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Joseph Priestley

From a young age, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) (Figure 8.1)—the bright son of a Dissenting Calvinist cloth-dresser—was shaping up for life as a Calvinist minister. After dame school and a spell at the local Grammar School at Batley, where he learned Latin and some Greek," he attended a school kept by John Kirkby, the Independent (i.e. Congregationalist) minister of Heckmondwike Upper Chapel in rural West Yorkshire, between Leeds and Huddersfield. With Kirkby, Priestley studied Hebrew and learned the basics of Chaldaean and Syriac (the Aramaic vernaculars of some early Christian literature) and Arabic.12 He also became convinced by his teacher’s Independent faith, which barred him from

Joseph Priestley (1733—1804), reproduced by courtesy of the Wellcome Library. Stipple engraving by W. Holl after G. Stew. Reproduced by courtesy of the Wellcome Library

FIGURE 8.1 Joseph Priestley (1733—1804), reproduced by courtesy of the Wellcome Library. Stipple engraving by W. Holl after G. Stew. Reproduced by courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

continuing his studies in Oxford or Cambridge. More prosperous Dissenting families sometimes financed their children’s studies in Scotland or a university in continental Europe, but Priestley’s could not. Instead, in 1752, he was among the first students admitted to the new Daventry Academy, established by the former carpenter and son of a Particular (i.e. a Calvinist) Baptist lay preacher, Caleb Ashworth (d.1775). Ashworth was in turn the protégé of the celebrated Independent minister and writer, Philip Doddridge, at whose own academy at Northampton reading classical Latin texts was a daily affair.

As Doddridge relates in a letter to his former teacher, the Presbyterian Minister Samuel Clarke, tutor and students would read a Latin author for around half an hour a day: ‘One or another of us reads the original, and we inquire into the most difficult passages’. Terence was especially focused on, since the demotic Latin of his plays would help the students towards their goal of‘talking Latin’.13 Much time was devoted to learning Hebrew, but the Greek New Testament and some classical Greek literature were read too.14

On arrival at Daventry, Priestley was disappointed by the shortage of Greek tuition. Either Ashworth had deviated from his mentor’s curriculum, or Priestley’s expectations were too high. In any case, he and his room-mate, John Alexander of Birmingham, responded by reading ‘every day ten folio pages in some Greek author, and generally a Greek play in the course of the week besides. By this means’, he continues in his Memoirs, ‘we became very well acquainted with that language, and with the most valuable authors in it’.15 Priestley notes that he and Alexander continued their reading long after they left the academy (1755), ‘communicating to each other by letter an account of what we read’.16 This systematic literary diligence recurs in the lives of Dissenting men of letters, as we shall see below in the case of William Godwin. Priestley eventually concentrated on theological pursuits and questions of natural philosophy, but he reports that Alexander became, by the time of his untimely death in 1765, ‘one of the best Greek scholars in this or any other country’.17

On leaving the academy, Priestly came up against discrimination. Unwilling as he was to become a schoolmaster, he was eventually forced to do so, applying to teach Classics and mathematics at various institutions. He was, however, rejected—as he himself relates in his memoirs—not because he was unqualified, but because he was ‘not orthodox’.18 During his time at Daventry, he had been drawn to Arianism (i.e. non-Trinitarianism), when before he had moved from his native Dissenting Calvinism to Independence (closer to Congregationalism). Such theological shifts were not uncommon in the period, when it was hard to disentangle politics from religious affiliation, and when both were in flux. Conversion or transition from one denomination to another happened often. Priestley’s increasingly liberal religious thinking was in line with the general direction of movement towards Unitarianism and Deism. His family, however—shifting to a more conservative brand of evangelical Calvinism—bucked this trend, and eventually disowned him for his broadminded theological views.”

He taught Greek and Latin at two small institutions before taking a post at the famous Warrington Academy. Here he introduced a rigorous classical education. This Presbyterian (Arianist) establishment, which ran only between 1756 and 1782, may not have prepared as many students for the Dissenting ministry as other academies,20 but its contribution to Dissenting culture nationally, and to revolutionary politics in particular, was unparalleled.21 Moreover, Priestley made an enormous contribution to British philosophical, religious, scientific and political discourse. A pioneering chemist, he discovered oxygen.22

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