Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 46.djvu/368

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
Priestley
Priestley
362

introduction to Johnson, till at length John Paradise [q. v.], at Johnson's request, brought them together at dinner. Johnson promised to call on him the next time he was at Birmingham (Appeal to the Public, 1792, ii. 103).

In 1772 he had appended to a reprint of his Leeds 'Appeal' a 'concise history' of certain established doctrines. He began to amplify it for a fourth part of his 'Institutes.' It took shape as a 'History of the Corruptions of Christianity' (December 1782), the best known, though not the best, of his theological writings (in 1785 it was burned by the common hangman at Dort). In this work he challenged a discussion with Gibbon, who, in a short correspondence, advised him (28 Jan. 1783) to stick to 'those sciences in which real and useful improvements can be made,' and contemptuously declined the challenge. Criticism on the first section of the work, relating to the person of Christ, led him to prepare a more elaborate treatise on this head. John Hawkins, rector of Hinton-Ampner, Hampshire, procured him books from the cathedral library at Worcester (Memoirs, ii. 30). He began to question the received accounts of our Lord's nativity, and in articles in the 'Theological Repository' (1784) rejected the doctrine of the virgin birth as without historical basis. His opinion that our Lord was born at Nazareth has been revived by modern critics. In this connection he startled his friend Lindsey by maintaining that our Lord was neither naturally impeccable nor intellectually infallible, was under delusion respecting demoniacal possession, and had misconceived the purport of some of the prophecies. His labours culminated in the 'History of Early Opinions concerning Jesus Christ' (1786). Writing as a sectary, he damaged at the outset his claim to scrutinise in a scientific spirit the course of thought in Christian antiquity; but he was one of the first to open the way to the study of doctrinal development, and while proclaiming his own bias with rare frankness, he submitted his historical judgments to the arbitrament of further research. His account of the origin of Arianism, as a novel system, has stood this test. What was special in his method was the endeavour, discarding the speculations of the fathers, to penetrate to the mind of the common Christian people. He broke entirely with the old application of the principle of private judgment, maintaining that a purely modern interpretation of Scripture is, ipso facto, discredited, and the meaning attached to it by the earliest age, if ascertainable, must be decisive. A good summary of his position is in his 'Letters' (1787) to Alexander Geddes [q. v.], the Roman catholic scholar, who had addressed him as his 'fellow-disciple in Jesus.' He was criticised by Samuel Badcock [q. v.], a contributor to his 'Theological Repository,' with whom he had been on terms of very close literary correspondence, by Francis Howes [q. v.], James Barnard, and Thomas Knowles [q. v.] The attack was led by Horsley, who, refusing to enter on 'the main question,' set himself 'to destroy the writer's credit and the authority of his name '(Horsley, Tracts, 1789, preface). He adopted, with masterly effect, Bentley's line against Collins. In showing that Priestley failed to understand Platonism, Horsley did real service. His brilliant exposure of Priestley's slips was less in point. Priestley, while not a finished scholar, had competent learning, though he wrote in haste. The charge of borrowing from Daniel Zwicker (1612-1678) was the less reasonable, as neither Priestley nor Horsley had seen Zwicker s tracts, which Horsley only knew from the animadversions of George Bull [q. v.] That he abstained from reading Priestley's riper treatise illustrates his controversial skill rather than his fairness.

The controversy with Horsley lasted from 1783 to 1790. From 1786 Priestley issued an annual defence of unitarianism, in review of all opponents. In 1787 he resisted the resolution of Charles Cooke (carried 12 Dec.) to exclude controversial divinity from the Birmingham Public Library, which he had reorganised in 1782. In 1789 he projected a new version of the Scriptures, in conjunction with Michael Dodson [q.v.], William Frend [q. v.], and Lindsey. Priestley was to be answerable for the hagiographa of the Old Testament, getting what assistance he could (Martineau errs in supposing that he undertook to translate the Hebrew Bible singlehanded). The first instalment of his 'General History of the Christian Church,' a work of some merit, was published in 1790. In July 1790 he met Samuel Parr [q. v.] at the ordination of William Field [q. v.] Being at Buxton in the following autumn, he preached by special request in the assembly room (19 Sept.) Grattan was present, and John Hely-Hutchinson [q. v.], provost of Trinity College, Dublin. The sermon (afterwards published) was a powerful argument for the resurrection of our Lord. In October he asked his Roman catholic neighbour, Joseph Berington [q. v.], to preach the Sunday-school sermon at the New Meeting. Berington hoped at some future time that it might be prudent to do so. Early in 1791 Priestley concurred in the formation of the