About Joseph Priestley Online

Masters Hall-Albright College

How This Website Started

For my undergraduate degree, I studied at Albright College. Being a Religious Studies and History concentrator, I took many classes relating to religion and history. During my sophomore year, I enrolled in a class taught by my academic advisor, Dr. William King.  The subject of the course was early American religious life.  One of the assignments for our class was to visit an early American religious site.  At the time I did not have access to a car.  The only time I would have access to a car would be when I was home.  I decided that I would need to find a site near my home.  My examination of suggested sites showed there were none near my home.  

So I asked my professor if I could visit the and the Joseph Priestley house in Northumberland, PA.  I had visited the Priestley house when I was very little with my Dad.  I had a vague recollection that Priestley was an important Unitarian.   Dr. King gave me permission.  I started doing research on Joseph Priestley and I became fascinated by Priestley the minister, Priestley the educator, Priestley the scientist, and so on.  In particular, I was interested in Priestley’s views on tolerance and freedom.

Dr. King suggested that I apply for an Collaborative Undergraduate Research Grant (now called an ACRE grant I think).  The grant enabled me to spend a summer studying Joseph Priestley.  I quickly discovered that I had so much to learn about Priestley (and Enlightenment thought) that I would not be able to write a major paper on the subjects of tolerance, freedom, and truth.

I would not be able to write the paper (that summer) I dreamed about, but I would be able to create a web site to help others interested in studying Joseph Priestley.  I secured the domain name http://www.josephpriestley.org and created a web site to help others study Joseph Priestley.

Why Joseph Priestley?

My initial focus for researching Joseph Priestley was my understanding of his views on truth, tolerance, and freedom.  Priestley strongly advocates for tolerance and freedom in his An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty.  At first glance, it is easy to understand why Priestley might want tolerance and freedom.  England in Priestley’s time was not always very tolerant towards dissenters (Priestley was a dissenter, which means he would not acccept the Anglican catachism).  Dissenters did not have all the rights of those who did not dissent from the Church of England.  It should make sense that dissenters would want tolerance and freedom.

Often the dissenters only wanted tolerance and freedom for their religious practices.  They very often would argue that while their practices should be tolerated and that they should be accorded full rights, other dissenters such as Roman Catholics should not be grated the same.  This can be seen in the Pilgrims and the Puritans who came to America.  They came to America for religious freedom and they valued this freedom.  Yet, if someone else came into their colony seeking religious freedom for a different religious practice, the Puritan/Pilgrim religious freedom did not extend that far.  Those who did not subscribe to the Puritan/Pilgrim model, would be expelled from the colony (or worse).

Joseph Priestley thought that everyone (well every male of a certain social standing at least) should have their religious views tolerated and be accorded full rights.  Not just Roman Catholics, but even Muslims should be tolerated and be accorded full rights.  Was Priestley a relativist?  Absolutely not, he believed there is truth and this freedom and tolerance is needed to find truth.  Is every religion equally good?  Not for Priestley, but the way to find better religious paths is to have a free society.

I discovered that to understand Priestley’s views on tolerance, I needed to examine the way Priestley understood the world.  I strongly believe that to understand Priestley’s work in any particular field, you have to have an understanding of Priestley’s view on the world.  Priestley does not outline his world view in any particular work.  So to understand Priestley’s world view, you really need to read several different works and see which works he keeps referring back to.  In particular, I think that his Disquisitions on Matter and Spirit, The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity, and Hartley's Theory of the Human Mind on the Principle of the Association of Ideas, with Essays relating to the subject of it are very helpful in distilling his view of the world.

For two summers, Albright College paid me to do research on Joseph Priestley.  My research ultimately culminated in a senior thesis on Joseph Priestley’s monistic theology of nature.  I believe that if you can understand what the divine meant to Priestley, a person is able to understand Priestley in new and exciting ways.

Why create and maintain a web site promoting Joseph Priestley research?  I think that Priestley’s ideas and thoughts can benefit us today.  The world Priestley lived in is not so different from the world I live in.  He struggled with what does truth mean in a growingly pluralistic world, what is the relationship between science and religion, can the soul be immaterial in light of science, can ultimate truth ever be obtained, and so many other issues.  I believe that Priestley’s ideas are becoming increasingly relevant and we may benefit from trying to appreciate his answers to difficult questions.  Please enjoy Joseph Priestley Online.

Site History and Basic Information

Joseph Priestley Online is owned and maintained by Andrew Burd-Harris.  The site first went online in October of 2002.  At first, this site was called JosesphPriestley.org.  In April of 2003, the domain name josephpriestley.com became available.  I quickly secured the rights to the domain.  This site was renamed Joseph Priestley Online when josephpriestley.org and josephpriestley.com were both valid addresses for the site.  Also in April of 2003, this site started using frames.  In July 2004, this site went back to a non-frame format.  In 2021, after a previous attempt that did not work, Joseph Priestley transitioned to WordPress.