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    Birth—Parentage—Home Life—Early Education

“If,” says Mr Frederic Harrison, “we choose one man as a type of the intellectual energy of the eighteenth century we could hardly find a better than Joseph Priestley, though his was not the greatest mind of the century. His versatility, eagerness, activity and humanity; the immense range of his curiosity in all things, physical, moral or social; his place in science, in theology, in philosophy and in politics; his peculiar relation to the Revolution, and the pathetic story of his unmerited sufferings, may make him the hero of the eighteenth century.”

In these few lines Mr Harrison has indicated, in terms sufficiently precise, the leading features in the character and life-history of one of the most remarkable men of the eighteenth century. To what extent he may be regarded as a hero and as a type of the intellectual energy of that century it is the purpose of the following pages to make clear.

Joseph Priestley was born at Fieldhead, in the parish of Birstall, near Leeds, on March 13 (Old Style), 1733.[1] 2 He was named after his paternal grandfather, “an eminent tradesman, as much famed for his heavenly conduct as his grandson (Joseph) has since been for natural abilities.”

    “The Priestleys,” writes Madame Belloc, the great-granddaughter of the subject of this memoir, in her charming essay, “Joseph Priestley in Domestic Life” (Contemporary Review, October 1894), “were of an old Presbyterian stock; one branch of the family acquired wealth and lived at Whiteways, but his (Joseph’s) own immediate ancestors were farmers and clothiers, people of substance in the yeoman class. We can trace them accurately as far as the middle of the seventeenth century, when one Ph?be Priestley, after wrestling with fever in her household, was herself stricken, and ‘lay like a lamb before the Lord’ on her deathbed. Her husband wrote a long and touching account of all she said and did, that her children might know what manner of mother they had lost. These people were presumably of the same stock as the Priestleys of Soylands, who ran back into the Middle Ages.

    “The children of the Priestley families were all named after scriptural characters. They were Josephs, Timothys and Sarahs from one generation to another. The Bible was stamped into them, and from it they drew all the inspiration of their lives.”

Joseph Priestley the elder was born in 1660, and died on August 2, 1745. He married Sarah Healey and had by her eight children, five sons and three daughters, of whom Jonas, the father of Joseph Priestley the younger, born about 1700, was the seventh child and fourth son. Jonas Priestley married Mary, a daughter of Joseph Swift, a farmer and maltster of Shafton, near Wakefield, and had by her six children, four sons and two 3 daughters, of whom Joseph was the eldest and Timothy the second; Martha, the elder girl, who died in 1812, married John Crouch, and was left a widow in poor circumstances in 1786. Another member of the Priestley family who requires mention for the purpose of this narrative is Sarah, the sister of Jonas and second daughter of Joseph Priestley the elder. She was born in 1692 and married John Keighley—“a man who had distinguished himself for his zeal for religion and for his public spirit.” She was left a widow in 1745. Three years before this she took her nephew Joseph, the subject of this memoir, to live with her, and “was fond of him in the extreme.” She died in 1764. Her brother John, Joseph Priestley the younger’s uncle, died on February 28, 1786, aged ninety-two. “He was a remarkable man and of a singularly happy constitution, both of body and mind.”

This happy constitution of body and mind seems indeed to have been a characteristic of many members of the family, the several branches of which were remarkably healthy and long-lived.

Priestley says of his father Jonas that he had uniformly better spirits than any man he ever knew, and by this means was as happy towards the close of life, when reduced to poverty and dependent upon others, as in his best days. These facts are not without interest as serving to account for much that we shall have occasion to note in the character and temperament of the subject of this biography.

Fieldhead, the house in which he first saw the light, had been occupied by the family for several generations. It was a small two-storey building, built of stone and slated with flag, similar in character to many of the 4 houses still standing in the district, the long, low windows in the upper storeys betokening that they were formerly occupied by weavers. It was last lived in by Martha Priestley (Mrs Crouch), but on the death of her husband in 1786 was abandoned by the family, and, falling into decay, was pulled down about fifty years ago.

The Priestleys were a simple, sober, honest, God-fearing folk, staunch Calvinists, and deeply religious. Jonas Priestley was a manufacturer of “home-spun”—a weaver and cloth dresser—two trades now distinct but then practised in common—who took his week’s work on ass-back, on roads little better than bridle-paths, to the Sunday market in Leeds. He was of a class characteristic of the district.

These hand-loom weavers, who lived in the hill country lying to the west of Leeds, were generally men of small capitals; they often annexed a small farm to their business, or possessed a field or two on which to support a horse and cow, and were for the most part blessed with the comforts without the superfluities of life. During five or six days of the week they dwelt in their own little village, among trees and fields, taking no thought of the outside world and contenting themselves with the homely gossip of their farmstead or hamlet. On market day they came into the town in shoals, clad in their quaint corduroy breeches, broad-brimmed hats, and brass-buttoned coats of antique cut, bringing their produce on pack-horses, to await the visits of the merchants—the commercial aristocracy of Leeds, then a town of some 16,000 or 17,000 inhabitants—who were the agents through which the outer world received its supply of Yorkshire woollen 5 goods. They were a shrewd, careful race, somewhat stolid and slow of speech and not given to great mental briskness or activity, keenly appreciative of the blessings of liberty and usually in sympathy with the political party to whom the cause of liberty was for the moment entrusted; sober, godly souls for the most part; regular in their attendance at public worship, and upon the whole preferring the plebeian zeal of the Chapel to the aristocratic repose of the Church.[2]


And what a world it was in which they thus serenely dwelt apart.

    “It was,” writes Madame Belloc, “the time of Louis the Fifteenth in France and of George the Second in England, and the nephews and nieces of Charlotte Princess Palatine were still living, and her letters, whose name is legion, yet lay stored in the cabinets of her correspondents, full of inexpressible details 6 discussed in most expressive language. It was the time when Jeanie Deans walked from Scotland to beg her sister’s life of Queen Caroline, and met Madge Wildfire in the way. It was the time when the polite world was composed of ‘men, women and Herveys’; when Squire Pendarves was found dead in his bed in Greek Street, Soho, leaving his young widow to be courted by John Wesley and wedded by Dr Delany; when statesmen bribed, and young blades drank, and Sir Harbottle carried off Harriet Byron, whose shrieks brought Sir Charles Grandison to the rescue, sword in hand. It was the period when the Jacobite Rebellion flamed up and expired; when the Young Pretender marched to Derby and the heads of the decapitated lords were exposed on Temple Bar; tragedies, agonies, highway robberies, Dick Turpin, Jack Sheppard, smugglers, the press-gang; Frederick Prince of Wales quarrelling in Leicester Square; Queen Caroline on her death-bed telling her weeping little George, ‘que l’un n’empêche pas l’autre’; Horace Walpole making the grand tour; Dean Swift dying in agonised misery. Merciful Heavens! What an England, of which we possess the daily diary! We can see Hogarth at his easel, and Sir Joshua taking his first stiff portraits, and Garrick going on pilgrimage to Stratford, and the young king courting Hannah Lightfoot and marrying his little bride from Mecklenburg. Without too much verifying of dates it is certain that all this was happening before Dr Priestley was thirty years of age, and that of none of it is there the faintest mention in the account he has drawn up of his own childhood, youth and young manhood, though he was himself destined to be one of the principal illustrations of the Georgian era. For anything which appears to the contrary, he and his friends might have dwelt in some far-distant planet whose inhabitants were wholly given up to study and to prayer.”

Priestley says of his father that he had a strong sense of religion, praying with his family morning and evening, and carefully teaching his children and servants the Assembly’s Catechism, which was all the system of which he had any knowledge.

    “In the latter part of his life he became very fond of Mr 7 Whitfield’s writings and other works of a similar kind, having been brought up in the principles of Calvinism, and adopting them, but without ever giving much attention to matters of speculation, and entertaining no bigoted aversion to those who differed from him on the subject.”

We may well imagine that Jonas, with his “strong sense of religion,” was one of that earnest band of “several hundreds of plain people” who listened, spellbound, to the eloquence of John Wesley on that memorable day of May 1742, on which, on Birstall Hill, began the great Yorkshire “Revival.”

Of his wife, “a woman of exemplary piety,” the mother of the future philosopher, little has been recorded beyond the fragmentary notice in her son’s autobiography. He says of her:—

    “It is but little that I can recollect of my mother. I remember, however, that she was careful to teach me the Assembly’s Catechism, and to give me the best instructions the little time that I was at home. Once in particular, when I was playing with a pin, she asked me where I got it; and on telling her that I found it at my uncle’s, who lived very near to my father, and where I had been playing with my cousins, she made me carry it back again; no doubt to impress my mind, as it could not fail to do, with a clear idea of the distinction of property and of the importance of attending to it. She died in the hard winter of 1739,[3] not long after being delivered of my youngest brother; and having dreamed a little before her death that she was in a delightful place, which she particularly described and imagined to be heaven, the last words which she spake, as my aunt informed me, were, ‘Let me go to that fine place.’”

During some considerable portion of his mother’s 8 short period of married life, Joseph Priestley, together with his brother Timothy, was committed to the care of his grandfather Swift, with whom he remained with little interruption until his mother’s death. From this we may infer that the domestic circumstances of his parents were far from easy, or that the accommodation at Fieldhead was unequal to the support of the cloth-dresser’s rapidly-increasing family.

Timothy, who, after following his father’s business as a cloth-dresser for a time, became an Independent minister, and died in London, has left us reminiscences of his brother’s boyhood. He seems to have been particularly impressed with his ability to repeat the Assembly’s Catechism “without missing a word,” and by being made to kneel down with him while he prayed. “This was not at bed-time, which he never neglected, but in the course of the day.”

On the death of his mother, the eldest boy, then barely six years old, was taken home and sent to school in the neighbourhood. Luckily for him, his Aunt Sarah, Mrs Keighley, “a truly pious and excellent woman, who knew no other use of wealth, or of talents of any kind, than to do good, and who never spared herself for this purpose,” being childless, offered, in 1742, to relieve her brother Jonas of all care for his eldest son by taking entire charge of him. “From this time,” says her nephew, “she was truly a parent to me, till her death in 1764.”

John Keighley was a man of considerable property, and at his death, which occurred when Priestley was about twelve years of age, the widow was left with the greater part of his fortune for life, and much of it at her disposal after her death.

By Mrs Keighley’s direction he was sent, he tells us, 9 to several schools in the neighbourhood, especially to a large free school under the care of a clergyman, Mr Hague, under whom, at the age of twelve or thirteen, he first began to make progress in Latin and acquired the elements of Greek. His brother Timothy records that “from eleven to about thirteen he had read most of Mr Bunyan’s works and other authors on religion, besides the common Latin authors.”

How a well-ordered school was conducted in the middle of the eighteenth century may be gleaned from the following regulations in force in Mr Canton’s well-known academy in 1745:—

    1. That the School hours are from 7 o’clock in the morning till 12, and from 2 to 5 in the afternoon: except the winter half-year, when they begin at 8 in the morning.

    2. That all the Scholars come decently, that is, with their Hands and Faces wash’d, their Hair or Perriwigs Comb’d, and their Shoes black’d.

    3. That they bow at Coming in and going out, and when any Thing is given or rec’d; and never wear their Hats in the House or School.

    4. That they loiter not, but go immediately to their own seats and move not thence, without Leave, till School is done.

    5. That if any Person come into the School whom they know, they are to get up, make a bow, and sit down in their places again.

    6. That if the Master be discoursing with, or reading to any Person, they shall not stare Confidently on them or hearken to their Talk, unless required to be present.

    7. That they shall not interrupt the Master while a Stranger is talking with him, with any Question, request, or complaint whatsoever, but stay till he is at Leisure.

    8. That they shall not presume to talk loud nor make any noise in getting their lessons. A Boy’s Tongue should never be heard, but in saying his Lesson, asking or Answering a Question.

    9. That there be no buying, selling, changing, laying 10 Wagers or Gaming in School-time, on the forfeiture of the whole so bought or sold, etc.

    10. That those who learn French shall not speak English to any that learn French, on the Forfeiture of ye Bill, or one Hour’s Exercize after School Time.

    11. That such as learn Latin are also oblig’d not to speak other Language to those that learn it, during School time, on the Penalty last mentioned.

    12. That all perform their Lessons and Exercises in fair Writing and true Spelling, and likewise prepare themselves for their Examinations in French, Latin, Accounts and Catechisms every week, both in School times and all Vacations.

    13. That such as perform well, shall be prefer’d according to their Merit, and shall have liberty to leave School before the usual Time; but such as are Negligent herein, shall have their Exercizes to write over again after School.

    14. That none presume to call any Party or Nick-names nor give any ill or reproachful Language, much less Curse, Sware, or Lye, but in all things behave in a quiet, peaceable, and civil manner.

    15. That the Boarders shall not go beyond ye bounds belonging to ye House on any pretence whatsoever without leave, on the forfeiture of 6d. or two Hours’ Exercize after School for Every such Offence.

    16. That one Scholar is not to strike another, or challenge him to fight; but in case of any Difference shall acquaint the Master therewith and be satisfied with his Determination.

Whilst acquiring Greek at the public school, Priestley learned Hebrew on holidays of the Dissenting minister of the place, Mr Kirkby, under whose care he eventually came.

The weakly, consumptive habit into which he now fell necessitated his withdrawal from school. His fondness for books had led his aunt to encourage the hope that he might be trained for the ministry, and he readily entered into her views.

    “But,” he says, “my ill health obliged me to turn my 11 thoughts another way, and, with a view to trade, I learned the modern languages, French, Italian and High Dutch [German], without a master; and in the first and last of them I translated and wrote letters for an uncle of mine who was a merchant, and who intended to put me into a counting-house in Lisbon.”

Indeed, he says a house was actually engaged to receive him there, and everything was nearly ready for his undertaking the voyage when his health so far improved that the idea of the ministry was resumed. During the two years in which he had been kept away from school the boy was thrown almost entirely upon his own resources. It says much for the activity and eagerness of his mind, his diligence and his power of mental acquisitiveness, that he should have neglected no opportunity of gaining knowledge from the various heretical divines who came to drink a dish of tea with his aunt. He tells us that from Mr Haggerstone, a Dissenting minister in the neighbourhood, who had been educated under Maclaurin, and whom he visited twice a week, he learned geometry, algebra and various branches of mathematics, theoretical and practical. He also read, with but little assistance from him, Gravesend’s Elements of Natural Philosophy, Watts’s Logic, and Locke’s Essay on the Human Understanding. “He also gave lessons in Hebrew to a Baptist minister at Gildersome, a village about four miles from Leeds, and by that means made himself ‘a considerable proficient in that language.’” “At the same time I learned Chaldee and Syriac, and just began to read Arabic.”

As his knowledge increased, and the powers of his intellect strengthened, he began to exercise his reason 12 upon the many problems of doctrine and religious belief which could not fail to be uppermost in his mind when his upbringing and the environment in which circumstances had placed him are considered. His aunt, although a strict Calvinist, was a large-minded woman, and, as her nephew says, “far from confining salvation to those who thought as she did on religious subjects.”

    “Her home,” he says, “was the resort of all the dissenting ministers in the neighbourhood, without distinction, and those who were the most obnoxious, on account of their heresy, were almost as welcome to her, if she thought them honest and good men (which she was not unwilling to do), as any others.”

Although all the religious books that came in his way tended to confirm him in the principles of Calvinism, he was led by the natural vigour of his mind, and by an innate spirit of philosophical optimism, which strengthened with advancing years, to feel a repugnance to its gloomy tenets, and to question the sufficiency and reasonableness of much of its doctrine. The conversation of the heretical divines in whose company he was thrown served, moreover, to awaken inquiry and to increase his doubts. These divines were for the most part men who, in liberality of thought, were far in advance of the congregations they served, and this was especially the case of those for whose attainments and character the discerning boy had most respect.

The youth, who as a child had lisped at his mother’s knee, “without missing a word,” the formularies of the Assembly’s Catechism, was now tortured with doubt and misgiving as he strove to penetrate into and to realise the meaning of the phrases his memory so tenaciously retained. And the more he read and the more he pondered the more disquieted he became.


    “Having,” he says, “read many books of experiences, and, in consequence, believing that a new birth, produced by the immediate agency of the Spirit of God, was necessary to salvation, and not being able to satisfy myself that I had experienced anything of the kind, I felt occasionally such distress of mind as it is not in my power to describe, and which I still look back upon with horror. Notwithstanding I had nothing very material to reproach myself with, I often concluded that God had forsaken me, and that mine was like the case of Francis Spira, to whom, as he imagined, repentance and salvation were denied. In that state of mind I remember reading the account of the man in the iron cage in the Pilgrim’s Progress with the greatest perturbation.”

    “I imagine,” he continues, “that even these conflicts of mind were not without their use, as they led me to think habitually of God and a future state. And though my feelings were then, no doubt, too full of terror, what remained of them was a deep reverence for divine things, and in time a pleasing satisfaction which can never be effaced, and I hope was strengthened as I have advanced in life and acquired more rational notions of religion. The remembrance, however, of what I sometimes felt in that state of ignorance and darkness gives me a peculiar sense of the value of rational principles of religion, and of which I can give but an imperfect description to others.”

At the time he was greatly distressed that he could not feel a proper repentance for the sin of Adam, taking it for granted, he says, that without this it could not be forgiven him. The fact was that, under the influence of his friends, Haggerstone and Walker, he was insensibly following Baxter in attempting to reconcile the doctrines of Arminius and Calvin, and he ended by embracing those of Arminius. It was repugnant to his sense of equity and justice that, in the words of his Catechism, “All mankind, by the fall of our first parents, lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in 14 this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell for ever.”

His first trial of faith came when he applied for admission as a communicant in the congregation which he had always attended. The old minister was willing enough to receive him, but the elders, who had the government of the church, discovering this unsoundness on the subject of the sin of Adam, stoutly refused to sanction his admission.

Whilst the taint of heresy appears not to have greatly distressed the worthy Mrs Keighley, it doubtless added to her difficulties in shaping his course towards the ministry. In the natural order of things he was to have been sent to the academy at Mile End, a hot-bed of Calvinism, then under the care of Dr Cawder.

    “But,” he says, “being at that time an Arminian, I resolutely opposed it, especially upon finding that if I went thither, besides giving an experience, I must subscribe my assent to ten printed articles of the strictest Calvinistic faith, and repeat it every six months.”

It now looked as if the idea of the ministry was to be given up for good and all, and given up it probably would have been but for the intercession of Mr Kirkby, who strongly recommended that he should be placed under the care of the good and learned Dr Doddridge.

    “Mr Kirby,” says Priestley, “had received a good education himself, was a good classical scholar, and had no opinion of the mode of education among the very orthodox Dissenters, and being fond of me, he was desirous of my having every advantage that could be procured for me. My good aunt, not being a bigoted Calvinist, entered into his views.”

Priestley had another ally in his step-mother, for his 15 father had married again. She was a woman of good sense as well as of religion, and had been sometime housekeeper to Dr Doddridge, of whom she had a high opinion, and had always recommended his academy.

To Dr Doddridge, however, he was not destined to go. That eminent divine was in the last stages of the malady to which he eventually succumbed, and he died at Lisbon in the October of 1751.

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