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   Priestley at Birmingham—His theological work there—His love of literature—His catholicity—His personal characteristics.

In 1784 Priestley brought out a revised edition of the work on which his fame as a man of science mainly rests, under the title of “Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air; and other branches of Natural Philosophy connected with the Subject. In three volumes, being the former six abridged and methodised. With many Additions. London, 1790. 3 vols. 8vo.”

In a letter to his friend Keir we find an allusion to this matter. He says:—

    “I am working like a horse at the new arrangements of my 6 vols. of Experiments. It is a tedious business.

    “What do you think of an attempt to dedicate this work to the Prince of Wales? The King I shall never think of in any such light, nor the Prince, unless it be possible that he will be a real patron of science and could look upon it in some other light than that of an honour to myself.”

An interesting account of Priestley at this period of his life is to be found in the Memoirs of the French geologist, Faujar St Fond, who visited Birmingham some time after Priestley’s settlement there. He says:—

    “Dr Priestley received me with the greatest kindness. He presented me to his wife and his daughter, who were distinguished by vivacity, intelligence and gentleness of manner. The young lady spoke to me of one of her brothers, who was then finishing his education at Geneva and to whom she seemed very much attached.

    “The building in which Dr Priestley made his chemical and philosophical experiments was detached from his house to avoid 104 the danger of fire. It consisted of several apartments on a ground floor. Upon entering it we were struck with a simple and ingenious apparatus for making experiments on inflammable gas extracted from iron and water reduced to vapour. The tube, which was thick and long, was made of red copper and cast in one piece to avoid joinings. The part exposed to the fire was thicker than the rest. Into this tube he introduced cuttings or filings of iron, and instead of dropping in the water he preferred making it enter in vapour. The furnace destined for this operation was supplied with coke made of coal, which is the best of all combustibles for the intensity and equality of its heat. By these means he obtained a considerable quantity of inflammable gas of great lightness and without any smell. He observed to me, that by increasing the apparatus and using iron or copper tubes of a large calibre, aerostatic balloons might be filled with far less trouble and expense than by vitriolic acid. Dr Priestley allowed me to take a drawing of this new apparatus for the purpose of communicating it to the French chemists who are engaged in the same pursuit....

    “Dr Priestley did not regard the experiments made relative to the decomposition of water as satisfactory. He could not admit the fact to be demonstrated so long as the gas was only obtained through the medium of iron, a metal which is itself susceptible of inflammability; but he waited with impatience for the result of the experiments of the French chemists, particularly those of Lavoisier, who had invented and caused to be constructed an extensive apparatus for the same object.

    “‘The decomposition of water,’ said this indefatigable philosopher, addressing himself to me, ‘is of so much importance in Natural Philosophy, and would occupy so distinguished a place among the phenomena of the universe, that far from admitting the fact upon slight evidence, and as it were from enthusiasm, it were rather to be wished that all objections that may be made, and which will still long continue to be made against this theory were completely refuted; in the conflict of opinions, truth may at last be obtained. But I have still so many doubts upon this subject, and I have so many experiments to make, both pro and con, that I can as yet regard the greatest as only started.’

    “Dr Priestley has embellished his solitude with a philosophical 105 cabinet, which contains all the instruments necessary for his experiments, and a library rendered valuable by a choice of excellent works. The learned possessor employs himself in a variety of studies: History, Moral Philosophy and Religion have all in their turn engaged his pen. An active, intelligent mind and a natural avidity for knowledge gave him a passion for experimental philosophy; but the sensibility and gentleness of his disposition have sometimes directed his attention to pious and philanthropic studies, which do honour to the goodness of his heart, since they always have for their object the happiness of mankind.”

Priestley’s time in Birmingham was not, however, wholly devoted to science and the social joys of the Lunar Society. Much of it was given to his beloved theology and to editing the Theological Repository, which he revived some time after he had settled there. A few months after his arrival he was invited to take charge of the congregation of the New Meeting. With the consent of the congregation his services were mainly confined to Sunday duty and to catechising and lecturing.

Of his preaching Miss Hutton has left us an account. She says:—

    “I look upon his character as a preacher to be as amicable as his character as a philosopher is great. In the pulpit he is mild, persuasive and unaffected, and his sermons are full of sound reasoning and good sense. He is not what is called an orator; he uses no actions, no declamation; but his voice and manner are those of one friend speaking to another.”

His congregation is described as the most liberal in England, and with many of its members, particularly Mr Russell, he was on the most intimate and affectionate terms. During this period he completed his friendly controversy with the Bishop of Waterford on the duration of Christ’s ministry, and he published a 106 volume of sermons. To the same period belongs his History of the Corruptions of Christianity, which he composed and published shortly after his settlement at Birmingham. This work, which he spoke of as the most valuable of all his writings, he dedicated to his “dear friend,” Theophilus Lindsey, in the hope that their names may ever be connected as closely after death as they were connected by friendship during life. To Lindsey’s example of a pure love of truth, and of the most fearless integrity in asserting it, as evidenced by the sacrifices he had made to it, Priestley says that he owed much of his own wishes “to imbibe the same spirit.”

The work, as originally planned, was to be the concluding part of his Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion, but as the matter of it grew it became extended into a separate treatise, larger, indeed, than the whole of the Institutes. Its object was to show that modern Christianity was a departure from the original scheme, and that the innovations have debased its spirit and almost annihilated all the happy effects which it was eminently calculated to produce. Although it had begun to recover itself from its corrupted state, and the Reformation was advancing apace, abuses still continued in many places, even although their virulence was very generally abated and the number was greatly increased of those who were most zealous in the profession of Christianity, whose lives were the greatest ornament to it, and who hold it in such purity that if it was fairly exhibited and universally understood it could hardly fail to recommend itself to the acceptance of the whole world.

    “But so long as all the Christianity that is known to 107 Heathens, Mahometans and Jews is of a corrupted and debased kind, and particularly while the profession of it is so much connected with worldly interest, it is no wonder that mankind in general refuse to admit it, and that they can even hardly be prevailed upon to give any attention to the evidence that is alleged in its favour. Whereas, when the system itself shall appear to be less liable to objection, it is to be hoped that they may be brought to give proper attention to it, and to the evidence on which it rests.”

In this work Priestley attempted to trace every “corruption”—that is every innovation or departure from what he conceives to be the original scheme—to its proper source and “to show what circumstances in the state of things, and especially of other prevailing opinions and prejudices, made the alteration, in doctrine or practice, sufficiently natural, and the introduction and establishment of it easy.” Priestley hoped as a true rationalist that this historical method would be found to be one of the most satisfactory modes of argumentation, in order to prove that what he objected to was no part of the original scheme.

    “For after the clearest refutation of any particular doctrine that has been long established in Christian churches it will still be asked, how, if it be no part of the scheme, it ever came to be thought so, and to be so generally acquiesced in; and in many cases the mind will not be perfectly satisfied till such questions be answered.”

We are mainly concerned with this remarkable work as illustrating the character and attributes of its author, and it is not within our province to give any analysis of its contents. It must be remembered in connection with it that Priestley was no longer an Arian; he was not even a Socinian, as that term was understood by the immediate followers of Faustus Socinus, who thought it 108 their duty as Christians, and, indeed, essential to Christianity, to pray to Jesus Christ, notwithstanding they believed him to be, in Priestley’s phrase, a mere man. Priestley was at this time what he remained until his death—a strict Humanitarian, although he believed in the supernatural power and divine mission of Christ.

Of the reception which awaited his book he could not be altogether unprepared. It was received by the orthodox with a storm of disapproval, and a dozen pens were immediately set to work to demolish its doctrine and to defend the principles he so boldly assailed. Among those who entered the lists the most formidable was Dr Horsley, then Archdeacon of St Albans, whose Animadversions were described as “at once nervous, animated and evangelical, but in some passages too sarcastic.”

It says something for Priestley’s position and influence in the theological world that his book should have met with the sternest disapprobation in Lutheran, and especially Calvinistic, circles abroad. It was ordered to be burnt by the hands of the common hangman at Dordrecht, in 1785—a sign that the spirit of the Synod of Dort had survived even two centuries.

Priestley thereupon undertook to collect from the original writers the state of opinion on the subject in the age succeeding that of the apostles, and he published the results of his investigation in his “History of Early Opinion concerning Jesus Christ.” In four volumes. 8vo.

This bringing him still more antagonists he retaliated by writing a pamphlet annually in defence of the Unitarian doctrine, until it appeared to himself and his friends that his antagonists produced nothing to which it was of any 109 consequence to reply. The pains that he took to ascertain the state of early opinions concerning Jesus Christ, and the great misapprehensions that he says he perceived in all the ecclesiastical historians, led him to undertake a General History of the Christian Church to the Fall of the Western Empire.

    “If you ask me,” says the Rev. Alexander Gordon, “what I should reckon Priestley’s greatest service to theological science, I should say that it is to be found in his adoption of the historical method of investigating the problems of doctrine and in his special handling of that method. The faith of Priestley was the precursor of the modern theme of theological development, though I do not think he used the term. His term was ‘corruption,’ a term which, it may be said, begs a very important question. At any rate it throws into strong relief the fact, on which all are agreed, that there is, and must be, some primitive nucleus whence developments proceed. Now it is the object of all who, for any reason, are interested in the origin of Christianity to reach this primitive nucleus at its first, undeveloped and uncorrupted stage. Where are we to seek it? By universal consent we must go to the New Testament. There, if anywhere, we shall come upon its traces. Here the agreement begins and ends. The New Testament is in all hands. But one man finds the Trinity in it; another the simplest Monotheism; a third, the papacy; a fourth, the supremacy of the illuminating spirit. The same words yield opposite results, because the principles of interpretation differ. The New Testament is to be interpreted by the voice of the Church; or by the testimony of the Creeds; or by the opinions of the Fathers of the first centuries before the age of dogmatic creeds began at Nic?a. These had been the expedients proposed by the Catholic, the Anglican, the Arian respectively. Socinus had rejected them all. It cannot matter to me (so, in effect, he contended) what any Church, or any Creed, or any Father may have said; I go to the New Testament myself, to read it with my own eyes, to understand it with my own mind.

    “This was not the position of Priestley. He thought this as 110 irrational a proceeding as any of those which it superseded. Even if, by good luck, the true sense were reached, there was no means of proving it to be such. The New Testament, in Priestley’s view, is not to be construed as a book of enigmas which might belong to any age. It is not dropped straight out of heaven into the hands of the man of to-day for him to make what he will of it. It belongs to a specific period; it was written for a given class of persons; it was written to be understood. ‘Therefore,’ said Priestley, ‘it will be an unanswerable argument a priori against any particular doctrine being contained in the Scriptures, that it was never understood to be so by those persons for whose immediate use the Scriptures were written, and who must have been much better qualified to understand them, in that respect at least, than we can pretend to be at the present day.’ (Works, vi. 7.)

    “Accordingly it is the whole object of Priestley’s histories of doctrine to get at the mind of the common Christian people in the first age; to make their primary understanding of Scripture the norm for its true interpretation; and then to trace the process by which this first impression, this real meaning, suffered transmutation by the speculative genius of philosophising divines. Of the Nicene Council he quaintly says, ‘there was no House of Commons in that assembly.’ It ‘represented the Christian Church in no other sense than the House of Lords might be said to repr............
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