Priestley's letter to the inhabitants of Birmingham, following the riots of 14 July 1791

Below is a substantial part of the letter written by Reverend Joseph Priestley as reproduced in The Times on 21 July 1791. (Priestley had himself fled to London.):

My late townsmen and neighbours,
After living with you 11 years, in which you had uniform experience of my peaceful behaviour, in my attention to the quiet studies of my profession, and those of philosophy, I was far from expecting the injuries which I and my friends have lately received from you.

But you have been misled by hearing the Dissenters, and particularly the Unitarian Dissenters, continually railed at as enemies to the present Government, in Church and State. You have been led to consider any injury done to us as a meritorious thing, and not having been better informed, the means were not attended to when the object was right, you thought the means could not be wrong.

By the discourse of your teachers, and the exclamations of your superiors in general, your bigotry has been excited to the highest pitch, and nothing having been said to you to moderate your passions, but everything to inflame them, hence, without any consideration on your part or on theirs who ought to have known and taught you better, you were prepared for every species of outrage, thinking that whatever you could do to spite or injure us, was for the support of the Government, and especially of the Church.

In destroying us, you have been led to think you did God and your country the most substantial service.

....You have destroyed the most truly valuable and useful apparatus of philosophical instruments that perhaps any individual, in this country or any other, was ever possessed of, in my use of which I annually spent large sums of money with no pecuniary view whatever but only in the advancement of science, for the benefit of my country and of mankind. You have destroyed a library corresponding to that apparatus, which no money can ever reproduce except in the long course of time, but what I feel more, you have destroyed manuscripts which have been the result of the laborious study of many years and which I shall never be able to recompense. And this has been done to one who never did or imagined you any harm.

(At this point in the letter, Priestley disclaims any knowledge of a handbill that was circulated in Birmingham and was instrumental in provoking the riots.)

....We are better instructed in the mild and forbearing spirit of Christianity then ever to think of recourse to violence - and can you think that such conduct as yours any recommendation of your religious principles in preference to ours?

You are still more mistaken if you imagine that this conduct of yours has any tendency to serve your cause or to prejudice ours. It is nothing but reason of argument that can support any system of religion.

Return to Topics for discussion page

Return to Priestley index page