19 June 2016

There is an intellectual thread that
links Jo Cox and Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley’s House on the Green in Calne, where he lived while working for Lord Shelburne (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The a memorial to Joseph Priestley in Birstall, West Yorkshire, has become an improvised memorial to Jo Cox, the Labour MP for the constituency who was murdered just metres away last week.

People have come from far and away to lay flowers at the Priestly memorial as they mourn and remember this amazing politician and pay tribute to her life’s work and her humanitarian vision.

The Revd Joseph Priestly (1733-1804) seems to be an appropriate figure from the past to be linked to this brave woman.

Priestley was a theologian, clergyman, natural philosopher, chemist, educator and Liberal political theorist who is credited with the discovery of oxygen. He also invented soda water, and was an early pioneer in electricity. Science was integral to his theology, and he sought to to fuse Enlightenment rationalism with Christian beliefs.

Priestley strongly believed in the free and open exchange of ideas, he and advocated toleration and equal rights for religious minorities. After a mob burned down his church and his home, he was forced as the victim of political violence to flee to America.

Priestley was born in Birstall in the West Yorkshire in 1733. In his youth, he learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and later in life he also became fluent in French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Aramaic and Arabic – become a thoroughly modern and committed European – before returning to England to study theology.

In 1755, he was called to the Dissenting chapel in Needham Market, Suffolk. But he was not a Calvinist and the experience was an unhappy one for both the people and their pastor.

In 1758, he moved to Nantwich, Cheshire, and then to the Mill Hill Chapel, one of the oldest Dissenting congregations in England, where he became a founding figure in the Unitarians.

In his political writings, he supported the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which restricted the rights of Dissenters who could not hold political or judicial office, serve in the armed forces, or attend Cambridge or Oxford unless they subscribed to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England.

His Essay on the First Principles of Government (1768) distinguished political rights from civil rights and argued for expansive civil rights. He argued that the government should only have control over the public sphere. Education and religion, he argued, were matters of private conscience.

In 1772, William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, invited Priestley to direct the education of his children, and in 1773, he moved to Bowood House in Calne, Wiltshire. A year later, Shelburne and Priestley toured of Europe, when Priestley was “much improved by this view of mankind at large.”

Doctor’s Pond in the centre of Calne, where Joseph Priestley discovered the properties of oxygen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Back in Calne, he resumed his work as a librarian and tutor, but also to continued his scientific and theological pursuits, and was also a political adviser to Shelburne. Priestley’s years in Calne were his most scientifically fruitful, and during this time he is credited with the ‘discovery’ of oxygen.

When Priestley’s friend, the Revd Theophilus Lindsey decided to set up a new Christian denomination that would not restrict its members’ beliefs, Priestley supported him, attended Lindsey’s church regularly and occasionally preached there. He continued to support Unitarianism for the rest of his life.

In 1780, Priestley moved to Birmingham and there he was closely associated with the Lunar Society, which often met in Erasmus Darwin’s house in Lichfield. As well as Priestley and Darwin, the other members included Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton, James Watt, James Keir, Thomas Day and Richard Lovell Edgeworth.

His support for the French Revolution, led to attacks on Priestly by politicians and pamphleteers, and in Parliament he was attacked by former friends, including William Pitt and Edmund Burke, who argued against his calls for repeal. Pitt now argued that Priestley and other Dissenters wanted to overthrow the government, and Burke linked Priestley by name with the French Revolution. Burke also argued against science and maintained that religion should be the basis of civil society.

But opportunistic verbal attacks in politics have their consequences on the streets.

In July 1791, Priestley and several other Dissenters arranged a dinner to celebrate the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.

Amid mounting fears of violence on the streets, Priestley was convinced by his friends not to attend. Rioters gathered outside the hotel during the banquet and attacked those who attended as they left. They then burned Priestley’s church to the ground, and as he fled with his wife they burned his house, Fairhill, at Sparkbrook, destroying his laboratory and his family belongings.

Priestley spent several days in hiding and the made his way to London. The attacks were probably planned and condoned by local magistrates.

The verbal violence continued. When King George III reluctantly sent troops to Birmingham, he said: “I cannot but feel better pleased that Priestley is the sufferer for the doctrines he and his party have instilled, and that the people see them in their true light.”

Eventually, Priestley found sanctuary in America, where he spent the last 10 years of his life. He died on 6 February 1804, at the age of 70. His epitaph in Riverview Cemetery in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, reads:

Return unto thy rest, O my soul, for the
Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee.
I will lay me down in peace and sleep till
I awake in the morning of the resurrection.

The 250th anniversary of the foundation of the Lunar Society is being marked this year with a programme of lectures and conferences at Ersamus Darwin House in Lichfield.

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