Joseph Priestley

Quarter-length portrait of a man in a black coat against a purple and blue curtain backdrop.
Priestley by Ellen Sharples (1794)[1]

Joseph Priestley FRS (i/;[2] 24 March [O.S. 13 March] 1733 – 6 February 1804) was an 18th-century English Separatist theologian, natural philosopher, chemist, innovative grammarian, multi-subject educator, and liberal political theorist who published over 150 works. He has historically been credited with the discovery of oxygen,[3] having isolated it in its gaseous state, although Carl Wilhelm Scheele and Antoine Lavoisier also have strong claims to the discovery.[4]

During his lifetime, Priestley's considerable scientific reputation rested on his invention of soda water, his writings on electricity, and his discovery of several "airs" (gases), the most famous being what Priestley dubbed "dephlogisticated air" (oxygen). However, Priestley's determination to defend phlogiston theory and to reject what would become the chemical revolution eventually left him isolated within the scientific community.

Priestley's science was integral to his theology, and he consistently tried to fuse Enlightenment rationalism with Christian theism.[5] In his metaphysical texts, Priestley attempted to combine theism, materialism, and determinism, a project that has been called "audacious and original".[6] He believed that a proper understanding of the natural world would promote human progress and eventually bring about the Christian Millennium.[6] Priestley, who strongly believed in the free and open exchange of ideas, advocated toleration and equal rights for religious Dissenters, which also led him to help found Unitarianism in England. The controversial nature of Priestley's publications, combined with his outspoken support of the French Revolution, aroused public and governmental suspicion; he was eventually forced to flee in 1791, first to London and then to the United States, after a mob burned down his Birmingham home and church. He spent his last ten years in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania.

A scholar and teacher throughout his life, Priestley also made significant contributions to pedagogy, including the publication of a seminal work on English grammar and books on history, and he prepared some of the most influential early timelines. These educational writings were among Priestley's most popular works. It was his metaphysical works, however, that had the most lasting influence, being considered primary sources for utilitarianism by philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer.

Early life and education (1733–55)

Black-and-white drawing of a two-story brick house along a road.
Priestley's birthplace (since demolished) in Fieldhead, Birstall, West Yorkshire – about six miles (10 km) southwest of Leeds[7]

Priestley was born to an established English Dissenting family (i.e. they did not conform to the Church of England) in Birstall, near Batley in the West Riding of Yorkshire. He was the oldest of six children born to Mary Swift and Jonas Priestley, a finisher of cloth. To ease his mother's burdens, Priestley was sent to live with his grandfather around the age of one. He returned home, five years later, after his mother died. When his father remarried in 1741, Priestley went to live with his aunt and uncle, the wealthy and childless Sarah and John Keighley, 3 miles (4.8 km) from Fieldhead.[8] Because Priestley was precocious—at the age of four he could flawlessly recite all 107 questions and answers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism—his aunt sought the best education for the boy, intending him for the ministry. During his youth, Priestley attended local schools where he learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.[9]

Around 1749, Priestley became seriously ill and believed he was dying. Raised as a devout Calvinist, he believed a conversion experience was necessary for salvation, but doubted he had had one. This emotional distress eventually led him to question his theological upbringing, causing him to reject election and to accept universal salvation. As a result, the elders of his home church, the Independent Upper Chapel of Heckmondwike, refused him admission as a full member.[8][10]

Priestley's illness left him with a permanent stutter and he gave up any thoughts of entering the ministry at that time. In preparation for joining a relative in trade in Lisbon, he studied French, Italian, and German in addition to Aramaic, and Arabic. He was tutored by the Reverend George Haggerstone, who first introduced him to higher mathematics, natural philosophy, logic, and metaphysics through the works of Isaac Watts, Willem 's Gravesande, and John Locke.[11]

Daventry Academy

Priestley eventually decided to return to his theological studies and, in 1752, matriculated at Daventry, a Dissenting academy.[12] Because he had already read widely, Priestley was allowed to skip the first two years of coursework. He continued his intense study; this, together with the liberal atmosphere of the school, shifted his theology further leftward and he became a Rational Dissenter. Abhorring dogma and religious mysticism, Rational Dissenters emphasised the rational analysis of the natural world and the Bible.[13]

Priestley later wrote that the book that influenced him the most, save the Bible, was David Hartley's Observations on Man (1749). Hartley's psychological, philosophical, and theological treatise postulated a material theory of mind. Hartley aimed to construct a Christian philosophy in which both religious and moral "facts" could be scientifically proven, a goal that would occupy Priestley for his entire life. In his third year at Daventry, Priestley committed himself to the ministry, which he described as "the noblest of all professions".[14]

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Joseph Priestley
asturianu: Joseph Priestley
azərbaycanca: Cozef Pristli
беларуская: Джозеф Прыстлі
български: Джоузеф Пристли
čeština: Joseph Priestley
Ελληνικά: Τζόζεφ Πρίστλυ
Esperanto: Joseph Priestley
français: Joseph Priestley
Gàidhlig: Joseph Priestley
Bahasa Indonesia: Joseph Priestley
Basa Jawa: Joseph Priestley
lietuvių: Joseph Priestley
македонски: Џозеф Пристли
Bahasa Melayu: Joseph Priestley
Nederlands: Joseph Priestley
norsk nynorsk: Joseph Priestley
português: Joseph Priestley
Simple English: Joseph Priestley
slovenčina: Joseph Priestley
slovenščina: Joseph Priestley
српски / srpski: Џозеф Пристли
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Joseph Priestley
українська: Джозеф Прістлі
Tiếng Việt: Joseph Priestley