Friday, February 18, 2011

Our Forefather, Joseph Priestley (February 6, 2011)

Lesson for all Ages

One of the sources of our UU tradition is the wisdom of science, so
Today instead of a story we are going to do a science experiment
(light candle)
Can anyone tell me what will happen if I put this on the candle?
(put it out with candle snuffer we use to extinguish our chalice)
A candle needs oxygen to burn.
(relight candle, then put candle under jar until it goes out)
Who else needs oxygen? (we do)
How about a plant, does a plant need oxygen?
What do you think would happen if we put a plant in here?
(add plant, relight candle, put jar over both)
How’s the plant doing? Okay, keep an eye on it while we talk

Now when Joseph priestly was a little boy, people didn’t know about air. They just thought that between you and me was emptiness.
But then they made really good scales, and could see that a jar of air weighted more than a jar of nothing. But still they didn’t know what air was made of, and they didn’t know there was more than one kind of gas.

By doing this experiment, Priestly (who was a UU minister by the way, as well as an amateur scientist) Priestly showed that there is more than one kind of air- the kind that a fire needs to burn and the kind a plant needs to stay alive.
By the way, how is our plant doing?

Priestly found that not only would a plant do fine for 2 weeks even after a flame had burned away all the oxygen, but he also found that if you put a flame back in there 2 weeks later it would burn again, just like the first time!

But this is church, not science class, so what wisdom can we learn from this experiment?

That plants and animals need each other. We depend on each other; together we create the air that we breathe with nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide and some other gasses too.

It helps show is that we part of an interdependent web of life with all other living things.


Joseph Priestly is almost the archetypal Unitarian. He was a heretic of the first order. He loved science, he loved dialogue and debate, the free exchange of ideas. He believed the religious system was filled with errors, and that the political system would benefit from a good revolution or 2. He spoke his mind no matter what the cost.

First, I want to tell you about Priestly the scientist- because that is what he is most famous for. Ironically, he was a minister and a school teacher when he made his most important discoveries. He had grown up in a family of religious dissenters from the Church of England, but he was a dissenter among dissenters, and was denied membership in the Independent church his family went to because of his heretical ideas. But he grew up to be a minister anyway, preaching at a congregation of about 60 people, just about the size of this congregation, and supplemented his income by starting his own school of 20 boys where he published his first book “Rudiments of English Grammar.” His grammar book helped get him a job at a bigger, more prestigious Dissenting school called the Warrington Academy. Somehow between preaching and teaching, he found time for his hobby- science. In particular he had the passion of his day for electricity and what was then called “Natural philosophy.” Electricity was in those days new and cutting edge. He bought the latest electricity gear for his lab, and after some work in the field, decided to write the first ever popular history of electricity. It was to be in English instead of Latin as was the usual language for books about science, so that the field of electricity would become more accessible to everyone. He headed to London to meet the leading thinkers in the field in hopes they would give him what he needed to write his book.

It was through his connections at the Warrington academy that he was Introduced to the Royal Society, and to Benjamin Franklin. In those days, the leading “electricians” hung out in the London Coffee House and called themselves “The Honest Whigs.” Their conversations swung from libertarian politics to the need for a “rational Christianity,” to theories of electricity liberally interspersed with wine and cheese and apple-puffs. The Honest Whigs were not only happy to welcome into their midst, loaning him the books and pamphlets he needed about the history of the study of electricity, and giving him information about their own studies on the subject, but they also encouraged him in his own research.

Priestly threw himself into this writing and research. In 1767 he published “The History and Present State of Electricity, with Original Experiments” which became the standard text on the subject and solidified his relationship to the scientific community. It was in this book that the story of Ben Franklin’s famous experiment with the kite and the key was first published. The book also contained some of Priestley’s own work and even a section called “A description of the most entertaining experiments performed by electricity.” His goal was not to set himself up as the keeper of secret specialized knowledge, but to encourage everyone to think and learn and experiment in the new and exciting arena of electricity.

That same year Joseph, his wife Mary and their 4 year old daughter Sally moved to Warrington where he got a new job as minister at the Mill-Hill Chapel. Though this was a bigger congregation, priestly still had plenty of time for his experiments. It was here that he made his most popular discovery, enabled through the serendipity that the temporary house he moved into while his new home was being renovated was right next to the Jakes and Nell brewery. He noticed that the fermenting vats gave off what he called “fixed” air, now called carbon dioxide, which had been discovered only 12 years before, and his neighbors humored him by letting him do experiments with the air over their vats. The discovery of soda water did not even take any fancy equipment, as it seems Priestley was able to carbonate regular water by pouring it back and forth from one cup to another. Now there was such a thing as sparkling water back then, it was mineral water taken from certain springs. It was a rare thing that had to be found and could not be made. Had priestly kept his knowledge to himself and sold it to industry, he could have been a wealthy man – think about today’s lucrative soda market. But Priestly believed in sharing information freely, and printed a pamphlet right away on how to do it yourself.

This happy discovery set Priestly on a new path- studying the chemistry of air and gas. His most important discoveries were yet to come. The first was the experiment I shared with the children earlier today- though I left out one of the main actors. Mice. Many a mouse met his or her demise in Priestley’s experiments both in electricity and in chemistry. Apparently priestly had been trapping mice in jars since he was a boy, and had noticed that they died pretty quickly if he sealed the jar. In 1771, he decided to compare the fate of a plant trapped in a jar. It amazed him that the sprig of mint he trapped fared so much better than the mice and frogs. Moreover, he found that if he put a mouse into a jar in which a flame had burned out, that the mouse would die at once. So he repeated the experiment with the flame and the mint, the experiment we did this morning with the children. In 1772 he introduced a mouse to the experiment, putting the mouse in the “restored air” and found that, as he described in his own words in a letter to Benjamin Franklin “The same mouse also that lived so well in the restored air, was barely recoverable after being not more than one second in the other. I have also had another instance of a mouse living 14 minutes, without being at all hurt, in little more than two ounce measures of another quantity of noxious air in which a plant had grown.” (p. 78)

This simple experiment was a major breakthrough. It changed not only how we thought we knew about air, but also what we thought we knew about the relationship between plants and people. Franklin wrote back to Priestly saying “I hope this will give some check to the rage of destroying trees that grow near houses, which has accompanied our late improvements in gardening, from an opinion of their being unwholesome. “ (p. 82) Writer Steven Johnson in his book “The Invention of Air” postulates that this discovery was one of the foundations on which eco-system science was built. For this discovery Priestly was awarded the Copley Medal by the Royal Society. Priestly kept experimenting with what as then called “Subtle fluids” which we now call gases, and was the first to identify 10 of them, one of them Oxygen.

This was the enlightenment, a time when new ways of thinking, new fields of knowledge were opening like scenic vistas to the thinkers of the day. Writes Priestley’s biographer “There were literally dozens of paradigm shifts in distinct fields during Priestley’s lifetime, watershed moments of sudden progress where new rules and frameworks of understanding emerged. Priestly alone was a transformative figure in four of them: chemistry, electricity, politics, and faith.” Schoolchildren still learn of the role his good friend Ben Franklin played in the American Revolution, and Franklin was eventually exiled from London in 1775 for his pro-revolutionary views. Priestly had also written a few pamphlets over the years against “forg[ing] chains for America” (p. 129); he became one of the leading supporters of American Independence in England, and his views were know in widening circles. Samuel Johnson, a pamphleteer against colonial freedom, is said to have commented: “Ah, Priestly. An evil man, Sir. His work unsettles everything.” (p. 129). But because during this time his patron was a Lord Shelburne, (in exchange for which Priestley was tutoring Shelburne’s 2 sons and maintaining his library), he seems to have kept his political views quiet during those years, grumbling to friends instead of continuing his stream of pamphlets. Eventually his political reputation caused Priestley to loose this sponsorship, as Shelburne had political aspirations. The loss of the sponsorship was a crushing financial blow, but Priestly met a new group of Enlightenment thinkers and captains of fledgling industrial society. They were called the Lunar Society, (or “the lunatics”) and many of them were willing to become Priestley’s “subscribers” and had instruments custom made for him.

Despite all the cool new gear, in this period Priestley turned his reformer’s gaze to religion. He and his friend Rev. Theophilus Lindsey founded the first Unitarian church in 1774. Priestley put forth in his book “History of the Corruptions of Christianity” the theory that since the first days of Christianity the religion had become corrupted in numerous ways. The idea of the divinity of Christ was one such “corruption” He traced the history of this thinking and found that in the very early church God occupied a higher position than his son, and it wasn’t until the last 3rd century that divinity was bestowed on Jesus. (Robinson p 22-23) He was on the cutting edge of heresy with the idea that Jesus was completely human. Priestly wrote that there was “no trace of the apostles having ever regarded their master in this high light” and also that “It cannot be said that anything is ascribed to him that a mere man (aided, as he himself says he was, by the power of God his Father) was not equal to.”) (quoted in Robinson p. 23)

In “The Corruptions” Priestly pulled apart every kind of miraculous or magical aspect of Christian theology, including the existence of the holy spirit, the trinity, predestination, the Eucharist, and the deification of saints. But Priestly understood himself to be a faithful Christian, faithful to Christianity in its pure form as it was originally practiced. He writes “this historical method will be found to be one of the most satisfactory modes of argumentation, in order to prove that what I object to is really a corruption of genuine Christianity, and no part of the original scheme” (p. 156). For Priestly, doing a historical analysis of Christianity and stripping away the miraculous and the magical, was part of the radical reform through which new paradigms had been born in the scientific and political worlds. His religious ideas were very influential to Thomas Jefferson who wrote in a letter to John Adams “I have read his Corruptions of Christianity, and Early Opinions of Jesus over and over again; and I rest on them…as the basis of my own faith.” Then as now presidential candidates were scrutinized for their beliefs, and Priestley’s work enabled Jefferson responded “I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing himself every human excellence and believe he never claimed any other.” (p. 156)

Other folks were not so sympathetic. Archdeacon Samuel Horsley called Priestley’s writing an “extraordinary attempt…to unsettle the faith, and break up the constitution of every ecclesiastical establishment” (p. 158). Even his scientist friends could not all follow him into his religious dissent.

Priestly preached a sermon in 1785 called “The Importance and Extent of Free Inquiry” which included in it this metaphor “We are, as it were, laying gunpowder, grain by grain, under the old building of error and superstition, which a single spark may hereafter inflame, so as to produce an instantaneous explosion; in consequence of which that edifice, the erection of which has been the work of ages, may be overturned in a moment, and so effectually as that the same foundation can never be built upon again.” (p. 159) This sermon earned him the nickname of “gunpowder Joe,” but it was his political views that really got him into trouble.

Among the liberal thinkers Priestly hung out with, now calling themselves the “Constitutional Society” there was support of the French Revolution. It seemed a logical next step in political reform after the American Revolution so successfully had put in place a constitutional democracy. The opposition was the “Church and King” movement. They opposed the American Revolution, the French Revolution and they opposed reformation of the Church of England. They put an add in the Birmingham paper in response to one by the Constitution Society saying that “Whatever the modern republicans may imagine, or the regicidal propounders of the rights of men design, let us convince them there is enough loyalty in the majority of the inhabitants of this country to support and defend their King.” (p. 163) A mob formed the night of that event, and angered to find that the Constitutional Society had gone home 3 hours early, they burned down the New Meeting House, including a bonfire of books and pews on the front steps. They then burned down the Old Meetinghouse. Samuel Ryland, A friend of Priestly went to his home to warn him about the mob, and Priestly fled to his Ryland’s house. It was a good thing too, because they burned Priestley’s home and lab to the ground, destroying all his equipment and his library. Ryland and others had lost their homes as well. Priestly tried to live under the radar in England for a while, serving as a minister in London, but he was shunned by most of the members of the Royal Society for his religious and political views. When the French legislative assembly made him an honorary citizen in 1792, the public ire was re-awakened, and spewed forth in pamphlets and cartoons. Eventually Priestley followed his son Joseph Jr. to America where he was building a new settlement in Northumberland Pennsylvania.

His supporters in America welcomed him with open arms, and he was offered a position a the University of Pennsylvania in their Chemistry department, but Priestly chose the family life in Northumberland, and preached to the church there, and in Philadelphia whenever he could make the multiple day journey. Sadly his wife and son Harry died in the same year before their new home was even guilt. And before long Priestly was in trouble again. Old friend like John Adams began to distance themselves from his radical fiery sermons (much as presidential candidates today have had to do). Priestly was disillusioned with the way the principles of the revolution been implemented in a government that was not always true to its principles, more like the Monarchy against which they had rebelled. Members of the Adam’s administration wanted to have Priestley prosecuted under the Alien and Sedition Acts, the passage of which was in fact one of those acts which Priestly felt to violate the constitution of this young land.

He published a volume in 1799 called “Letters to the Inhabitants of Northumberland and its Neighborhood,” his last major work, in which he wrote “To find in America the same maxims of government, and the same proceedings, from which many of us fled form Europe, and to be reproached as disturbers of government there, and chiefly because we did what the court of England will never forgive in favor of liberty here, is, we own, a great disappointment to us, especially as we cannot now return.” (p. 195-6) Thomas Jefferson, still a great friend and admirer of Priestly wrote that the essays were “the most precious gifts that can be made to us… From the Porcupines of our country you will receive no thanks: but the great mass of our nation will edify and thank you.” (p. 196) and in fact when Jefferson became president Priestly wrote “for the first time in my life (and I shall soon enter my 70th year) I find myself in any degree of favor of the governor of the country in which I have lived, and I hope I shall die in the same pleasing situation.” (p. 200) And so he did, writing and editing in his very last days.

So what can we take from this story, the life of one of our founding fathers, a father of both modern chemistry, and of our Unitarian faith tradition. Certainly we can admire his capacity to help birth new paradigms, and to stand behind them even when it cost him dearly. We can, with Priestly, strip away those parts of religious tradition, even our own, that contradict what we know of this world, what we know of truth. But I think today what I want to lift up is that even a minister can be a scientist, and even a schoolteacher can make a difference in the world of politics. In this age of profound separation of fields, of increasing specialization, none of us should be afraid to stick a candle under a jar to see what happens, nor should we hesitate to study religious history to see what new things we can learn, nor should we be afraid to stand up for our political principles. We can see, as Priestly did, as so many of the great figures of the enlightenment did, that all this knowledge informs other knowledge, much as a plant restores air for the flame. It is in the intersection, the cooperation of all these things that a new paradigm is born.


Steven Johnson, The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith Revolution and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

David Robinson. The Unitarians and the Universalists. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985.

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