Joseph Priestly: A Man of Faith; A Man of Science

January 28, 2011 - 10:13 am 134 Comments

Joseph Priestley: Man of Faith; Man of Science

The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.

This morning I will begin this morning with a quick quiz: Who discovered soda water? Joseph Priestley! Who invented “laughing gas? JP Who discovered carbon dioxide? JP Along with his greater discovery, which, at first, he had labeled phogeston, and that we now call oxygen, Joseph Priestley, the Unitarian minister, theologian, and famous scientist gave much to our world… In fact, he might be the most famous Unitarian that no one knows! So please remember him, each time you breathe, or each time you get gassed at the dentist’s, or at least each time you order a scotch and soda!

Furthermore, Priestley along with his new collaborator, Ben Franklin, wrote a definitive history of electricity, and he is also credited with being the first person to identify plant respiration and photosynthesis! So you can readily see that there is a great deal to know about Priestley, the scientist, however, less is commonly known about his philosophical and religious thinking… So I will begin with a brief overview of his life, and then with an emphasis on his religious ideas, I will make some comments on science and faith, ethics and invention that have been personally instructive and eye-opening for me…

Priestley was born in Yorkshire England, on March 15th in the year 1733. His life is one we modern liberal thinkers should take seriously; he contributed much to the world of science and to the realm of faith, and did not see them as opposites or opponents. Rather than take contrasting positions as we commonly do in our modern, polarizing world, Priestley’s life story attests to how science and faith can be harmonious and complementary.

Priestley was raised by his maternal aunt, a strict Calvinist, after his mother died in childbirth, with his younger brother. He was always a frail and sickly child- and he found his refuge in books, and with family encouragement, soon found himself being able to speak four languages, and being widely read in philosophy and religion.

You see, his aunt wanted him to become a Calvinist minister, and so she shipped him off, at age nineteen, to a Daventry Academy, to prepare him to be a dissenting minister…. dissenting only from the Church of England…


But, to her dismay, he went beyond his aunt’s wishes… Quickly, he found himself to be someone who didn’t accept mainline Protestant teachings either! He was, in short, a scandalous liberal; he affirmed his belief in free will; he doubted the virgin birth, and he questioned the divinity of Jesus… All issues that are mild for today’s world, but back then, it was enough to arouse violent attacks and all sorts of antisocial digs and diatribes… Maybe most of all, he became intensely committed to the necessity that one’s religion should assist your personal and intellectual quest for truth, and that investigations into the new frontiers of science were supportive and synergistic to your personal religious search. When it concerns the greater understanding the nature and the creation story, Priestley affirms that embracing a scientific basis for life, and for human well being, can only serve to encourage a liberal, open minded faith.

In his twenties, he was able to overcome a large barrier for a minister- a stuttering problem- and so he found himself more comfortable with small study groups, and with question and answer formats. He went on to author the leading philosophy on class size and the quality of instruction, for which he was awarded a doctorate in Humanities from Edinburgh in 1766.

Later, while serving a church in Birmingham, he began researching and writing a religious expose; entitled “The History of the Corruptions in Christianity.” In this book, he detailed the various alien, and obtuse ideas that crept into Christian thought from rival cultures. He saw these additions as unnecessary layering of complexity and contradictions that were an intrusion on understanding the core teachings of Jesus. These foreign ideas obscured the value of his moral leadership, and often rendered it overly pious and incomprehensible! Of course, the public opinion that greeted his book was harsh and negative- it was considered blasphemous, and its publication set up a fierce opposition to him in neighboring churches. Not content to merely question religious ideas, Priestley went on to publicly support the goals of the American and then the French Revolution, and he expressed his disgust for the English involvement in the slave trade… As a whole, within English society, he was branded as a royal pain…

He was, an official antagonist to the Anglican church, a political irritant to King George, and as a worrisome opponent by almost every conservative group!


As the venom and the vitriolic reaction to Priestley grew, it finally erupted in the hate filled act of burning down his home and laboratory. On Bastille day in 1791, an incensed group of Anglicans, acting as a zealous mob, burned everything to the ground: not one unscorched book remained; 30 years of work, incinerated. It was quite fortunate that Priestly, his wife and children, were away that evening…

Despite the utter chaos such intolerance created in his life, as a mark of his character, his next sermon to his congregation was entitled, ” Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” As the famous biographer of early Unitarianism,

Earl Morris Wilbur, states it: ” Out of the fire of his ordeal, sparked the flame of freedom.” … (When I first read that story, some 26 years ago, I felt two things; He is a far greater and more forgiving man than I could ever be, and therefore, I need to take his spiritual and ethical example seriously, and see how it might apply to my life…)

In 1794, at the age of 61, Priestley set sail for America. He brought with him an outstanding reputation in both science and theological inquiry, and was warmly welcomed by Franklin, Adams, and especially Jefferson. The clergy, however, were far more cautious; given that Priestley’s Unitarian ideas were not yet accepted…

Landing in Philadelphia, he eventually settled in the rural northeast region called Northumberland, to be near his sons who had come over ten years earlier… He declined becoming the chair of chemistry at UPenn, and instead chose to establish a church in Northumberland that was the first to publicly declare Unitarian views.

I consider it to be a shame that so little is commonly known about Joseph Priestley. Our science books mention him briefly as the discoverer of oxygen, but then he is quickly dismissed. Like so many famous people, his depth is dispensed with in order to cover the span of history and science, thereby not teaching our children about the human side of science: the countless trials and experiments, being faced by doubt and uncertainty, the faith filled sacrifices a scientist has to make to be true to one’s personal search for answers and to find the elusive breakthrough. Remember, Priestley always saw himself as minister first, and then as a scientist. And it was his intense pursuit of truth- be it considered to be divine and natural, that was his principal concern.


It could be said that he was an advocate of an empirical faith and a religiously based science… Here are some words from his personal journal that have influenced my outlook the most:

“All those who labor in the discovery and communication of truth,

IF they are actuated by the love of it, and its importance to the

happiness of all [humankind, then] may consider themselves to be

workers together with God.”

This outlook, that one’s motivations for science or discovery need to serve God or the common good made a lasting impression… It calls into question the profit motive, even within a capitalist culture. Personally, it has warned me to always be diligent about what one will work for… It recall the saying that we make good, by doing good….

His life and outlook have taught me that we, in our modern world, need to look carefully and become far more vigilant when appraising the motives behind scientific discoveries. We have to admit to the need for an ethical perspective, and an abiding concern for the greater good, that needs to be maintained. Otherwise, it becomes science for science’s sake- an amoral aloof enterprise, and without a sustaining moral compass, there are many technologies, and many inventions and chemical advances that can, I would say, that have clearly backfired on society or have been used in expedient ways that exploit humanity for crass profit or competitive advantage.

Priestley’s passion was to understand the how’s and why’s of the universe. His was a sacred quest for truth; a search that made theology and science come together as mutual and complementary servants to the advancement and appreciative understanding of our natural world. (In today’s scientific frontiers, it seems as if physicists and physicians are doing the best theological and metaphysical research!)

From his writings, I have gleaned that Priestley believed in a benevolent Creator who gave curiosity, a love for learning, and wisdom to all humans, so they could discover for themselves what they needed to know- so that we humans can invent or discover new approaches that preserved or that advanced the human good.


His outlook and approach was a call to humane science, and to having an ethical perspective that oversees the results and consequences of invention and technology. When we invent or create technology without being earnestly concerned for its effects and consequences, then we place in jeopardy not only the quality of our human lives, but we endanger the creation itself.

Consider, for a moment, how far we have strayed from Priestley’s ideals… We each can make a list of dire consequences from technology; global warming begins the list: What to do with the waste from nuclear power plants, agribusiness and the poisoning of our top soil and rivers, abuses within our food safety regulations, and so forth… I have to wonder if, in today’s industrially created world, I wonder if a pure scientific idealism like Priestley’s can truly exist- the ideal of having an uncompromised desire to know, to discover, to find out, without affixing a moral price tag or having some political and industrial intrigue attached to it… The conservative estimate is that 70% of all of our significant natural science research has either a military or an industrial connection to it… And remember what did General Eisenhower say about that complicity, and entanglement???

If only our college science curriculum were taught with reverence, and taught to examine any ethical concerns; if only our universities did not sell out to businesses and the government, or be willing to skew their research to only present positive results!

Looking at it positively, if they did create such practical liaisons, that they would agree not compromise health, safety, and would refuse to ignore the long term consequences of their discoveries and new compounds… (Domino Sugar)

As an under grad at Boston University, I had the privilege of being taught a systemic and ethical approach to biology by Dr. John Jablonski. He was a philosopher and a scientist… He was the first to teach me about human engineering, and the ecological consequences of pollution… Coming from Pittsburgh, when it still was a steel town, he experienced the soot and particulate matter in the air first hand… (Charleston’s air?)

He taught me that science and values have to agree; if not, the risk of estrangement and abuse increases… We have to discourage invention or technology that is crassly made without thought of its ethical, or environmental repercussions…


Ironically, it was some twenty years later, when I was in U-U ministry about ten years, when I heard his name again… You see, as he prepared for his retirement from the biology department, he also started taking some classes at B.U.’s theology school… And four years after his retirement, at the age of 62, he became my U-U colleague!

He was a humanist with a deep regard for sustaining values, ecological awareness, and industrial safety; it was a joy to reunite with a beloved professor, and I truly enjoyed our conversations. He served three small churches in greater Boston, until his death at age 75, five years ago…

The potentials for a beautiful marriage between science and religion has often been jilted. Outside of belonging to our progressive, rational and open minded faith tradition, most of the time, the quest for scientific knowledge has resulted in severe repercussions and so the scientist feels compelled to leave his or her childhood or traditional religion behind. All too often, the strict, fearful doctrines of religion are placed in opposition to modernity or the new approaches that science provides. The scientific person receives antagonism or feels rejected because of where her or his knowledge has led them. The stories of Galileo and De Chardin are well known examples of the fear within reactionary religion; and no matter how devout the scientist, many church hierarchies remained suspicious of change, and wary of any progressive revelations based on empirical biological evidence and technological progress…

However, in today’s world, it seems that the power of the religious sanction has become reversed. It is now the power of corporate labs and moneyed universities that seem to lack any acceptance of religious conviction. We are experiencing the results of a generation of scientism, and the general lack of wonder and awe in our society that seems to discount or dismiss an appreciation for the transcendent, the spiritual, and the inspirational side of academic or scientific life.

What is “scientism?” It is a relatively new word for the belief in science as one’s religion, or making science a substitute for God or having a religious beliefs. It is totally linear, and holds to a reductionist world view that reduces human existence to only what can be measured or proven by a strict scientific method.


Now this definition is not mine… When it came to me, it was quite an eye-opener! I first heard the term when I was attending a doctoral seminar on Science, Experience, Culture and Faith at MIT in the early 1980’s. The professors that were offering this seminar announced that the idea came to them after reading the results of an EDS doctoral project that centered on the task of cooperatively creating a blessing or dedication service for a new lab that was to open that Spring. Ten faculty researchers had individually volunteered to create or participate in this dedication service. The ministers, after getting the researchers to participate, decided to write an article for the MIT school paper with the intention of announcing that this dedication ceremony would be held on such a date, and then asked the ten scientists to sign or endorse the article with them. They could not. They stated that to be so public would be a threat to their security, reputation, peer acceptance, even job tenure! It was clear… You could maintain a personal or private faith as a scientist, but it was far too risky to publicly attest to a religious belief !

Then convening scholars turned to the ministers in attendance and asked, “Have we, as a culture, slipped into the assumption that Is it scientific? Equates with the question: is it real? Is it Worthy? Have we bleached science of its inspirational and intuitive or faith-filled qualities to declare: If it cannot be measured, does it have real value?

One need not be religious conservative to raise some serious questions about the dominant role of science in our lives; and the daily, long lasting impact of science, chemistry, and mechanics has in our lives. I am certain that Priestley would question a world where knowledge without morality, advancement without ethics has became commonplace.

In rethinking about my earlier or formative experiences, and after rereading Priestley’s biography and assorted memoirs of his conversations with Thomas Jefferson and with Universalist physician, Benjamin Rush, I find it perplexing that the congruence of science and faith, invention and ethics, can remain such a difficult quandary for our society. Have we not seen enough of what blind religion or in this case, lame science can give us? What money and profit motives in bed with science can produce? For example, there was a recent 60 Minutes expose on the drug named taxitol, I think it


was, that research on its negative, life threatening effects was withheld, because it would cut into its substantial profits… so at the rate of a death a day, the information was withheld from the FDA for 1000 days; only under pressure, did the disastrous truth become known…

From my perspective, I see that scientists utilize the same faith filled approaches when they pose questions about the properties and elemental possibilities- when they acknowledge that there is an important role for intuition or when they have the persistent faith to pursue answers through or despite a variety of difficulties before reaching their best answers. In a complementary way, religion acts scientifically when it grounds itself in human experience, or scientifically, so that it urges believers to be more socially aware and more environmentally responsible.

Now, I do not see myself as a NeoLuddite- someone who shuns progress… Instead, I see myself as a spiritual descendent of Priestley who believes that science and faith can complement and should complete one another. I marvel at what science can and has done on humanity’s behalf, but I also can well up in anger when I consider oil spills, drug formulas, and toxic manufacturing plants that listen to the beckoning of making a quick dollar more than to the sustaining call of conscience… I wish to see a world where science serves the common good, and can produce, as far as it is possible, products that are that they are responsible, recyclable, and mindful of their long term effects.

I believe that creation is a wonder, and that planetary life, and human existence cannot be reduced down to mere chemicals or genes. I feel that every U-Uist can learn from Priestley, and that we can work cooperatively to rectify the abuses of religion and the abuses of science, and allow both of these areas of human investigation to affirm the wonder of life, the wisdom from experience, and the gracious qualities of life around and within us. This blending of science and faith, is what every scientist and every religious thinker needs to affirm and support, so that all human endeavor can serve noble, safe goals, and will attest to humanity’s highest hopes and most sincere and compassionate ideals. So Be It!

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