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could perform his philosophical experiments in chemistry. On the resignation of the Rev. Mr. Hawkes the Doctor was invited to succeed him in the pastorship of the New Meeting. In this important office he conducted himself with propriety and dignity, appropriating the Sabbath Day to devotion, and, the rest of the week to philosophical researches, and controversial divinity.
In consequence of the boldness of his sentiments, the freedom with which he avowed, and the eloquence with which he promulged Unitarianism, he was encountered by a host of opponents. The most remarkable and most eloquent of these was Dr. Horseley, then Archdeacon of St. Alban’s,whose Animadversions on Priestley’s “IHistory of the Corruptions of Christianity;” were at once nervous, animated, and evangelical, but in some passages too sarcastic. The zeal of the Archdeacon, who considered the religion of his ancestors aspersed, may be considered by the lovers of Orthodoxy as not only pardonable but laudable; nay, it appears that the Monthly Reviewers, whose candour and learning have seldom been questioned, freely gave their decision in favour of Dr. Horseley's Animadversions.
To enter into a detail of this important controversy would be no easy task; we shall therefore proceed with the more pleasing object of biographical narrative.
While Dr. Priestley was engaged in the arduous pursuits of a preacher, a controversialist, and an experimental philosopher, the Marquis of Lansdown again invited him to reside at his country seat, but this kind offer was declined by our philosopher, who continued the prosecution of his favourite studies at Fair-Hill, in the vicinity of Birmingham.
His polemical writings had rendered him very odious to the friends of the established Church; insomuch that some of the lower class wrote up with chalk on several of the dead walls in the town, D.—n Priestley.
Among others who had entered into the controversy, the Rev. Edward Burn, of St. Mary's Chapel, Birmingham, in 1790, published his letters to Dr. Priestley, “On the Infallibility of the Apostolic Testimony concerning the Person of Christ.” To these letters the Doctor wrote an answer, in which he plainly avows himself a decided Unitarian, and at the same
time vindicates himself from every imputation of malevolence against the established Church.
“If liberality of sentiment” says he in his preface, “be the result of general and various acquaintance, few men now living have had a better opportunity of acquiring it than myself. This has arisen from the great variety of my pursuits, which has naturally brought me acquainted with persons of all principles and characters. One day I remember I dined in company with an eminent popish priest; the evening I spent with philosophers, determined unbelievers; the next morning I breakfasted at his own request, with a most zealously orthodox clergyman, Mr. Toplady, and the rest of that day I spent with Dr. Jebb, Mr. Lindsey, and some others, men in all respects after my own heart. I have since enriched my acquaintance with that of some very intelligent Jews; and my opponents, who consider me already as half a Mahometan, will not suppose that I can have any objection to the society of persons of that religion.”
The 14th of July 1791, will long be remembered by the Inhabitants of Birmingham with horror. It would be improper, even at this remote period, to dwell upon the cause or the effects of the riots, but a short account cannot, be considered uninteresting.
Dr. Priestley from the commencement of his residence at Birmingham, had undoubtedly turned his attention too much from the luminous field of philosophic disquisition, to the sterile regions of polemic divinity, and the still more thorny paths of polemic politics. His tracts on these subjects amounted to upwards of thirty, and from his celebrity they had a very general circulation. As a philosopher he clearly saw defects in the most perfect of human institutions, and expressed himself with a boldness and freedom which alarmed the neighbouring clergy of the established church, and excited their resentment. The labouring classes in Birmingham certainly looked upon him as a disaffected and dangerous man. Incapable of deep reflection themselves, they abhorred his Unitarian principles as subversive of Christianity, and the idea that the Church was in danger was propagated among them by men of deeper discernment, who wished to render Dr. Priestley odious and unpopular. A very considerable number, however, of the more enlightened inhabitants, who were convinced of the Doctor's integrity
as a man, sincerity as a preacher, and superlative merit as a philosopher, were his strenuous advocates and admirers.
The collision of parties became every day more violent, and the events which were daily transacting in France kept alive the jealousy arising from uncongenial opinions.
At the commencement of the French Revolution it was considered as the most felicitous event which had occurred in the history of man, and the people of Great Britain and Ireland, ever attached to liberty, rejoiced in the emancipation of such a number of the human species.
The anniversary of the French Revolution was celebrated in several cities and towns of England, on the 14th of July, 1791, without the smallest interruption; but in Birmingham the commemoration of that event was attended with the most calamitous consequences.
A few copies of a seditious handbill which had been left early in the week in a public house, by some person unknown, and which had been copied and circulated throughout Bir