January 31, 2005

The Dissenters

Joseph Priestley (1733 - 1804), Reverend, Grammarian, Atmospheric Chemist

Priestley was a member of a group that refused to conform to Church of England doctrine, The Dissenters, and despite his abilities was prevented by the 1662 Act of Uniformity from entering an English university. He was however able to study in Daventry where he was a 'furious freethinker' in religion. He renounced the Calvinist doctrines of original sin and atonement and embraced Unitarianism which asserted the perfectibility of man. Priestley was ordained a Dissenting minister in 1762. His interest in science intensified after he met Benjamin Franklin in 1765. As a scientist he was guided by the Dissenting belief that prejudice and dogma are obstacles to inquiry and judgement, and thought that science depended more on the the accumulation of new facts than on the insights of geniuses. In Leeds Priestley turned his attention to the chemistry of the atmosphere and discovered a long list of important atmospheric gases: NO, NO2, N2O, HCl, NH3, SO2, SiF4, and not least N2 and O2. In 1768 Priestley wrote that scientific progress and human perfectability require freedom of speech, worship and education, and that the effectiveness of government should be judged according to the welfare of the individual.

Priestley was also a grammarian and disliked many of the English expressions that were starting to come into use in the late 18th century, e.g. “I had rather not,” “you better go,” “between you and I,” “it is me,” “who is this for?”, “between four walls,” “a third alternative,” “the largest of the two,” “more perfect,” and “quite unique.” In one of his essays he forbade the use of 'you was' as an alternative to 'thou wast' and 'thou wert'.

Priestley was charged in the British press for sedition for his support of the American and French revolutions. On July 14, 1791, the 'Church and King' mob destroyed Priestley's home and his laboratory. He moved to Oxford for a time but conservative opposition to the French revolution intensified and he did not feel at ease. In 1794 he moved to the United States where he found the form of government to be 'relatively tolerable'. Priestley continued to work and write, and died in Northumberland Pennsylvania in 1804, mourned by Thomas Jefferson.

1 Comments:

At January 31, 2005 5:23 PM , Blogger Tim said...

wasn't there a 70's punk group called Joseph Priestly and the Dissenters?

Seriously, this guy is my new hero. thanks for the essay.

 

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