, Joseph (1733-1804).—Chemist, theologian and political writer, s. of a draper at Fieldhead, Yorkshire, where he was b. Brought up as a Calvinist, he gradually became a modified Unitarian, and after attending a dissenting academy at Daventry he became minister to various congregations. About 1756 he pub. The Scripture Doctrine of Remission, denying the doctrine of atonement, and in 1761 succeeded Dr. Aiken as teacher of languages and belles-lettres in the dissenting academy at Warrington. About the same time he became acquainted with Franklin and Dr. Price (q.v.) and began to devote himself to science, the fruits of which were his History and Present State of Electricity (1767), and Vision, Light, and Colours. He also became a distinguished chemist, and made important discoveries, including that of oxygen. In 1773 he travelled on the Continent as companion to Lord Shelburne, where he was introduced to many men of scientific and literary eminence, by some of whom he was rallied upon his belief in Christianity. In reply to this he wrote Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever (1774), and in answer to the accusations of Atheism brought against him at home he pub. (1777) Disquisition relating to Matter and Spirit. In 1780 he settled in Birmingham, in 1782 pub. his Corruptions of Christianity, and in 1786 his History of Early Opinions concerning Jesus Christ. He was one of those who wrote replies to Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution, one consequence of which was his election as a French citizen, and another the destruction of his chapel, house, papers, and instruments by a mob. Some years later he went to America, where he d. P. has been called the father of modern chemistry. He received many scientific and academic honours being a member of the Royal Society, of the Academies of France and of St. Petersburg, and an LL.D. of Edin. He was a man of powerful and original mind, of high character, and of undaunted courage in maintaining his opinions, which were usually unpopular.