- adapted from the Dictionary of National Biography and The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Literature, 2nd edition, ed. Dorothy Eagle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).
Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) was a dissenting philosopher,
theologian, and scientist. He wrote numerous works on politics, education,
and materialist philosophy, including his "Essay on the First
Principles of Government" (1768) in which he suggests that happiness
of the many is "the great standard by which everything relating to
[social life] must finally be determined." He is credited with the
discovery of oxygen and experimented on optics, chemistry, and
electricity. Among his many scientific works is "The History and
Present State of Electricity" (1767).
Priestley was ordained in 1762, and was married the same year. Warrington
did not pay much so he took a position as a dissenting minister at Mill
Hill, Leeds, in 1767. Here he founded a circulating library and did much
theological writing and serious study of science. He spent some years
cataloguing the books of the earl of Sherburne (now the Lansdowne MSS. in
the British Library). In 1780 he moved to Birmingham, where he was a
minister and member of the Lunar Society, a group of dissenting
intellectuals who met to dine on the Monday night closest to the full
moon. He did much writing on unitarianism and considered his theological
writings "grains of gunpowder" for which opponents were
"providing the match." (Thus his popular nickname
"Gunpowder Priestly.") His sympathy for the French Revolution,
voiced in his Letters to Burke, was a cause of resentment
towards him and his laboratory was destroyed in riots iin 1791. He settled
in the United States in 1794, where he remained until his death.
Anna Barbauld met Priestly when
he took up the position of tutor of languages and belles-lettres at the
Warrington Academy between 1761-6: his attempts at writing verse are said
to have inspired Barbauld to write her own poetry.
In his Memoirs Priestley wrote, "Mrs. Barbauld has told me that it was the perusal fo some verses of mine that first induced her to write any thing in verse." In fact, Barbauld addressed several of her poems to the Priestleys.