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   Priestley at Birmingham—His theological work there—His love of literature—His catholicity—His personal characteristics.

In 1784 Priestley brought out a revised edition of the work on which his fame as a man of science mainly rests, under the title of “Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air; and other branches of Natural Philosophy connected with the Subject. In three volumes, being the former six abridged and methodised. With many Additions. London, 1790. 3 vols. 8vo.”

In a letter to his friend Keir we find an allusion to this matter. He says:—

    “I am working like a horse at the new arrangements of my 6 vols. of Experiments. It is a tedious business.

    “What do you think of an attempt to dedicate this work to the Prince of Wales? The King I shall never think of in any such light, nor the Prince, unless it be possible that he will be a real patron of science and could look upon it in some other light than that of an honour to myself.”

An interesting account of Priestley at this period of his life is to be found in the Memoirs of the French geologist, Faujar St Fond, who visited Birmingham some time after Priestley’s settlement there. He says:—

    “Dr Priestley received me with the greatest kindness. He presented me to his wife and his daughter, who were distinguished by vivacity, intelligence and gentleness of manner. The young lady spoke to me of one of her brothers, who was then finishing his education at Geneva and to whom she seemed very much attached.

    “The building in which Dr Priestley made his chemical and philosophical experiments was detached from his house to avoid 104 the danger of fire. It consisted of several apartments on a ground floor. Upon entering it we were struck with a simple and ingenious apparatus for making experiments on inflammable gas extracted from iron and water reduced to vapour. The tube, which was thick and long, was made of red copper and cast in one piece to avoid joinings. The part exposed to the fire was thicker than the rest. Into this tube he introduced cuttings or filings of iron, and instead of dropping in the water he preferred making it enter in vapour. The furnace destined for this operation was supplied with coke made of coal, which is the best of all combustibles for the intensity and equality of its heat. By these means he obtained a considerable quantity of inflammable gas of great lightness and without any smell. He observed to me, that by increasing the apparatus and using iron or copper tubes of a large calibre, aerostatic balloons might be filled with far less trouble and expense than by vitriolic acid. Dr Priestley allowed me to take a drawing of this new apparatus for the purpose of communicating it to the French chemists who are engaged in the same pursuit....

    “Dr Priestley did not regard the experiments made relative to the decomposition of water as satisfactory. He could not admit the fact to be demonstrated so long as the gas was only obtained through the medium of iron, a metal which is itself susceptible of inflammability; but he waited with impatience for the result of the experiments of the French chemists, particularly those of Lavoisier, who had invented and caused to be constructed an extensive apparatus for the same object.

    “‘The decomposition of water,’ said this indefatigable philosopher, addressing himself to me, ‘is of so much importance in Natural Philosophy, and would occupy so distinguished a place among the phenomena of the universe, that far from admitting the fact upon slight evidence, and as it were from enthusiasm, it were rather to be wished that all objections that may be made, and which will still long continue to be made against this theory were completely refuted; in the conflict of opinions, truth may at last be obtained. But I have still so many doubts upon this subject, and I have so many experiments to make, both pro and con, that I can as yet regard the greatest as only started.’

    “Dr Priestley has embellished his solitude with a philosophical 105 cabinet, which contains all the instruments necessary for his experiments, and a library rendered valuable by a choice of excellent works. The learned possessor employs himself in a variety of studies: History, Moral Philosophy and Religion have all in their turn engaged his pen. An active, intelligent mind and a natural avidity for knowledge gave him a passion for experimental philosophy; but the sensibility and gentleness of his disposition have sometimes directed his attention to pious and philanthropic studies, which do honour to the goodness of his heart, since they always have for their object the happiness of mankind.”

Priestley’s time in Birmingham was not, however, wholly devoted to science and the social joys of the Lunar Society. Much of it was given to his beloved theology and to editing the Theological Repository, which he revived some time after he had settled there. A few months after his arrival he was invited to take charge of the congregation of the New Meeting. With the consent of the congregation his services were mainly confined to Sunday duty and to catechising and lecturing.

Of his preaching Miss Hutton has left us an account. She says:—

    “I look upon his character as a preacher to be as amicable as his character as a philosopher is great. In the pulpit he is mild, persuasive and unaffected, and his sermons are full of sound reasoning and good sense. He is not what is called an orator; he uses no actions, no declamation; but his voice and manner are those of one friend speaking to another.”

His congregation is described as the most liberal in England, and with many of its members, particularly Mr Russell, he was on the most intimate and affectionate terms. During this period he completed his friendly controversy with the Bishop of Waterford on the duration of Christ’s ministry, and he published a 106 volume of sermons. To the same period belongs his History of the Corruptions of Christianity, which he composed and published shortly after his settlement at Birmingham. This work, which he spoke of as the most valuable of all his writings, he dedicated to his “dear friend,” Theophilus Lindsey, in the hope that their names may ever be connected as closely after death as they were connected by friendship during life. To Lindsey’s example of a pure love of truth, and of the most fearless integrity in asserting it, as evidenced by the sacrifices he had made to it, Priestley says that he owed much of his own wishes “to imbibe the same spirit.”

The work, as originally planned, was to be the concluding part of his Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion, but as the matter of it grew it became extended into a separate treatise, larger, indeed, than the whole of the Institutes. Its object was to show that modern Christianity was a departure from the original scheme, and that the innovations have debased its spirit and almost annihilated all the happy effects which it was eminently calculated to produce. Although it had begun to recover itself from its corrupted state, and the Reformation was advancing apace, abuses still continued in many places, even although their virulence was very generally abated and the number was greatly increased of those who were most zealous in the profession of Christianity, whose lives were the greatest ornament to it, and who hold it in such purity that if it was fairly exhibited and universally understood it could hardly fail to recommend itself to the acceptance of the whole world.

    “But so long as all the Christianity that is known to 107 Heathens, Mahometans and Jews is of a corrupted and debased kind, and particularly while the profession of it is so much connected with worldly interest, it is no wonder that mankind in general refuse to admit it, and that they can even hardly be prevailed upon to give any attention to the evidence that is alleged in its favour. Whereas, when the system itself shall appear to be less liable to objection, it is to be hoped that they may be brought to give proper attention to it, and to the evidence on which it rests.”

In this work Priestley attempted to trace every “corruption”—that is every innovation or departure from what he conceives to be the original scheme—to its proper source and “to show what circumstances in the state of things, and especially of other prevailing opinions and prejudices, made the alteration, in doctrine or practice, sufficiently natural, and the introduction and establishment of it easy.” Priestley hoped as a true rationalist that this historical method would be found to be one of the most satisfactory modes of argumentation, in order to prove that what he objected to was no part of the original scheme.

    “For after the clearest refutation of any particular doctrine that has been long established in Christian churches it will still be asked, how, if it be no part of the scheme, it ever came to be thought so, and to be so generally acquiesced in; and in many cases the mind will not be perfectly satisfied till such questions be answered.”

We are mainly concerned with this remarkable work as illustrating the character and attributes of its author, and it is not within our province to give any analysis of its contents. It must be remembered in connection with it that Priestley was no longer an Arian; he was not even a Socinian, as that term was understood by the immediate followers of Faustus Socinus, who thought it 108 their duty as Christians, and, indeed, essential to Christianity, to pray to Jesus Christ, notwithstanding they believed him to be, in Priestley’s phrase, a mere man. Priestley was at this time what he remained until his death—a strict Humanitarian, although he believed in the supernatural power and divine mission of Christ.

Of the reception which awaited his book he could not be altogether unprepared. It was received by the orthodox with a storm of disapproval, and a dozen pens were immediately set to work to demolish its doctrine and to defend the principles he so boldly assailed. Among those who entered the lists the most formidable was Dr Horsley, then Archdeacon of St Albans, whose Animadversions were described as “at once nervous, animated and evangelical, but in some passages too sarcastic.”

It says something for Priestley’s position and influence in the theological world that his book should have met with the sternest disapprobation in Lutheran, and especially Calvinistic, circles abroad. It was ordered to be burnt by the hands of the common hangman at Dordrecht, in 1785—a sign that the spirit of the Synod of Dort had survived even two centuries.

Priestley thereupon undertook to collect from the original writers the state of opinion on the subject in the age succeeding that of the apostles, and he published the results of his investigation in his “History of Early Opinion concerning Jesus Christ.” In four volumes. 8vo.

This bringing him still more antagonists he retaliated by writing a pamphlet annually in defence of the Unitarian doctrine, until it appeared to himself and his friends that his antagonists produced nothing to which it was of any 109 consequence to reply. The pains that he took to ascertain the state of early opinions concerning Jesus Christ, and the great misapprehensions that he says he perceived in all the ecclesiastical historians, led him to undertake a General History of the Christian Church to the Fall of the Western Empire.

    “If you ask me,” says the Rev. Alexander Gordon, “what I should reckon Priestley’s greatest service to theological science, I should say that it is to be found in his adoption of the historical method of investigating the problems of doctrine and in his special handling of that method. The faith of Priestley was the precursor of the modern theme of theological development, though I do not think he used the term. His term was ‘corruption,’ a term which, it may be said, begs a very important question. At any rate it throws into strong relief the fact, on which all are agreed, that there is, and must be, some primitive nucleus whence developments proceed. Now it is the object of all who, for any reason, are interested in the origin of Christianity to reach this primitive nucleus at its first, undeveloped and uncorrupted stage. Where are we to seek it? By universal consent we must go to the New Testament. There, if anywhere, we shall come upon its traces. Here the agreement begins and ends. The New Testament is in all hands. But one man finds the Trinity in it; another the simplest Monotheism; a third, the papacy; a fourth, the supremacy of the illuminating spirit. The same words yield opposite results, because the principles of interpretation differ. The New Testament is to be interpreted by the voice of the Church; or by the testimony of the Creeds; or by the opinions of the Fathers of the first centuries before the age of dogmatic creeds began at Nic?a. These had been the expedients proposed by the Catholic, the Anglican, the Arian respectively. Socinus had rejected them all. It cannot matter to me (so, in effect, he contended) what any Church, or any Creed, or any Father may have said; I go to the New Testament myself, to read it with my own eyes, to understand it with my own mind.

    “This was not the position of Priestley. He thought this as 110 irrational a proceeding as any of those which it superseded. Even if, by good luck, the true sense were reached, there was no means of proving it to be such. The New Testament, in Priestley’s view, is not to be construed as a book of enigmas which might belong to any age. It is not dropped straight out of heaven into the hands of the man of to-day for him to make what he will of it. It belongs to a specific period; it was written for a given class of persons; it was written to be understood. ‘Therefore,’ said Priestley, ‘it will be an unanswerable argument a priori against any particular doctrine being contained in the Scriptures, that it was never understood to be so by those persons for whose immediate use the Scriptures were written, and who must have been much better qualified to understand them, in that respect at least, than we can pretend to be at the present day.’ (Works, vi. 7.)

    “Accordingly it is the whole object of Priestley’s histories of doctrine to get at the mind of the common Christian people in the first age; to make their primary understanding of Scripture the norm for its true interpretation; and then to trace the process by which this first impression, this real meaning, suffered transmutation by the speculative genius of philosophising divines. Of the Nicene Council he quaintly says, ‘there was no House of Commons in that assembly.’ It ‘represented the Christian Church in no other sense than the House of Lords might be said to represent the English nation.’ He conceived that he could penetrate to this unsophisticated sense of the primitive believers through the very writings of the Fathers whereby it had been overlaid and obscured. Their admissions, their rebukes, their appeals, their laboured arguments, their surviving conservatisms: all were materials to his purpose.

    “The plan was novel, the conception original, the whole endeavour strictly scientific in its method and basis. And I do not think that Priestley’s work in this department has received the full recognition which it rightly claims from us, whether we regard its spirit or its execution. The progress of biblical knowledge implies, no doubt, a readjustment of his argument and a revision of his conclusions. But the readjustment and revision are effected by the use of principles which he was the first to set forth and apply. We now go behind the New Testament just as he went behind the 111 Fathers. The New Testament itself is, to us, largely a record by help of which we may reach the first impression made by the life, and work, and word of Christ. In so doing we do but carry out his suggestions and carry on his method. He is the genuine precursor of the properly historic treatment of biblical and theological questions.”

Priestley’s action with respect to the Sunday school movement was another rock of offence to the Established clergy. This movement began in Birmingham in 1784, and was supported by all denominations. The High Church party, however, insisted that all children, irrespective of the religious persuasion of their parents, should attend the worship of the Established Church and no other. After some time, and mainly at the instigation of Priestley, the Dissenters opened their separate Sunday schools, the Old Meeting in 1787, and the New Meeting in 1788, and Priestley preached the first sermon on behalf of the New Meeting Schools in November 1789, and with his son Joseph took an active share in the teaching.

Priestley was a sincere lover of literature, and no man was more sensible of its value to the moral and intellectual life of communities. In his own case he had derived so much benefit from a ready access to books which were beyond his means to purchase that he was ever willing to lend himself to any well-considered attempt to open the storehouses of literature, in its widest sense, as freely as possible, and to do all in his power to foster the love of reading and the spirit of inquiry among all classes of persons. In each succeeding situation—Needham, Nantwich, Warrington, Leeds—he left evidences of his efforts to make books as accessible as possible to the community of which he was 112 for the time a member. Leeds still enjoys a striking example of these efforts in its proprietary library, and much of its reputation and character is owing to the wise and enlightened spirit which he infused into its administration.

As to the library at Birmingham, he eventually succeeded in giving to it, as Hutton says, “that stability and method without which no institution can prosper.” We are further told that “the Society are under many and great obligations to the learned Doctor; it was him who altered its original plan and put it on a more extensive scale; he amended and enlarged the laws and has paid a great attention to its welfare and growing interests.”

Priestley’s action, and more especially the catholicity he displayed in the selection and admission of such books as in his judgment tended to the spread of rationalism, whether in religion or in politics, drew down upon him the wrath of the Court party, and more particularly of the beneficed clergy of the town and district, and the library was vigorously denounced as “a fountain of erroneous opinions, spreading infidelity, heresy and schism through the whole neighbourhood.”

This catholicity is reflected in almost every circumstance of his daily life.

    “If liberality of sentiment,” he wrote on one occasion, “be the result of general and various acquaintance, few men now living have had a better opportunity of acquiring it than myself. This has arisen from the great variety of my pursuits, which has naturally brought me acquainted with persons of all principles and characters. One day, I remember, I dined in company with an eminent popish priest; the evening I spent with philosophers, determined unbelievers; the next morning I breakfasted, at his own request, with a most zealously orthodox 113 clergyman, Mr Toplady, and the rest of that day I spent with Dr Jebb, Mr Lindsey and some others, men in all respects after my own heart. I have since enriched my acquaintance with that of some very intelligent Jews; and my opponents, who consider me already as half a Mahometan, will not suppose that I can have any objection to the society of persons of that religion.”

Dr Samuel Parr, the Prebend of St Paul’s, a staunch friend and true admirer of Priestley, who wrote the inscription on the tablet to his memory in the New Meeting House at Birmingham, related the following characteristic anecdote to Mrs Robert A. Wainwright, who died in 1891, in her 84th year:—

    “Now remember this. I knew your grandfather, Dr Priestley. He once invited me to dinner at Fair Hill, and I never was at a more agreeable party in my life. Your grandfather was at the head of the table. I sat at the bottom. At your grandfather’s right hand was Mr Berington, the Roman Catholic, and Mr Galton, the Quaker, on his left. Next to me was Robert Robinson, the Baptist, and Mr Proud, minister of the New Jerusalem Church.”

All the five guests were remarkable men and distinguished in their several Churches. Dr Parr, one of the most erudite scholars of his time and an acute critic, an inveterate Whig, and a political ally of Fox, Burke and North, was Vicar of Wadenhoe in Northamptonshire, although he resided, as assistant curate, at Hatton, near Warwick, where he had an excellent library. Berington wrote a Literary History of the Middle Ages, and the History of Abelard and Heloise. Robert Robinson, of Cambridge, was the author of the History of Baptism, Ecclesiastical Researches, Village Sermons and other books. The Swedenborgian minister was the chief defender of the New Jerusalem Church 114 in England, and was engaged in controversy with Priestley.

A contemporary account of Priestley at this period of his life describes him as about the middle stature, or five feet eight inches high; slender and well proportioned; of fair complexion, eyes grey and sparkling with intelligence, and his whole countenance expressive of the benignity of his heart. He often smiled, but seldom laughed. He was extremely active and agile in his motions; he walked fast and very erect, and his deportment was dignified. His usual dress was a black coat without a cape, a fine linen or cambric stock, a cocked hat, a powdered wig, shoes and buckles. He commonly walked with a long cane in his right hand, and was an excellent pedestrian. “The whole of his dress was remarkably clean, and this purity of person and simple dignity of manners evinced that philosophic propriety which prevailed throughout his conduct as a private individual.”

He rose about six o’clock and commonly retired to his study, where he continued until eight, when he met his family at breakfast. He breakfasted on tea, and after breakfast again went to his study, accompanied by his amanuensis. He often devoted the whole of his morning to composition, or divided his morning between the study and the laboratory. When engaged in experimental work he commonly wore a white apron and canvas covers drawn over his sleeves. He dined at one o’clock and was very abstemious. He seldom drank wine or beer. In the afternoon he usually took a walk, frequently to Birmingham, and spent some time at the office where his works were being printed. He supped at eight, the meal usually 115 consisting of vegetables, and retired to rest shortly after ten. He was extremely methodical in his habits and a rigid economist of time.

At Daventry he began the practice, which he continued up to within three or four days of his death, of keeping, in Peter Annet’s system of shorthand, a diary in which he noted where he had been, the nature of his employment, what he had been reading, and any hints or suggestions of future work which had occurred to him, when he rose and the hour at which he went to bed. He was very methodical in his reading and in the alternation of his studies and relaxation. He never read a book without determining in his own mind when he would finish it. Had he a work to transcribe, he would fix a time for its completion. At the beginning of each year he arranged the plan he intended to pursue, and at the close he reviewed the general situation of his affairs and took stock of the progress he had made, noting whether the execution of his plan exceeded or fell short of his expectations. It was this regular apportionment of his time, and the habits of method and order in the arrangement of his business which he adopted in early life, and from which he never materially deviated, together with his uniformly good health, his industry and aptitude for rapid work, which enabled him to achieve what he did. It was, he says, a great advantage to him that he never was under the necessity of retiring from company in order to compose anything. Being fond of domestic life he got a habit of writing on any subject by the parlour fire with his wife and children about him, and occasionally talking to them without experiencing any inconvenience from such interruptions. When he was a young author (although 116 he did not publish anything until he was about thirty) strictures on his writings gave him some disturbance, though he believed even then less than they do most others; but after some time things of that kind hardly affected him at all, and on this account he thinks he may be said to have been well formed for public controversy. But what always made him easy in any controversy in which he was engaged was his fixed resolution frankly to acknowledge any mistake that he might perceive he had fallen into. “That I had never been in the least backward to do this in matters of philosophy can never be denied.”

Though he has been considered as fond of controversy, and that his chief delight consisted in it, yet it was far from being true. He was more frequently the defendant than the assailant. His controversies, as far as it depended upon himself, were carried on with temper and decency. He was never malicious, nor even sarcastic or indignant, unless provoked.

Priestley was a very busy man and a very industrious man, but he had not the power of sustained and concentrated application to a single subject which is the characteristic of men of great intellectual eminence. In this respect he was far inferior to his contemporaries Watt and Cavendish. His quick and active mind enabled him rapidly to assimilate the ideas of others, but it may be doubted, even in theology, whether he pushed his convictions and doctrinal beliefs beyond the limits reached by previous thinkers. His philosophy, as Huxley has pointed out, contains little that will be new to the readers of Hobbes, Spinoza, Collins, Hume and Hartley. “It does not appear,” says his son, “that he spent more than six or eight hours per day in 117 business that required much mental exertion.” In his diary he laid down the following daily arrangements of time for a minister’s studies:—Studying the Scriptures, one hour. Practical writers, half-an-hour. Philosophy and History, two hours. Classics, half-an-hour. Composition, one hour—in all five hours. “All which,” he adds, “may be conveniently dispatched before dinner, which leaves the afternoon for visiting and company, and the evening for exceeding in any article if there be occasion.”

His son tells us that for many years of his life he never spent less than two or three hours a day in games of amusement, as cards and backgammon, but particularly chess, at which he and his wife played regularly three games after dinner and as many after supper. As his children grew up, chess was laid aside for whist or some round game at cards, which he enjoyed as much as any of the company. He was fond, too, of bodily exercise, and was particularly attached to his garden, in which he worked constantly. His laboratory also afforded him exercise, as he never employed an assistant, and never allowed anyone even to light his fire.

The attention, he says, which he paid to the phenomena of his own mind, made him sensible of some great defects in its constitution. He was, he says, from an early period, subject to a “most humbling failure of recollection,” so that he sometimes lost all ideas of both persons and things that he had been conversant with. He says, “I have so completely forgotten what I have myself published, that in reading my own writings what I find in them often appears perfectly new to me, and I have more than once made 118 experiments the results of which had been published by me.”

Apprised of this defect he never failed to note down as soon as possible everything that he wished not to forget. The same failing led him to devise and have recourse to a variety of mechanical expedients to secure and arrange his thoughts, which were of the greatest use to him in the composition of large and complex works, and what he says excited the wonder of some of his readers would only have made them smile had they seen him at work. “But by simple and mechanical methods one man shall do that in a month which shall cost another, of equal ability, whole years to execute. This methodical arrangement of a large work is greatly facilitated by mechanical methods, and nothing contributes more to the perspicuity of a large work than a good arrangement of its parts.”

What he learned to know with respect to himself tended much, he says, to lessen both his admiration and his contempt of others.

    “Could we have entered into the mind of Sir Isaac Newton, and have traced all the steps by which he produced his great works, we might see nothing very extraordinary in the process. And great powers with respect to some things are generally attended with great defects in others; and these may not appear in a man’s writings. For this reason, it seldom happens but that our admiration of philosophers and writers is lessened by a personal knowledge of them.”

Great defects may, however, be more than counter-balanced by great excellences, and accordingly he hopes that his defect of recollection, possibly due to a want of sufficient coherence in the association of ideas formerly impressed, might arise from a mental constitution more 119 favourable to new associations, so that what he lost with respect to memory may have been compensated by what is called invention, or new and original combinations of ideas.

In the domestic relations of life he was uniformly kind and affectionate. As was truly said of him on Darton’s portrait, “Not malice itself could ever fix a stain on his private conduct or impeach his integrity.”


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