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Joseph Priestley. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-104753).


Priestley, Joseph (13 March 1733–06 February 1804), theologian, scientist, and educator, was born in the parish of Birstal, West Riding, Yorkshire, England, the son of Jonas Priestley, a cloth-dresser, and Mary Swift. After his mother’s death in childbirth in 1739, Priestley was adopted in 1742 by his father’s eldest sister, Sarah Keighley. Early inclined to books, he mastered Latin and the elements of Greek, probably in Batley grammar school, and studied Hebrew with John Kirkby, a Congregationalist minister. Priestley acquiesced to Keighley’s wish that he prepare for the Presbyterian ministry, but poor health stood in the way of his education. An uncle offered him a mercantile career in Lisbon, which led Priestley to teach himself French, German, and Italian, and to take instruction in mathematics. In 1751 he returned to the original plan, enrolling in the new dissenters’ academy just opened in Daventry by Caleb Ashworth, who imposed no religious tests on the students. At Daventry, Priestley embraced the Arian view that Jesus was the highest of created beings rather than of the same substance as God and maintained a qualified belief in the doctrine of the Atonement, which he abandoned later as supported neither by scripture nor by reason. Priestley became assistant minister to a congregation in Needham Market, Suffolk, in 1755. When in a course of lectures it became clear that he was no Trinitarian, the congregation fell away. Priestley fared better in 1758, becoming minister at Nantwich in Cheshire to an Independent congregation that included many Scottish commercial travelers....