When he arrived in the county in 1755, Priestley was twenty-two. As he recalled in his ‘Memoirs’, ‘it was very remote from my friends in Yorkshire.’
Born near Wakefield and orphaned at an early age, Priestley had been raised by a very remarkable aunt, named Mary Keighley. She ensured that he had an excellent education that included learning Latin, Greek, French, Italian, German, Hebrew, Chaldaean, Syriac and Arabic - not to mention geometry, algebra and Newtonian mechanics! And in his aunt’s home he was exposed to lively and wide-ranging theological discussion, for Mary Keighley invited there Dissenting ministers from across the theological spectrum, even though she herself always remained a loyal Calvinist. And it was Mary Keighley who paid for Joseph to attend the Daventry Dissenting Academy in 1752, aged nineteen. Such academies then offered a broader and better education than the two English universities, from which Dissenters of all kinds were excluded.
Daventry Academy had been founded by Philip Doddridge, and had the reputation of being more liberal than some of its rivals. It would not have been Mary Keighley’s first choice for her nephew, but it was his choice and she respected it.
Priestley had always attended his aunt’s Calvinist church, but shortly before his departure for Daventry, an incident occurred that suggested his future lay outside that tradition. He applied for church membership and was examined by the elders as to his beliefs. He recalled, ‘I appeared not to be quite orthodox [on the subject of the Sin of Adam], not thinking that all the human race…were liable to the wrath of God, and the pains of hell, for ever, on account of that sin only.’ He added, ‘I could not feel a proper repentance for the sin of Adam.’ His application for membership was refused.
The suspicion of unorthodoxy, or heterodoxy, already hung over him when he went off to Daventry, but as he recalled, ‘I went to the academy an Arminian; but had by no means rejected the doctrine of the trinity or that of the atonement.’
The term Arminian refers to the Dutch theologian, Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), who had rejected the extreme Calvinist doctrines of total human degradation and of double predestination, with salvation for the ‘Elect’ few only, and irrevocably pre-ordained damnation for everyone else.
At Daventry, Priestley found a stimulating atmosphere. He recalled, ‘Our lectures had…the air of friendly conversations on the subjects to which they related. We were permitted to ask whatever questions, and to make whatever remarks, we pleased…’ The faculty included both conservative ‘orthodox’ teachers and liberal ‘heterodox’ ones. And, ‘In this situation,’ Priestley recalled, ‘I saw reason to embrace…the heterodox side of almost every question.’
By the time he left Daventry, Priestley had moved further along the road to heterodoxy, although, as he wrote of Daventry Academy in his time there, ‘Notwithstanding the great freedom of our speculations and debates, the extreme of heresy among us was Arianism.’
Named for the 3rd/4th century Alexandrian theologian, Arius, Arianism maintained belief in the Unity of God - the Father - by saying that the Son was not co-eternal or co-equal with the Father, but rather a created, albeit divine, being, through whom the world was created and who became incarnate in Jesus Christ. It was, if you like, a halfway house between Trinitarianism and Unitarianism. The latter was usually referred to as Socinianism at this period, after the Italian theologian, Faustus Socinus, or Fausto Sozzini (1539-1604).
Priestley left Daventry with a good liberal education and an increasing tendency towards heterodox, or heretical, beliefs. These he had already enshrined in the earliest drafts of what he entitled, ‘The Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion’. This work was destined to grow and change in the years ahead, becoming in time the distillation of his mature theological thinking. Priestley also left Daventry with a speech impediment, a bad stammer, which he said was inherited. It was to remain a problem throughout his life. No small handicap for an aspiring preacher and teacher.
So how did Priestley come to be in Suffolk? He recalled, ‘I cheerfully listened to the first proposal that my tutor made to me, in consequence of an application made to him to provide a minister for the people of Needham Market in Suffolk…a very inconsiderable place.’
When Joseph Priestley came to preach to the Dissenting congregation in Needham Market, he found what he called, ‘a small congregation’ of about a hundred people. They had an elderly minister named Meadows, who the new appointee was to assist and then replace. Priestley recalled, ‘I flattered myself that I should be useful and happy in the place, and therefore accepted the unanimous invitation’ to become assistant and successor to Mr. Meadows.
So began Joseph Priestley’s first ministry.
Money was an early and continuing problem, especially since his aunt thought it was time to stop subsidising him and let him stand on his own two feet! She had a seriously disabled niece in her care, and the family didn’t approve of Joseph’s heretical tendencies either!
The Needham Market congregation, whose first minister had been the ‘ejected’ local parson, John Fairfax (also minister at Ipswich from 1680-1700), thus traced its origins to 1662. They had built their Meeting House in the High Street in 1717. They received funds from both the Presbyterian Fund and the Independent (or Congregationalist) Fund. But Priestley declined to accept the Independent Fund’s money. This left only the Presbyterian Fund to call on, apart from the congregation’s own limited resources. They had promised Priestley £40 per annum but never managed more than £30. His basic board and lodging with a local family took £20 of that.
However, as Priestley recalled, ‘Notwithstanding this, everything else for the first half year appeared very promising, and I was happy in the success of my schemes for promoting the interests of religion in the place.’ He taught the children, using Isaac Watts’ catechism, and he gave lectures on religion, based on his ‘Institutes’: ‘admitting all persons to attend them,’ as he recalled, ‘without distinction of sex or age.’ But there was trouble brewing.
In giving these lectures, he recalled, ‘I had acted imprudently.’ He wrote in his ‘Memoirs’, ‘A minister in the neighbourhood had been obliged to leave his place on account of Arianism; and though nothing had been said to me on the subject…and I thought they could not have much bigotry among them, I found that when I came to treat of the Unity of God…several of the audience were attentive to nothing but the soundness of my faith in the doctrine of the Trinity.’
In fact, Priestley was increasingly unorthodox on this and other doctrines. His ongoing biblical studies had led him to conclude that, ‘the doctrine of the Atonement, even in its most qualified sense, had no countenance either from scripture or reason.’ He thus discarded the idea of the crucifixion of Christ as a blood sacrifice for the sin of Adam. He also questioned orthodox ideas of ‘divine influence’: of ‘the inspiration of the authors of the books of scripture’, and of ‘all idea of supernatural influence, except for the purpose of miracles.’
He had also made the transition to Arianism. He recalled, ‘…though I made it a rule…to introduce nothing that could lead to controversy in the pulpit; yet making no secret of my real opinions in conversation, it was soon found that I was an Arian.’ As he commented ruefully, ‘From the time of this discovery, my hearers fell off apace.’
The congregation was now split. Priestley retained the support of the presumably better educated, ‘principal families’, but the majority turned against him, as did his retired predecessor, Mr. Meadows. Declining numbers, financial problems and, of course, his speech impediment - on which he spent a considerable amount of money for useless treatment - made for a difficult situation.
He thought about a move locally, but even where his theological position might have been acceptable, his speech impediment counted against him. He recalled, ‘At Needham I felt the effect of a low despised situation, together with that arising from want of popular talents. There were several vacancies in congregations in that neighbourhood, where my sentiments would have been no objection to me, but I was never thought of.’
His unorthodox beliefs led to increasing isolation among the local ministers, but even those who were sympathetic doctrinally were reluctant to entertain the usual pulpit exchanges because of Priestley’s stammer. Priestley recalled one particular instance: ‘Even my next door neighbour, whose sentiments were as free as my own, and known to be so, declined making exchanges with me, which…he acknowledged was not owing to any dislike his people had to me as heretical; but for other reasons the more genteel part of his hearers always absenting themselves when they heard I was to preach for him.’
And there is a distinctly barbed postscript to this in Priestley’s ‘Memoirs’: ‘But visiting that country some years afterwards, when I had raised myself to some degree of notice in the world, and being invited to preach in that very pulpit, the same people crowded to hear me, though my elocution was not much improved, and they professed to admire one of the same discourses they had formerly despised.’
It is interesting to speculate as to which congregation this diplomatically unnamed ‘next door neighbour’ was minister to. There are really only two candidates. One is that of the Presbyterian - now Unitarian - Meeting House in Ipswich. The other is the Independent - or Congregationalist - congregation in Stowmarket. Both of these had ministers with whom Priestley was on good terms.
At Ipswich the minister was Thomas Scott, who Priestley called, ‘the most learned of my acquaintances…who was well-versed in the oriental languages, especially in Arabic.’ We know that Scott’s congregation already contained, not just Arians, but Socinians. But Priestley wrote this of Scott: ‘…although he was far from being Calvinistical, he gave me no encouragement in the very free enquiries which I then entered upon.’ Nevertheless, Ipswich must remain one candidate for being the congregation in question.
The other, maybe stronger, candidate, was the congregation in Stowmarket. Priestley names the minister there, John Taylor (Browne has ‘Tailer’), as one of the few local Dissenting ministers with whom he enjoyed good relations. Besides Taylor and Scott, the others he named were, ‘Mr. Dickinson of Diss’ and ‘Mr. Smithson of Harleston’. He was also friendly with the rector of Stowmarket, ‘Mr. Chauvet’, ‘with whom I was very happy in a great degree of intimacy.’ Tragically, Chauvet seems to have suffered from some sort of manic-depressive condition, and committed suicide some years later.
The Stowmarket congregation did not, incidentally, continue to be liberal in its theology. In 1805 a church meeting noted, ‘The church had not been within memory regularly Congregational, or properly attentive to discipline, and it was resolved to proceed in future with more strictness and regularity.’ This suggests a congregation turning its back on an unorthodox phase. But this liberal period did persist for a time beyond the ministry of Priestley’s friend, John Taylor, who left in 1760. This is shown by the presence in the list of subsequent ministers of William Godwin (1756-1836). Godwin was a very radical figure indeed, and later the author of an important work entitled, ‘Political Justice’. He did not remain long in the ministry, and may never even have been ordained. He is titled ‘Mr.’ rather than ‘Rev.’ in Browne’s ‘History of Congregationalism’, which says of him that he, ‘…subsequently appeared in the character of a philosopher, novelist and historian’. But sometime in the late 1770s, William Godwin, a Socinian at that time, occupied the pulpit of the Stowmarket Congregationalists, and one can well imagine him inviting Priestley to preach! Godwin is best remembered today as being the husband of pioneer feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the father of Mary Shelley, author of ‘Frankenstein’.
But just as the Stowmarket congregation reverted to orthodoxy in the early 19th century, so the theological heterodoxy at Needham Market came to an abrupt end with Priestley’s departure. His ministry there was clearly a bad mismatch. Orthodox historians are scathing in their verdicts on his tenure. His increasing unorthodoxy, his stammer, his scholarly ways and his failure to connect with a rural Suffolk congregation all ensured a pretty disastrous outcome. His scheme to teach maths and classics to the children was a flop. His lectures in, ‘such branches of science as I could conveniently procure the means of doing,’ weren’t a great success either. A twelve -lecture course on, ‘the use of globes,’ attracted only ten people. At half-a-guinea per person, this barely paid for the globes, never mind helping his increasingly difficult financial situation.
Nevertheless, he had managed to continue his own studies: ‘classical, mathematical and theological’, because, ‘these required few books.’ He did, however have access to the library of a Quaker named, ‘Mr. S. Alexander’. This was Priestley’s first acquaintance with, ‘any person of that persuasion.’ Priestley also, ‘imposed on myself and part executed…an accurate comparison of the Hebrew text of the hagiographa, and the prophets with the version of the Septuagint.’ This project was only half-finished when he left Needham Market and he ‘never resumed it.’ His scientific work did not progress far: ‘As to experimental philosophy…I had not the means of prosecuting it.’
Theologically he had continued to move towards a thoroughgoing Unitarianism, but he never attained it while in Suffolk. As he put it in his ‘Memoirs’, ‘But I was still an Arian, having never turned my attention to the Socinian doctrine, and contenting myself with seeing the absurdity of the Trinitarian system.’
In 1758, Priestley left Needham Market for Nantwich in Cheshire. There he was financially better off, and ‘found a good natured friendly people.’ ‘In this situation,’ he comments, ‘I heard nothing of those controversies which had been the topic of almost every conversation in Suffolk.’
Priestley’s successor in Needham Market was John Farmer, who, we are told, ‘never settled and continued but a short time.’ The congregation ‘speedily dissolved’ and the Meeting House closed down. A later Congregationalist minister, named Henderson, was in no doubt as to where the blame lay for this. This was his devastating verdict on Priestley:
‘ In few instances…had there been a more striking exhibition of the inefficiency of unsanctified talent and the unhappy influence, in a professedly Christian teacher than that to which we refer. Instead of preparing himself fully and faithfully to preach the doctrines of the gospel, the philosophical instructor was busied with speculative investigations, by which he progressively reasoned himself out of the belief of every article that could supply him with cogent motives of duty, give religious fervour to his spirit, prompt him to directness of effort for the conversion of sinners to God, or enable him to excite and keep the attention of his congregation…The consequences were that such as knew and loved the truth of Christ abandoned his ministry, and in the course of a very short time, the house that had been devoted to the glory of God…was converted into a playhouse of the lowest description…’
Not until 20th September 1793 was the Meeting House re-opened for Congregationalist worship. The building was a replaced by a new chapel in the 19th century, which still stands in the High Street. Henderson’s remarks, incidentally, appear in, ‘a note to the charge delivered at the ordination of the Rev. Samuel Davis’ at Needham Market in 1833.
Henderson’s verdict on Priestley was harsh, and a bit unfair! The failure of his ministry at Needham Market can probably be put down to his inexperience - he was only 25 when he left - along with his speech impediment, and it simply not being the right place for him to be. Priestley’s later more successful ministries suggest that Henderson spoke more out of bigotry than a fair assessment of the facts. Nevertheless, inspite of Priestley’s claim that he was, ‘far from unhappy at Needham,’ one can’t help feeling that he was probably glad to shake the dust from his feet when he left for Nantwich! For our part, though, it is fitting that we commemorate the three short years that this great scientist and advocate of civil and religious liberty, this great Unitarian, spent - not very happily - in Suffolk.
‘Memoirs of the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley to the year 1795. Written by himself. With a continuation to the time of his decease. By his son, Joseph Priestley.’ 1809. Reprinted from the American edition and sold in London by Joseph Johnson.
Joseph Priestley. ‘The Importance and Extent of Free Inquiry in Matters of Religion’, a sermon preached Nov. 5th 1785. Tracts printed and published by the Unitarian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Practice of Virtue, vol. III. London, 1791.
J. Browne. ‘History of Congregationalism and Memorials of the Churches in Norfolk and Suffolk.’ 1878.
T.J. Hosken. ‘History of Congregationalism in Suffolk.’ 1920.
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