On this day in 1733, Joseph Priestley, supporter of the American Revolution and leader of the Unitarian Church in Britain and America, is born in Birstall, Yorkshire, England.
Joseph Priestley shared the liberal religious and political philosophy of many of America’s revolutionary leaders, including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, all of whom became his friends and correspondents. Priestley first met Franklin while both were living in London during the 1760s. Both were renaissance men with established reputations as scientists and political philosophers and they embarked on an enduring friendship. In 1774, Franklin and Priestley attended the first Unitarian sermon given at the first Unitarian Church founded in London. Unitarianism evolved out of a dissenting Christian tradition, which denied the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. Unitarians instead believed that God was one being and that Christ was a human spokesman of God’s truth. Priestley had been born into a dissenting (non-Anglican Protestant) family and gradually found his way to Unitarianism by the early 1760s. Franklin’s views were very similar and sympathetic to Unitarians, but he never joined a Unitarian congregation.
Although still living in England, Priestley endorsed both the American and French Revolutions, authoring pamphlets in support of each. On the second anniversary of Bastille Day, a mob in Birmingham, England, burned Priestley’s home, including his first-class scientific laboratory, and the Unitarian Church where he preached. As a result of the attack, he decided that he could no longer live in England and migrated to the United States in 1794.
Priestley settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where he lived until his death in 1804. While in Pennsylvania, Priestley established the first Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, where then-Vice President John Adams attended his sermons.