1733 - 1804
by David B. Parke
remembers Priestley as a scientist (discovery of oxygen 1774), author,
and clergyman. Priestley probably would have reversed the order, giving
first priority to his work as a minister. Earl Morse Wilbur pronounces
him "beyond doubt the most infuential figure in the earlier history
of the Unitarian movement in England."
Educated at a Dissenting academy, Priestley found himself on the heretical
side of most theological questions. As a young minister and teacher
he studied the Scriptures only to find, like Servetus before him, that
they provided meager support for the doctrines of the Church, notably
the Trinity and the atonement (i.e., the belief that through the death
and resurrection of Jesus Christ men's sins are forgiven and divine
justice is satisfied). He later described his pilgrimage as a "passing
from Trinitarianism to high Arianism, from this to low Arianism, and
from this to Socinianism."
Priestley's intellectual brilliance and broad interests attracted to
him some of the finest thinkers of his age including Benjamin Franklin,
Thomas Jefferson, and Richard Price.
His main contribution to English Unitarianism was a comprehensive argument,
both historical and philosophical, for liberal Christianitydrawn
from Scripture and the Christian fathers, interpreted by reason, and
rigorously applied to the religious and political problems of his day.
"Absurdity supported by power," he wrote, "will never
be able to stand its ground against the efforts of reason."
Of all of Priestley's religious works, probably the most infuential
was his History of the Corruptions of Christianity in two volumes,
in which he sought to show that true Christianity, embodied in the beliefs
of the primitive church, was unitarian, and that all departures from
that faith were corruptions. The Corruptions infuriated the orthodox
and delighted the liberals in both England and America. It was publicly
burned in Holland.
From The Epic of Unitarianism by David B. Parke
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1957).