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A Priestley Polemicist

Fertilization of Egypt
Blake engraving from Fuseli design. "Fertilization of Egypt" (1791). Shows a depiction of the birth of religion, as ideas of liberty are born from reason.
Dr. Joseph Priestley (1733 - 1804) was a chemist, theologian and political theorist. In addition to coining the term "rational dissent," he discovered oxygen. Priestley was an influential Unitarian minister who tried to incorporate many different kinds of religious beliefs into his own conception of Christianity. Famous for trying to provoke religious debates with David Hume, Baron d'Holbach and Edward Gibbon, Priestley was a passionate polemicist dedicated to a more enlightened understanding of God and religion. Not an atheist, Joseph Priestley's theological defenses of Christianity are representative of the diversity of the heretical beliefs that were debated during the 1790s. Suspicious of "papists," or Catholics, Priestley held that a more open form of government, one that tolerated Catholics, would be more effective controlling both their number and political power. His importance during the early years of Romanticism lies in his willingness to openly debate controversial ideas and beliefs that were often criminalized by the state. Published in 1782, his An History of Corruptions of Christianity rejects the idea of the trinity and questions the divinity of Jesus Christ. What also makes Joseph Priestly representative of the spiritual character of the age is Priestley's understanding of God in terms of the natural world. In his conception of humanity, God and the natural world, spiritual truths always correspond to scientific ones, and reason rather than church dogma should determine our religious beliefs. This sums up what Priestley called "rational dissent." Priestley's Unitarianism is closely allied to theism, the belief that one God created the universe and remains closely involved in its operation.

Brent Robida




Select Bibliography

Priestman, Martin. Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780-1830. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1999.