The following the text I presented at Westwood Unitarian Congregation this Sunday. It is not scholarly referenced, but I hope does justice to Steven Johnson, whose book the Invention of Air inspired the talk, and Joseph Priestly who lived it!



Joseph Priestly: The Man who Invented Air and Unitarianism

By Terry Anderson

Westwood Unitarian Congregation – April 15, 2012

Like many Unitarian Universalists I did not grow up in a UU church and thus my understanding and appreciation of UU history has been acquired in a splotchy fashion through occasional sermons and articles. In fact, I was brought up in a very strict (but loving) Baptist home and thus my familiarity with Bible stories and Christian history far surpasses my knowledge of Unitarian history and stories. My first encounter with Unitarians was the family who lived across the street from us in Calgary. As kids we were quite astounded (and envious) to see that they didn’t have to go to Church in the summer. This was before I understood that Unitarians were the only people that God trusted enough, to give them the summer off. My Christian faith began to waiver and collapsed during undergraduate University days, however, my Baptist conditioning was so strong, that I felt guilty sleeping in on Sunday mornings, and thus joined the Unitarian Church of Edmonton when I was 21.  As you know I still attend UU church most Sunday mornings. The big attraction for me is the freedom of religious thinking, the challenge to come to my own interpretations of life’s mysteries and to joining a community of religion survivors.

But today’s talk is not about me, but about one of the earliest and greatest Unitarians. This is a talk about history and especially of the life and times of Joseph Priestly. I’ve titled this talk the Man who Invented Air and Unitarianism.  It is hard to imagine how any human actually ‘invented air’ but I’ll detail how prior to Priestly’s work, people understood air as a single substance and no idea why some kinds of air sustained life, while others poisoned it. Equally it is hard to argue that any one single person “invented Unitarianism” Certainly the idea of a non Trinitarian theology was developed centuries earlier in Romania, but Priestly’s co-founding of the London Unitarian Meeting House in 1774, was the first use of the word Unitarian in English to describe a denomination and was the direct predecessor of modern British and American Unitarian churches.

Thomas Sheenan talks about three types or notions of history:

  1. The first is the events themselves. Today’s history of Joseph Priestly is contextualized by the extremely disruptive events of the late 18th century. The industrial revolution was fueling the growth of the factories and the cities to house them, centralization  was displacing hundreds of thousands of peasants, and the first truly global empire was being created. Second,  cheap consumer goods were, for the first time in history, becoming readily available. Thirdly, political challenges to authority, most notably in the shock of republicanism and challenge to Imperial empire represented by the American revolution, but especially in the last part of this story by the terror and excess of mob rule during the French Revolution.
  2. Second, history is the writing of stories of the past.  As a small minority religious group, stories of the past and connection to larger ideas and ideals have always been critical to Canadian Unitarianism. Thus, this talk tells of one of the most influential Unitarians and his stories, struggles and successes thereby providing a role model and inspiration for us today.
  3. Finally, history is the impact of the past on the future. Many of Priestly’s Unitarian ideals are celebrated each week here at Westwood and thousands of other Unitarian congregations around the world. But especially when I talk about the closing years of Priestley’s life and his strange apocalyptic writing and ideas, I look at my own aging process and the many others of our “graying community” and hope we can take lessons from Priestley’s life and story

My acquaintance with Joseph Priestly – came about quite fortuitously.  One of my favorite authors is the American journalist and philosopher of innovation Steven Johnson. Johnson has written a number of books relevant to my own interest and professional life. His books have evocative titles such as

So I was pleased and surprised to find on Amazon one day one of his books that I had not read entitled the Invention of Air, and I ordered it. I was even more pleased and surprised to find that it was largely a biography of the great Unitarian minister Joseph Priestly. So this morning I’d like to share a few of the insights I gained from this and other references I’ve found to the polymath Joseph Priestly. But let me be very clear to note at the beginning that my study of Priestly is not at all exhaustive.  In fact in my Google searches for Priestly I encountered a 2009 article in UU World Magazine by Scott Gerard Prinster who dismissed Johnson’s book as ‘pop history’ and recommended instead that we all read Robert Schofield’s two-volume, 760 page biography The Enlightened Joseph Priestley, completed in 2004.  So for any who leave this morning’s service feeling intellectually short changed and unnourished, I would urge you to see today as a mere perfunctory introduction to this prolific and multifaceted man.

Joseph Priestly was born in Yorkshire England in 1733. He was the oldest of 6 children born to a working class family. In those times in England, adherence to the Church of England was required to hold public office, enroll in any of the Universities and to rise to political favour. But then, as now, there have always been thoughtful people who refused to conform to ideas or doctrines that just didn’t make sense to them. Joseph Priestly was one of these non-conformists.

From an early age Priestly envisioned himself as a minister and was trained at a non-conformist academy in his early 20’s and installed as a minister of a rural non-conformist congregation. And then as now, some congregations (including Westwood) have trouble supporting a full time minister, so to increase his salary Priestly established a school. Priestly married and he and his wife Mary raised 5 children. Priestly described his marriage as “a very suitable and happy connexion, my wife being a woman of an excellent understanding, much improved by reading, of great fortitude and strength of mind, and of a temper in the highest degree affectionate and generous; feeling strongly for others, and little for herself. (Priestly, J. (1970) Autobiography, p. 87)

Priestly was a very intelligent and mostly self-educated man. Although denied opportunities to attend traditional Universities he had tremendous capacity for self education and had taught himself to read Latin, Greek, Arabic and of course French and Spanish by his 20th year.

In a series of moves Priestly expanded his congregations and began an interest in science, scientific tools and gadgets that continued throughout his life.  During his mid 20-‘s Priestly began spending one month a year in London and there first became acquainted with the coffee house culture and the Natural philosophers who gathered there.

The introduction of coffee to British society had two very profound consequences. Previous to the importation of coffee beans from overseas colonies, the only safe fluids to drink, on a year round basis, were alcoholic. Beer, wine and gin were consumed at every meal (breakfast included) by citizens of all social standings. So everyone from mothers, to chimney sweeps, teachers to blacksmiths, went about daily life in an alcoholized slumber – not good for either productive work or thinking. After coffee was introduced, Europeans arrived at work each morning with our now familiar caffeine “pick me up” – a marked improvement over the previous alcohol induced “put me to sleep”.

Secondly, the coffee house emerged as a social place where people could debate, read newspapers and generally share and grow knowledge. Previous to this time the only place for similar styles of discourse was in the Churches (always on guard for subversive dialogue) or in the pubs –which as we see even today, are only rarely centres of intellectual discourse and insight. Even the Universities were usually hostile to radical or even rationale and scientific ideas, since  the study of ancient Greek philosophers was deemed more important than the then modern scientific ideas. Indeed, we were 150 years away from the establishment of the real research universities. The four faculties of the medieval and reformation universities were medicine, law, theology and philosophy – so they were essentially professional schools with no original research in the sense in which we talk about it today. The faculty of philosophy eventually expanded its scope to include the study of natural philosophy (chemistry and physics) as it shown by the lingering use of the Dr of Philosophy (PhD) still awarded in these and all the other emergent disciplines of the modern university.

But back to the coffeehouse. In these coffeehouse, ideas from many disciplines, from many countries and many political roots mixed, nourished each other and from these discussions the ideas that fueled the enlightenment and later the great scientific progress of the industrial revolution emerged. Erasmus Darwin (Grandfather of Charles Darwin) described it “ . . what inventions, what wit, what rhetoric, metaphysical, mechanical, and pyrotechnical, will be on the wing, bandied like a shuttlecock from one to another of your troop of philosophers!

Priestly’s first scientific interest was in electricity and he, as many natural philosophers of the day, held public demonstrations of magnetism, with sparks flying and hair made to stand on end. His interests later changed to gases and chemistry. He was the first to understand that air was made of compounds of various gases and he was the first to isolate and identify oxygen, ammonia, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide.

Priestly also was the first to discover and manufacture carbonated water, so you might think of this great Unitarian scientist and minister the next time you enjoy a soda pop.

Priestly was also the first to discover how plants were able to generate oxygen, which, through experiments, and many asphyxiated mice, he had come to understand that oxygen was both critical to animal life and was consumed by animal respiration. Even more important Priestly was the first to document that plants produced life sustaining oxygen and showed, through scientific demonstration, that plants and animals could sustain each other in atmospherically closed containment. Thus, Priestly was the first to discover this critically important component of the “interdependent web’ and understanding of the complex, but self sustaining ecosystems that we acknowledge today in our Principles.

Priestly published over 500 books and pamphlets in his lifetime, many on science, but also a prolific number on religion, social and political ideas. For a few years he managed to afford to be a full time scientist when he was employed as the children’s tutor and scientific advisor to Lord Shelburne, a peer and highly placed minster in the King’s government. However, like many Unitarians today, he had trouble keeping silent about the injustices of the day and eventually was forced to return to the freedom of expression granted to him as a non-conformist minster. He also found part time funding for his “laboratory” in Birmingham where he served as a scientific advisor to the growing class of industrial entrepreneurs, developing ways to mass produce consumer, commercial  and scientific goods.

Much of my work and research at Athabasca University evolves around increasing access to ideas, content and learning opportunities as instantiated in Open source software, open educational resources and the Open Access scholarly journal that I edit. For example, over my career I’ve authored seven books on educational and technology subjects. Each of these has sold a modest but academically respectable run of between 1000-2000 copies. However my last edited text, the Theory and Practice of Online Learning similarly has sold nearly 2,000 copies in print, but because it is made freely available for download from AUPress under a Creative Commons License, it has been downloaded in its entirety over 110,000 times and individual chapters many times more, besides being translated into Chinese, Greek and Arabic.

Similarly, Joseph Priestly was an ardent believer in Open science and never choose to apply for patents or to hold back in publication of any of his discoveries. Undoubtedly, his discovery of carbonated water and a technique for carbonating fruit juices and other beverages alone could have made him a very rich man. But resonating with the gift culture of First Nations and a sincere belief that sharing freely leads to the betterment of all, Priestly refused to sell, patent or hold back any of this ideas, publishing them for all to use and benefit from.

One of Priestly great virtues and fatal flaws was his inability to keep his mouth shut or his pen silent. In an era when British confidence in Crown, government and church was under extreme stress, caused in large part by the disastrous American War of Independence in the US and the excesses of the French revolution, Priestly wrote two books- a History of the Corruptions of Christianity, a direct attack on the central tenets of orthodox Christian religion, particularly the doctrine of the Trinity; the ideas of virgin birth and the fallacy of the resurrection. He also wrote a History of the Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ where Priestly tried to show how our understanding of Jesus had been obscured and falsified due to the special interests of religious leaders.  Like many modern theologians considered Jesus to be a Jewish man, with a revolutionary mission and ministry, but not a half-god, much less the exclusive Son of God. But besides being outspoken, Priestly was a very influential person. He was a good friend and prodigy of Benjamin Franklin and the winner of the highest scientific award given by the British Royal Society, He was an advisor to many wealthy industrial leaders and a sometimes friend to English nobility, and he was almost always employed as a parish minister, with a pulpit to preach his ideas from – thus his opinions were very influential and very threatening.

These threats culminated in 1791 when a mob known as the Church and King Party destroyed his laboratory in Birmingham and burned his house to the ground. Priestly and his wife were forced to flee to America. Priestly was well received in the USA, acclaimed and introduced for his first sermon by John Adams, the second president of the US and soon became a close friend and advisor to Thomas Jefferson, third president. Priestly was offered a Chair in Chemistry at University of Pennsylvania, but declined the offer and retreated to his writing and a church parish ministry in rural Pennsylvania. Like many Unitarians today, Priestly continued to challenge the political ideas of the day and save for his close friendship with both Adams and Jefferson he likely would have been imprisoned for “sedition” as an Alien who overtly supported the French Revolution at a time when relationships between the US and France were in a state of undeclared War.

Being an educator, I can’t restrain myself from a few comments on Priestley’s contributions to education. Priestly was against the theoretical study of Greek and Latin language and philosophy that constituted much of higher education of the day. He argued that such an education trained students only for the Ministry, when clear thinking, well-educated men and women were needed in science, business and even farming.   Priestley’s influential texts on English grammar were staples of university study in the UK for over 50 years. Finally, Priestly was both a creator and consumer of what today we call ‘learning objects’. He produced historical and biological charts, which served as multimedia objects for his discussion-based teaching pedagogy. His Biology chart resulted in him being awarded a Doctorate from the University of Edinburgh in 1765.

Right until his death in 1804 Priestly remained an active Churchman and outspoken Unitarian – Christian. It is common in Western Canada to differentiate between belief in God, Christianity and Unitarianism, but that certainly was not the perspective of many Unitarians in Priestly’s age, or even today. Susan and I attended the first Unitarian church established in New York City last summer. All Souls Church only removed the cross from the front of their church in the 1960’s and still has prayers and mentions the ‘G’ word without apology.

Unlike many scientific leaders of the day, Priestly openly opposed atheistic ideas and actively encouraged both scientists and lay people to embrace liberal religious believes and an understanding of God. Thomas Jefferson himself publically noted that only through the writings of Priestly was he able to retain his own personal sense of spirituality and religious belief. To give further evidence of the impact that Priestly had on Jefferson and John Adams it is interesting to note that in the lengthy series of final correspondence between these two old friends, and sometimes bitter political foes,  Johnson notes that  ”Priestley is mentioned 52 times, while Franklin is mentioned five times, and George Washington only three.”

Priestly’s theological study, like his science was based on rational study and critical reflection. He was one of a group of Unitarian theologians that first tried to reinterpret the writings of scripture, based on work with earliest manuscripts written in their origional Greek and Hebrew. He strived to reinterpret them in light of current and most importantly rationale thought. Thus, he worked to create texts which were more authentic, but with an understanding that the true revelation would never be understood completely. He believed that scriptural translations were never finished, but always in need of further reflection and rationale thought as human understanding increased and as our ability to discard muddy and misguided thinking (such as ideas of the trinity, atonement, and even the divinity of Jesus).  Like modern day scholars of scripture he searched for linguistic and historical ideas that could strip the misinterpreted cultural overlays from divine revelation and insight- Sound’s much like the Jesus Seminar of his day.

However lest this talk errs by giving a too white-washed version of Priestley’s life or his theology, I should note that towards the end of his life Priestly became engrossed in millennium and apocalyptic thinking – His study of revelations and of the Book of Daniel convinced him that he was , living in the end of times and he began actively looking for signs that confirmed this belief. He later began calling on his congregations to repent in Jonah style of apolotoyptic or ‘the sky is falling” warnings.   But remember that Priestly lived nearly 100 years before Charles Darwin published his famous works, so in Priestly’s day abandoning a religious lens through which to interpret the world, left a tremendous and ominous vacuum of unexplained and unexplainable phenomena. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and other of his atheistic contemporaries’ were able to handle this life of starring into the abyss, but for Priestly, this was too much for his intensely curious but relentlessly meaning seeking mind and thus he turned in his later years into even deeper search for meaning in the obscure rantings of the authors of the biblical books of Daniel, Isiah and especially Revelations.

I find this aspect of Priestly’s final sermons and writings just as hard to take as I did the announcements of the end of the world that flooded the Internet and popular press last fall. Why would the most respected scientist of his day, end his life focused on improvable, hysterical claims of upcoming doom and gloom?  To answer that one can blame Priestly’s own extensive knowledge of the scriptures, read in their original language, his knowledge of his own impending death and his inability to keep his very radical ideas to himself.

Priestley’s later writings provide a cautionary warning for all of us to seek the counsel of other opinions, the rationale mind of science and to recognize our own incapacities as age can both dull and sharpen ones capacity for self-censure.

So to conclude – What can we learn from the life of Joseph Priestly?

  1. You can be a scientist, business person or farmer and still have an active, rationale and sustaining religious faith, though that faith may be quite different and often at odds with the way others find meaning and faith– very Unitarian
  2. Speaking your truth is challenging, risky and often unpopular, but I am sure that Priestly himself would not have changed his behaviours, despite all the challenges, betrayals and fears that marked his long and sometimes trying life.
    1. Despite the obvious attractions for those of us here today, Unitarianism is an infernally slow growing movement and has been since its founding. Priestly wrote shortly after establishing the first Unitarian Meeting House in London in 1774:

“Let us not, therefore be discouraged though for the present we should see no great number of churches professedly Unitarian. It is sufficiently evident that Unitarian principles are gaining ground every day.”

This idea was reflected in the talk that Brian Kiely gave from this pulpit a few weeks ago.

  1. Finally, in old age many of us seem especially attracted to irrational beliefs, such as apocalyptic thinking and that even those blessed with extraordinary bright and rationale minds need to guard against irrationality and obsession.

So let me end with a final quote from Joseph Priestly, one of the greatest scientists, thinkers and theologians  of western civilization, which gives me great solace as I contemplate my own accomplishments in comparison with a man of Priestly’s stature. He wrote in 1768 (and please forgive the sexist language of the day):

““Every man, when he comes to be sensible of his natural rights, and to feel his own importance, will consider himself as fully equal to any other person whatever.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *