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Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804)


English Unitarian clergyman, theologian, political theorist, and the scientist who is usually credited with the discovery of oxygen, as he was the first to isolate it in its gaseous state.
Joseph Priestley
As I conceive this doctrine to be a gross misrepresentation of the character and moral government of God, and to affect many other articles in the scheme of Christianity, greatly disfiguring and depraving it; I shall show, in a fuller manner than I mean to do with respect to any other corruption of Christianity, that it has no countenance whatever in reason, or the Scriptures; and, therefore, that the whole doctrine of atonement, with every modification of it, has been a departure from the primitive and genuine doctrine of Christianity.
Priestley quotes
The unity of God is a doctrine on which the greatest stress is laid in the whole system of revelation. To guard this most important article was the principal object of the Jewish religion; and, notwithstanding the proneness of the Jews to idolatry, at length it fully answered its purpose in reclaiming them, and in impressing the minds of many persons of other nations in favour of the same fundamental truth.
The Jews were taught by their prophets to expect a Messiah, who was to be descended from the tribe of Judah, and the family of David, — a person in whom themselves and all the nations of the earth should be blessed; but none of their prophets gave them an idea of any other than a man like themselves in that illustrious character, and no other did they ever expect, or do they expect to this day.
Jesus Christ, whose history answers to the description given of the Messiah by the prophets, made no other pretensions; referring all his extraordinary power to God, his Father, who, he expressly says, spake and acted by him, and who raised him from the dead: and it is most evident that the apostles, and all those who conversed with our Lord before and after his resurrection, considered him in no other light than simply as "a man approved of God, by wonders and signs which God did by him."
Priestley
I married a daughter of Mr. Isaac Wilkinson, an ironmaster, near Wrexham, in Wales, with whose family I had become acquainted, in consequence of having the youngest son, William, at my school at Nantwich. This proved a very suitable and happy connexion, my wife being a woman of an excellent understanding, much improved by reading, of great fortitude and strength of mind, and of a temper in the highest degree affectionate and generous; feeling strongly for others, and little for herself. Also, greatly excelling in every thing relating to household affairs, she entirely relieved me of all concern of that kind, which allowed me to give all my time to the prosecution of my studies, and the other duties of my station.




Priestley Joseph quotes
When we say there is a GOD, we mean that there is an intelligent designing cause of what we see in the world around us, and a being who was himself uncaused.
Priestley Joseph
It is sufficiently evident from many circumstances, that the doctrine of the divinity of Christ did not establish itself without much opposition, especially from the unlearned among the Christians, who thought that it savoured of Polytheism, that it was introduced by those who had had a philosophical education, and was by degrees adopted by others, on account of its covering the great offence of the cross, by exalting the personal dignity of our Saviour.
Joseph Priestley quotes
We find upon all occasions, the early Christian writers speak of the Father as superior to the Son, and in general they give him the title of God, as distinguished from the Son; and sometimes they expressly call him, exclusively of the Son, the only true God; a phraseology which does not at all accord with the idea of the perfect equality of all the persons in the Trinity. But it might well be expected, that the advances to the present doctrine of the Trinity should be gradual and slow. It was, indeed, some centuries before it was completely formed.
Joseph Priestley
As the greatest things often take their rise from the smallest beginnings, so the worst things sometimes proceed from good intentions. This was certainly the case with respect to the origin of Christian Idolatry. All the early heresies arose from men who wished well to the gospel, and who meant to recommend it to the Heathens, and especially to philosophers among them, whose prejudices they found great difficulty in conquering. Now we learn from the writings of the apostles themselves, as well as from the testimony of later writers, that the circumstance at which mankind in general, and especially the more philosophical part of them, stumbled the most, was the doctrine of a crucified Saviour. They could not submit to become the disciples of a man who had been exposed upon a cross, like the vilest malefactor. Of this objection to Christianity we find traces in all the early writers, who wrote in defence of the gospel against the unbelievers of their age, to the time of Lactantius; and probably it may be found much later. He says, "I know that many fly from the truth out of their abhorrence of the cross." We, who only learn from history that crucifixion was a kind of death to which slaves and the vilest of malefactors were exposed, can but very imperfectly enter into their prejudices, so as to feel what they must have done with respect to it. ... Though this circumstance was "unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness," it was to others "the power of God and the wisdom of God." 1 Cor. i. 23, 24. For this circumstance at which they cavilled, was that in which the wisdom of God was most conspicuous; the death and resurrection of a man, in all respects like themselves, being better calculated to give other men an assurance of their own resurrection, than that of any super-angelic being, the laws of whose nature they might think to be very different from those of their own. But, "since by man came death, so by man came also the resurrection of the dead."
Later Christians, however, and especially those who were themselves attached to the principles of either the Oriental or the Greek philosophy, unhappily took another method of removing this obstacle; and instead of explaining the wisdom of the divine dispensations in the appointment of a man, a person in all respects like unto his brethren, for the redemption of men, and of his dying in the most public and indisputable manner, as a foundation for the clearest proof of a real resurrection, and also of a painful and ignominious death, as an example to his followers who might be exposed to the same … they began to raise the dignity of the person of Christ, that it might appear less disgraceful to be ranked amongst his disciples.
Priestley Joseph quotes
It is the earnest wish of my heart, that your minds may be well established in the sound principles of religious knowledge, because I am fully persuaded, that nothing else can be a sufficient foundation of a virtuous and truly respectable conduct in life, or of good hope in death. A mind destitute of knowledge (and, comparatively speaking, no kind of knowledge, besides that of religion, deserves the name) is like a field on which no culture has been bestowed, which, the richer it is, the ranker weeds it will produce, If nothing good be sown in it, it will be dccupied by plants that are useless or noxious.
Priestley
Most of the early Christian writers thought the text "I and my Father are one," was to be understood of an unity or harmony of disposition only. Thus Tertullian observes, that the expression is unum, one thing, not one person; and he explains it to mean unity, likeness, conjunction, and of the love that the Father bore to the Son. Origen says, "let him consider that text, 'all that believed were of one heart and of one soul,' and then he will understand this, 'I and my Father are one.'"
Priestley Joseph
The history of philosophy enjoys, in some measure, the advantages both of civil and natural history, whereby it is relieved from what is most tedious and disgusting in both. Philosophy exhibits the powers of nature, discovered and directed by human art. It has, therefore, in some measure, the boundless variety with the amazing uniformity of the one, and likewise every thing that is pleasing and interesting in the other. And the idea of continual rise and improvement is conspicuous in the whole study, whether we be attentive to the part which nature, or that which men are acting in the great scene.
It is here that we see the human understanding to its greatest advantage, grasping at the noblest objects, and increasing its own powers, by acquiring to itself the powers of nature, and directing them to the accomplishment of its own views; whereby the security, and happiness of mankind are daily improved. Human abilities are chiefly conspicuous in adapting means to ends, and in deducing one thing from another by the method of analogy; and where may we find instances of greater sagacity, than in philosophers diversifying the situations of things, in order to give them an opportunity of showing their mutual relations, affections, and influences; deducing one truth and one discovery from another, and applying them all to the useful purposes of human life.
If the exertion of human abilities, which cannot but form a delightful spectacle for the human imagination, give us pleasure, we enjoy it here in a higher degree than while we are contemplating the schemes of warriors, and the stratagems of their bloody art.
Joseph Priestley
It is known to all persons who are conversant in experimental philosophy, that there are many little attentions and precautions necessary to be observed in the conducting of experiments, which cannot well be described in words, but which it is needless to describe, since practice will necessarily suggest them; though, like all other arts in which the hands and fingers are made use of, it is only much practice that can enable a person to go through complex experiments, of this or any kind, with ease and readiness.




Joseph Priestley quotes
Having thought it right to leave behind me some account of my friends and benefactors, it is in a manner necessary that I also give some account of myself; and as the like has been done by many persons, and for reasons which posterity has approved, I make no further apology for following their example. If my writings in general have been useful to my contemporaries, I hope that this account of myself will not be without its use to those who may come after me, and especially in promoting virtue and piety, which, I hope I may say, it has been my care to practise myself, as it has been my business to inculcate them upon others.
Joseph Priestley
It is hardly possible not to suspect the truth of this doctrine of atonement, when we consider that the general maxims to which it may be reduced, are nowhere laid down, or asserted, in the Scriptures, but others quite contrary to them.
Priestley quotes
If any person, discouraged by these difficulties, should think to relieve himself by rejecting all religion, natural and revealed, he will find, if he reflect at all, that he has miserably deceived himself, and that he is involved in greater perplexity than ever; the scheme he has adopted not only filling his mind with great darkness and distress, but being contrary to some of the plainest appearances in nature, and therefore manifestly irrational and absurd.
Priestley Joseph
The History of Electricity is a field full of pleasing objects, according to all the genuine and universal principles of taste, deduced from a knowledge of human nature. Scenes like these, in which we see a gradual rise and progress in things, always exhibit a pleasing spectacle to the human mind. Nature, in all her delightful walks, abounds with such views, and they are in a more especial manner connected with every thing that relates to human life and happiness; things, in their own nature, the most interesting to us. Hence it is, that the power of association has annexed crowds of pleasing sensations to the contemplation of every object, in which this property is apparent.
This pleasure, likewise, bears a considerable resemblance to that of the sublime, which is one of the most exquisite of all those that affect the human imagination. For an object in which we see a perpetual progress and improvement is, as it were, continually rising in its magnitude; and moreover, when we see an actual increase, in a long period of time past, we cannot help forming an idea of an unlimited increase in futurity; which is a prospect really boundless, and sublime.
Priestley Joseph quotes
Respect a parliamentary king, and chearfully pay all parliamentary taxes; but have nothing to do with a parliamentary religion, or a parliamentary God.
Religious rights, and religious liberty, are things of inestimable value. For these have many of our ancestors suffered and died; and shall we, in the sunshine of prosperity, desert that glorious cause, from which no storms of adversity or persecution could make them swerve? Let us consider if as a duty of the first rank with respect to moral obligation, to transmit to our posterity, and provide, as far as we can, for transmitting, unimpaired, to the latest generations, that generous zeal for religion and liberty, which makes the memory of our forefathers so truly illustrious.
Joseph Priestley
It may, perhaps, be true, though we cannot distinctly see it to be so, that as all finite things require a cause, infinites admit of none. It is evident, that nothing can begin to be without a cause; but it by no means follows from thence, that that must have had a cause which had no beginning. But whatever there may be in this conjecture, we are constrained, in pursuing the train of causes and effects, to stop at last at something uncaused.
That any being should be self created is evidently absurd, because that would suppose that he had a being before he had, or that he existed, and did not exist at the same time. For want of clearer knowledge of this subject, we are obliged to content ourselves with terms that convey only negative ideas, and to say that God is a being untreated or uncaused; and this is all that we mean when we sometimes say that he is self existent.
Joseph Priestley quotes
Yours is one of the few lives precious to mankind, and for the continuance of which every thinking man is solicitous. Bigots may be an exception. What an effort, my dear sir, of bigotry in politics and religion have we gone through! The barbarians really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times of Vandalism, when ignorance put everything into the hands of power and priestcraft. All advances in science were proscribed as innovations. They pretended to praise and encourage education, but it was to be the education of our ancestors. We were to look backwards, not forwards, for improvement … This was the real ground of all the attacks on you. Those who live by mystery and charlntanerie, fearing you would render them useless by simplifying the Christian philosophy — the most sublime and benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man — endeavored to crush your well-earned and well-deserved fame. But it was the Lilliputians upon Gulliver. Our countrymen have recovered from the alarm into which art & industry had thrown them; science & honesty are replaced on their high ground; and you, my dear Sir, as their great apostle, are on it's pinnacle.
Joseph Priestley
The mind of man can never be wholly barren. Through our whole lives we are subject to successive impressions; for, either new ideas are continually flowing in, or traces of the old ones are marked deeper. If, therefore, you be not acquiring good principles be assured that you are acquiring bad ones; if you be not forming virtuous habits you are, how insensibly soever to yourselves, forming vicious ones…
Priestley Joseph
Great conquerors, we read, have been both animated, and also, in a great measure, formed by reading the exploits of former conquerors. Why may not the same effect be expected from the history of philosophy to philosophers? May not even more be expected in this case? The wars of many of those conquerors, who received this advantage from history, had no proper connection with former wars: they were only analogous to them. Whereas the whole business of philosophy, diversified as it is, is but one; it being one and the same great scheme, that all philosophers, of all ages and nations, have been conducting, from the beginning of the world; so that the work being the same, the. labours of one are not only analogous to those of of another, but in an immediate manner subservient to them; and one philosopher succeeds another in the same field; as one Roman proconsul succeeded another in carrying on the same war, and pursuing the same conquests, in the same country. In this case, an intimate knowledge of what has been done before us cannot but greatly facilitate our future progress, if it be not absolutely necessary to it.


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