- Paperback: 480 pages
- Publisher: Penn State University Press; 1 edition (May 8, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0271036257
- ISBN-13: 978-0271036250
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 2 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,479,044 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Enlightened Joseph Priestley: A Study of His Life and Work from 1773 to 1804 1st Edition
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“Robert E. Schofield's last volume of his biography of Priestley devotes detailed chapters both to philosophical doctrines and to the extraordinary controversies they engendered. No author has done a better job at laying out the complexities of a materialism that Priestley saw as compatible with Christianity and of a necessitarianism he thought would rescue Protestantism from the absurdity of Calvinist doctrine. . . . He has written in a masterly way about a subject that is uniquely his own.”
—Margaret C. Jacob, Journal of American History
“Robert Schofield has done this remarkable man proud. Others may write shorter and perhaps more popular biographies of Joseph Priestley, but they will do so in the shadow of this magisterial work.”
—Derek A. Davenport, Bulletin for the History of Chemistry
“Undaunted by the great mass, intellectual range and contextual variety of Joseph Priestley’s work and life, Robert Schofield deserves our lasting gratitude for bringing to bear a scholarly lifetime’s knowledge of his subject in this concluding volume of his intellectual biography.”
—John Christie, Times Higher Education Supplement
“Schofield succeeds brilliantly.”
—Michael F. Conlin, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography
From the Back Cover
Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) is one of the major figures of the English Enlightenment. A contemporary and friend of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, he exceeded even these polymaths in the breadth of his curiosity and learning. Yet no one has attempted an all-inclusive biography of Priestley, probably because he was simply too many persons for anyone easily to comprehend in a single study. Robert Schofield has devoted a lifetime of scholarship to this task. The result is a magisterial book, covering the life and works of Priestley during the critical first forty years of his life. Although Priestley is best known as a chemist, this book is considerably more than a study in the history of science. As any good biographer must, Schofield has thoroughly studied the many activities in which Priestley was engaged. Among them are theology, electricity, chemistry, politics, English grammar, rhetoric, and educational philosophy. Schofield situates Priestley, the provincial dissenter, within the social, political, and intellectual contexts of his day and examines all the works Priestley wrote and published during this period. Schofield singles out the first forty years of Priestley's life because these were the years of preparation and trial during which Priestley qualified for the achievements that were to make him famous. The discovery of oxygen, the defenses of Unitarianism, and the political liberalism that characterize the mature Priestley - all are foreshadowed in the young Priestley. A brief epilogue looks ahead to the next thirty years when Priestley was forced out of England and settled in Pennsylvania, the subject of Schofield's next book. But this volume stands alone as thedefinitive study of the making of Joseph Priestley.
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The first volume, from 1733-1773, covers Priestley's education and early ministries at Needham Market and Nantwich, his extensive work at Warrington Academy, and his ministry at Leeds. If the reader wants to get an overview of Priestley's major accomplishments in chemistry, the second volume would fill that need. But if you want an excellent presentation of why and how Priestley became the person in volume two, this volume is critical. Schofield does a fine job of showing how Priestley became more and more liberal in his theological thinking and why he always tied his early experimentation into his religious beliefs. The first volume shows the pressures and criticisms he lived under while preaching in conservative churches and believing more and more in what eventually became a Unitarian belief system. It was hard to preach to a traditional congregation when one does not believe that Jesus was God and most of the beliefs of traditional Christianity were the result of accretions added by later writers and by the established church! People constantly thought these beliefs made Priestley, if not an outright atheist, then one of several labels that made him a heretic and completely unacceptable as a minister. Yet at the same time Priestley was deeply religious, devoted to helping the people in his congregation, and a superb teacher. In fact, as Schofield shows, teaching was a common thread that runs through Priestley's life, both in the classroom and through his voluminous and constant writing. If you are more interested in the history of religion and especially of Unitarianism, this volume is as essential as the second. There are many major figures in history who made significant contributions to human development that I would not especially be interested in having as a friend but Joseph Priestley was an exception. His courage, intelligence, willingness to listen, and dedication to the good of those he worked with would have made him not just a groundbreaker in religion and science but the kind of person that this writer anyway would have liked to be around.
The second volume, from 1773-1804, covers Priestley's work as a "companion" to Lord Shelburne, his extended ministry at Birmingham, his abbreviated ministry at Clapton/Hackney, and the last ten years of his life in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. In a sense this is a more interesting volume because more important events occur in Priestley's life. He isolates "dephlogisticated air" (what Lavoisier was to call "oxygen") and other gases for the first time, the events that were to give him lasting fame in science. At the same time he gets into extensive arguments with Lavoisier over how to understand chemistry, has his home and church destroyed by rioters in Birmingham, and emigrates to America where, as usual, he tries to start a new college. Priestley continues his written communication, begun in volume one, with Benjamin Franklin and numerous others now well-known to history and ends his life a hero to President Thomas Jefferson. His ideas developed to their full extent and at the same time he becomes more set in his ways. His absolute refusal to accept the "new chemistry" and his lifelong support for "phlogiston" made him a scientific anachronism in his own life. He becomes even more outspoken for his nontraditional religious beliefs and seems to have no fear of what his writings would produce in terms of results. He becomes one of the founders of Unitarianism in the United States. It is hard to imagine a life more fully and creatively lived with such various contributions to human life yet Priestley's contributions have been largely ignored, probably, as Schofield notes, because of the criticism after his death about his conservative science and his liberal religion. Schofield's biography goes a long way toward giving Priestley the credit he is due without at all leaving out his weaknesses.
Two structural factors are important in this biography. The first is that each volume is sectioned off by Priestley's physical location at the time, for example, "Warrington Academy," "Leeds," "Birmingham." Then, under that heading, Schofield has sections on "Theology," "Politics," "Science," etc. and deals with Priestley's writing and work in those areas at that location. The second factor, more important, is the extensive use of Priestley's writings in each volume. Schofield has an important line in the Preface to this second volume that the reader should be aware of. "So far as I have been able to do so, I have consulted and described every published writing of Joseph Priestley and attempted to place every bit of it in its historical context." If I have any criticism of this great biography, it is in the "described" part of that quote. Schofield does exactly what he says and the result, especially in the second volume, is a great deal of repetition about Priestley's ideas. That is inevitable if you are going to describe, even minimally, EVERY published writing. And Priestley wrote a lot. In the Preface to the first volume Schofield says that there are over 150 titles in Priestley's bibliography and, by the end of volume two, I am quite certain that Schofield achieved what he set out to do in terms of description! Schofield often will skip sections that are the outright rewriting of earlier ideas. He also does a good deal of summarizing. Still, the effect of reading Priestley's ideas on religion for the fifth time (or so) can be a little mind-numbing. I did not have that sense in the first volume because it is there that the ideas are first developed. But, despite Schofield's best efforts, given his point in the Preface, it is inevitable that repetition be an issue in the second volume when Priestley spent much time in the last part of his life defending his ideas formulated earlier. However, given this, it is also important to keep in mind another of Schofield's goals. He is writing a biography for those interested in the history of science and religion but he is also establishing a baseline for future work on Priestley. He says, and I agree, that it is time that this man was more fully appreciated and a precise chronological description of his writing will provide the best way to do that. Schofield is a good writer with an excellent style but at times his stated goal of completeness runs up against his high quality writing. The two volumes might have "flowed" better if, as most biographers, Schofield had selected out Priestley's major works in science, religion and philosophy. But he did not - this is complete. The completeness is important because no one after this biography can seriously misquote Priestley again or refuse to see his critical role in the history of chemistry and religious development in the West. Given the dual purpose of a well-written biography and scholarly completeness for future reference, this book in two volumes is a clear success.
For those interested in the history of chemistry, here are some of the major leaps forward in the field. For those interested in the history of religion, here is a reformer who made what we still call "liberal religion" a vital part of our heritage. The fact that Priestley seamlessly combined these two areas is a sign of when he lived - the end of the Enlightenment and the beginning of modern science. These two volumes are a major addition to our intellectual understanding of both Joseph Priestley and the times in which he lived.