Article abstract: One of the eighteenth century’s important experimental scientists, Priestley was a supporter of civic and religious liberty who wrote extensively in a variety of scientific, educational, religious, and philosophical areas.
Joseph Priestley was born on March 13, 1733, in Birstal Fieldhead, near Leeds, in Yorkshire. His father, Jonas Priestley, was a weaver and cloth dresser, while his mother, née Mary Swift, was the only daughter of a Yorkshire farmer. The eldest of six children, young Joseph, after the death of his mother in 1739, was adopted by Sarah Keighley, his father’s sister. Reared in a Dissenting atmosphere, Priestley was brought into contact with a variety of religious and philosophical ideas that challenged conventional norms. Perhaps because of recurring illnesses during this period, Priestley became an avid reader interested in a diverse range of topics.
Priestley’s schooling was a combination of classroom activity, independent study, and work with tutors. At an early age, he became proficient in philosophy, algebra, mathematics, and a number of ancient and modern languages. In 1752, he entered the newly established Daventry Academy, an institution that further fixed his independent thought. In addition to the required curriculum, he pursued his own interests in history, science, and philosophy. Priestley acknowledged that David Hartley’s Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations had an especially important influence, as did Caleb Ashworth, the director of the academy, and Samuel Clark, one of the tutors. It was during this period that Priestley became convinced of the potential for the perfectibility of mankind through proper education and development.
In 1755, Priestley became minister for the small Dissenting congregation of Needham Market in Suffolk. He was not altogether happy, however, as members of his flock opposed his Arian ideas. This opposition led him, in 1758, to move to another congregation at Nantwich in Cheshire. There he operated a small school and pursued a variety of scientific experiments dealing with air and static electricity. Increasingly, he saw science as a tool to improve human life. Several years later, Priestley was appointed tutor in languages and literature at Warrington Academy in Lancashire, a famous and innovative Dissenting academy, and in 1762, he married Mary Wilkinson. They had a happy marriage, rearing three sons and a daughter, until Mary’s death in 1796.
Priestley firmly believed that humanity could be improved through education and through a proper understanding of the physical and spiritual worlds. During his tenure at Warrington, from 1761 to 1767, he published speculative and scientific works in a variety of fields in which he was to maintain interest throughout his life. In the realm of education, Priestley argued that schools should be designed to serve the needs of contemporary society rather than follow slavishly the classical models of the past. In The Rudiments of English Grammar (1761), he stressed contemporary usage rather than an imitation of classical style. In An Essay on a Course of Liberal Education for Civil and Active Life (1765), he argued that contemporary subjects such as modern history and languages, public administration, and science were better suited to Dissenters than the classics. The University of Edinburgh awarded him the doctor of laws degree for his popular A Chart of Biography (1765), a work that portrayed the succession of eminent men throughout the ages.
His work in a number of areas in science during this period and his experiments and progress with electricity won for him election to the Royal Society in 1766. In The History and Present State of Electricity (1767), Priestley described many of his own experiments as well as those of others in an effort to show the development of humanity in discovering and directing the forces of nature.
In 1767, Priestley accepted a position as minister in Leeds, which gave him far more time for experimenting and for writing in areas as diverse as theology, science, and politics. His religious writings included a number of works on rational religion as well as attacks on traditional dogma; the latter incurred the ire of many of his contemporaries. Most notable among these writings was the three-volume Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religions (1772-1774), which he had begun during his student days at Daventry. He also founded the Theological Repository, a journal of biblical criticism.
Priestley’s work in science continued unabated. As the first part of a projected history of experimental philosophy, he published The History and Present State of Discoveries Relating to Vision, Light, and Colours (1772). After...
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