Joseph Priestley's Radical Integration of Science and Religion: the need for communal assent and right theology

J. W. Haas, Jr.
Gordon College

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) was a leading intellectual of Eighteenth Century England. A controversial figure, his major contributions in education, history, biblical studies and the natural sciences were overshadowed by the furor surrounding his heterodox political and theological views. Concerned with spreading his 'gospel,' he developed a highly integrated picture of God, man and nature which he felt would smooth the way to the approaching millenium and convert the atheistic scientists of France.

Celebrations of his birthday and other Priestlian dates have been the occasion for a recent outpouring of creative interpretation of his published legacy. Curiously there is no generally acceptable biography partly because the vast bulk of his manuscripts were destroyed in the Birmingham riots of July 1791 which destroyed his home and laboratory. In spite of (perhaps because of) the large volume of his published writings there is substantial disagreement on the general encompassing principles which generated his diverse interests as well as the micro-studies on his chemistry, electrical interests or obsession with the biblical books of "Daniel" and "Revelation."

Priestley's integration combined deterministic, associationist psychology, a materialist ontology and an eclectic theology into a package which linked spiritual understanding to scientific progress. Priestley spurned the god of the deists for one whose radical imminence alarmed his Unitarian associates and outraged conservative churchmen. This paper will explore Priestley's synthesis and suggest ways that it may have mediated his scientific pursuits.

Priestley's all-embracing picture was visionary and powerful in its synoptic range yet gained no adherents in his generation or beyond. The rejection of his ideas by friend and foe alike saw Priestley engage in an endless series of printed discussions in an attempt to gain a following. He fared no better with his close friend, mathematician Richard Price than he did in an exchange of letters with physicist Abbe' Roger Boscovich or in his "An Address to the Methodists" (1791). Factors in Priestley's inability to gain assent include philosophical inconsistency, a theology which managed to offend everyone, radical politics and a pugnacious spirit which insisted on having the last word.

The current quest for a 'theistic' science appears to have not taken into account the doctrine of 'common grace,' a key component of Priestley's vision and shares with Priestley the potential of allowing scientific considerations to shape theology. A theologically motivated methodology may marginalize the investigator as occurred in the case of Priestley's phlogiston theory of oxidation.

Copyright © J. W. Haas, Jr.