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MEMOIR OF DR. PRIESTLEY.
DR, PRIESTLEY was born at Fieldhead, near Leeds in Yorkshire, on the 13th of March, old style, 1733. He received impressions of religion and truth from the instructions of his mother, who died when he was seven years old. She was a sincerely religious woman, who carefully taught him the Assembly's Catechism, and was so anxious to impress on him ideas of right, that she once made him carry back to his uncle's house a pin which he had picked up when playing there with his cousins. Two years after her death, he was adopted by an aunt, Mrs. Keighly, with whom he afterwards lived as her own child, and of whom he always spoke in the most grateful terms, saying that she was truly a parent to him. She was, as his parents had been, a devoted Calvinist, though not of the most exclusive character; she maintained constant intercourse and friendship with several of the most heretical ministers in the vicinity. Thus he was brought up, as he tells us,” “with sentiments of piety, but without bigotry; and having, from his earliest years, given much attention to the subject of religion, he was as much confirmed as he well could be in the principles of Calvinism, all the books that came in his way having that tendency.” His brother records of him, “At four years of age he could repeat the Assembly's Catechism without missing a word. When about six and a half, he would now and then ask me to kneel down with him while he prayed.”
* Memoirs of his own Life, p. 7. (London, 1809).
He had an early love for learning, and made rapid progress in his studies, allowing himself very little time for recreation. Between the ages of eleven and thirteen, he read most of the works of Bunyan, as well as other writers on religion, besides the common Latin authors, and at an early age learned Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, and Arabic. The disposition of his mind was wholly toward divinity, and all the circumstances of his situation favored the growth of a religious character, and a disposition to religious inquiry. Before going from home to pursue his studies, he was desirous of becoming a communicant. But the elders of the church refused him, because he could not agree that “all the human race (supposing them not to have any sin of their own), were liable to the wrath of God and the pains of hell forever, on account of the sin of Adam only.” Some time before this, as he relates, he had been much distressed that he could not feel a proper. repentance for the sin of Adam. But he had now learned to think differently on the subject, and pursuing his inquiries became a decided Arminian.
It was the earnest desire of his aunt and other friends, that he would place himself in the Academy at Mile-end, under the care of Dr. Conder. But this he resolutely opposed; because he would there not only be required to relate his experience, but “to subscribe his assent to ten printed articles of the strictest Calvinistic faith, and repeat it every six months.” The consequence was that he nearly lost his education; but it was at length decided that he should go to Daventry. This was in September, 1752. The three years which he spent at that institution, he always looked back upon with great satisfaction. The method of theological instruction was very free, variety of sentiment existed upon many important questions both among teachers and pupils, liberty of opinion and discussion was fully allowed, and every inquirer arrived at his results after an opportunity for a thorough and unbiassed investigation. The result in the case of young Priestley was, that he still further modified the
opinions both religious and philosophical of his early education, and he left the institution an Arian and a Necessarian. His diligence in study may be inferred from the fact, that, besides his stated duties, he read in company with a fellowstudent, ten folio pages of Greek every day, besides a Greek play every week, and composed the first copy of his “Institutes of Religion.” On leaving the Academy he took charge of a small congregation at Needham. But an impediment in his speech rendered him unpopular in the pulpit, and his heretical opinions caused him to be shunned when he attempted to open a school; and at the end of three years he removed to Nantwich, in Cheshire, where the congregation was still smaller than in Needham, consisting of only about sixty persons. Here he remained three years, teaching a school of about thirty-six pupils from seven in the morning till four in the afternoon, and then giving instruction in a private family till seven in the evening. He appears to have obtained no small reputation as a teacher, and in September, 1761, he was removed tâ the office of Tutor in the languages at the Academy in Warrington. Here he married in 1762, and lived happily for six years. As a teacher he was indefatigably laborious, not confining himself to his own department, that of the languages; but lecturing also on oratory, history, civil law, and anatomy. His lectures on oratory and on history were afterwards published. It was during this period, that, in one of his annual visits to London, he became acquainted with Dr. Franklin, and was induced to compose the “History of Electricity,” and to interest himself more than he had ever yet done in philosophical experiments. It is one among a multitude of proofs of his versatility and power of despatch, that he composed and printed this large and valuable work in less than twelve months, though engaged five hours daily in lecturing in the Academy. In 1767 Dr. Priestley accepted an invitation to take the pastoral charge of Mill-hill Chapel at Leeds, whither he removed in September, and where he remained for six years. Here he was as indefatigable a minister as he had been a tutor at Warrington. “I continued six years,” he says, “very happy with a liberal, harmonious, and friendly congregation, to whom my services, of which I was not sparing, were very acceptable. Here I had no unreasonable prejudices to contend with, so that I had full scope for every kind of exertion; and I can truly say that I always considered the office of a Christian minister the most honorable of any on earth, and in the studies proper to it I always took the greatest pleasure.” These studies he had never remitted in the midst of his previous occupations; but he now devoted himself to them with more exclusive attention, and pursued them widely. From this time his publications became more frequent, and on a great variety of subjects. Now it was that he planned and commenced the publication of his “Theological Repository.” And as if all this variety of labor was nothing, he here entered on that course of patient and ingenious experiments in Natural Philosophy which were attended with so brilliant success, and have given him a high place among the great discoverers and philosophers of modern times. His first publication on the subject was a small pamphlet in 1772. The next year he communicated an account of his experiments to the Royal Society, and received the honor of the gold medal. He mentions in his Memoirs the pleasant circumstance, that the person in Leeds who alone gave him any aid in his experiments was a zealous methodist, Mr. Hey, who had written against him on some theological questions. At this time it was proposed to him as a man of science that he should accompany the second expedition of Captain Cook to the South Seas, and he began to make arrangements for the voyage; but some clergymen in the Board of Longitude objected on account of his religious principles, and Dr. Forster received the appointment;—“a person,” says