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dertake a “General History of the Christian Church to the Fall of the Western Empire,” which he published, in 1790, in two octavo volumes, alierward extended to six. He appears to have seized every occasion of writing in defence of Christianity, and, among other things of this character, published a second part of “ Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever,” animadverting on Gibbon's chapters relating to that subject in the “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
This quiet industry and full contentment, in which he hoped to spend the rest of his life, was interrupted by an event, which few could have anticipated, but of which all have heard who have heard of Priestley. Among the unaccountable occurrences which that enlightened country has been compelled to witness, we think England has seen nothing in recent times more unaccountable or more atrocious, than the Birmingham riots. Take them in connexion with the character of the nation and of the man, observe them in their origin, their fury, and their consequences, and they present a singular case of civilized barbarism and outraged Christianity. We have .sought in vain for any thing like palliation in the circumstances that led to them, or any thing like compensation in the events that followed them, so far as the nation or government or church was concerned. True, we are told, it was the work of a mob; and a mob is both lawless and relentless. We are not quite sure that it was the work of a mob, except in the actual commission, which was the smallest part of the evil. It is clear there were ininds and men conniving if not aiding there, such as are not willingly classed with a mob, whatever may be their affinities. And it is as clear, that neither these nor many others evinced afterward the magnanimity, Christianity, or common justice, which are expected always to follow the unlicensed excesses of a mob. We do not mean, that there were not regrets publicly expressed, and the most honorable assurances given. There were many such, as will be seen. But we mean, that much was wanting, even in this respect, which ordinary liberality or humanity ought to have produced. We mean, that there appeared, before and after, a narrow-minded suspicion, a contemptible littleness of prejudice, and a violence of party rancor, which would have disgraced the most intolerant age and the most darkened and degraded country. That the outrage had its origin or its prompiings from those high in place, there can be little doubt. Pries'ley, in one of his letters to Lindsey, says, “It is not doubled by any body that I converse with, that the measure originated with the court itself, and that the design was to intimidate and quiet us, by showing us our absolute dependence on thein.”
As to the spirit in which it was received, there were ministers not only of state but of church, who expressed publicly the satisfaction it gave them. At a dinner of Prebendaries, where the subject was introduced, one of the reverend members declared, that if Priestley were mounted on a pile of his own publications, he would set fire to them and burn their author with them; to which they all responded. Such excess of bigotry and wickedness can only be relieved, if relief it can be called, by the suspicion of a different kind of excess, suggested by the occasion of a public dinner. We are happy to be able to give an opposite instance of highminded catholicism, in a passage from Robert Hall, which will at the same time show, that we have reason for what we have said of clerical acrimony and brutality.
“ To their unenlightened eyes [posterity] it will appear a reproach, that in the 18th century, an age that boasts its science and improvement, the first philosopher in Europe, of a character unblemished, and of manners the most mild and gentle, should be torn from his family, and obliged to fee an outcast and a fugitive from the murderous hands of a frantic rabble ; but when they learn, that there were not wanting teachers of religion who secretly triumphed in these barbarities, they will pause for a moment, and imagine they are reading the history of Goths or of Vandals."
If we have anticipated the order of events in Priestley's history, it may not be useless, as showing facts which alone will enable us to see ihe whole extent and some of the causes of this singular case of modern persecution. We bave supposed it was generally considered as a political movement, having no connexion with peculiar religious views. This wants proof. That a political instrument was made out of it, that political prejudices were summoned to its aid, and that the passions of the populace were addressed and forented under ihe pretext of political objects, is evident. There were charges, indeed, preferred against Priestley, wholly of a political nature. But we find no facts, in his character or lise, to support those charges ; not even enough to make us believe, that those who brought them were sincere in their opposition to bim on this ground. There was certainly very little, hardly any thing, in the subjects or temper of his publications, to make him politically offensive. Few men have written so much on every subject, with so , little on party politics. Of this any one may be satisfied, in a few moments, by looking over the catalogue of his publications. Those of most consequence in this relation, on History and Civil Government, were written several years before the difficulties at Birmingham, and, so far as they touched the English Constitution, were strongly in its favor. Indeed bis letters, after be lest England, show hirn to have been a great friend and admirer of that Constitution ; nor was it without reluctance that he came to prefer so different a form of government as that wbich be found here. In fact there was a popular witticism current in his own country in regard to him, which represented him as a Unitarian in religion, and a Trinitarian in politics, because he adhered 10 King, Lords, and Commons. It was to the ecclesiastical seatures of the government, the church establishment alone, that he was opposed, in common with all Dissenters. Robert Hall says, “ He defended with great ability and success the principles of our dissent, and on this account, if on no other, he is entitled to the gratitude of his brethren.” To the Dissenters he wrote addresses very early, one at the request of Franklin and Fothergill, in regard to the coming rupture with America, which was widely circulated. He addressed a Leiter to Pitt on Toleration, and wrote on the Test and Corporation Acts, and the French Revolution. In favor of that revolution he frankly avowed birnsell, as believing that great good inight result from it to the cause of liberty, civil and religious. It is in relation to France chiefly, if not solely, so far as we can understand, that his political opinions did or could give particular offence. And in this or any relation, it is not probable that his course would have created greater odium, than that of the Dissenters generally, but for his eminence as a philosopher in correspondence with the French philosophers, his independence in avowing and industry in propagating all his opinions, and above all his prominence at the head of the most offensive and troublesome class of Dissenters.
In 1789, two years before the disturbance at Birmingham, the test acts became a frequent and warm subject of discussion with Parliament and the people. On the 5th of November, as was common, Priestley delivered a sermon on the subject, recommending the most peaceable way of pursuing their objects. At the request of seven societies of tbree denominations of Protestant Dissenters in Birmingham, this sermon was published. It immediately called out a bitter invective from Mr. Madan, one of the clergymnen of the town, against the Dissenters generally, and Priestley specially. In reply he wrote “ Familiar Letters to the 10habitants of Birmingham,” which were answered, and other letters written. These Letters were written, as he tells us, “ in an ironical and rather a pleasant manner,
and contained declarations of his continued admiration of the British Constitution. Yet these letters appear to have done much toward bringing on the troubles. Priestley thus speaks of them in bis Memoirs, and gives this brief and easy account of a very serious matter.
“ From these small pieces I was far from expecting any serious consequences. But the Dissenters in general being very obnoxious to the court, and it being imagined, though without any reason, that I had been the chief promoter of the measures which gave them offence, the clergy, not only in Birmingham, but through all England, seemed to make it their business, by writing in the public papers, by preaching, and other methods, to influence the minds of the people against me; and on occasion of the celebration of the anniversary of the French Revolution, on July 14, 1791, by several of my friends, but with which I had little to do, a mob, encouraged by some persons in power, first burned the meeting-house in which I preached, then another meeting-house in the town, and then my dwellinghouse, demolishing my library, apparatus, and, as far as they could, every thing belonging to me. They also burned, or much damaged, the houses of many Dissenters, chiefly my friends, the particulars of which I need not recite, as they will be found in two Appeals, which I published on the subject, written presently after the riots.
“ Being in some personal danger on this occasion, I went to London ; and, so violent was the spirit of party which then prevailed, that I believe I could hardly have been safe in any other place.” — pp. 116 – 118.
The outrage and personal danger, of which Priestley
speaks so mildly, were far greater than we could have believed, before seeing the facts contained in this volume and in his Appeals. The destruction of his furniture and books
as wanton as possible, and apparently not without method and intelligence; his papers being either studiously destroyed, or carefully purloined by those who knew how to use them. A clergyman was accused of baving examined and pocketed the inanuscripts. No fire being found in the house or at hand, attempts were made to obtain it from his large electrical machine before it was demolished, but without success. The books were therefore stolen or scattered, as they could not be burned, and the road for half a mile was said to be strewed with them.
Yet worse, private letters of every description were carried away for amusement, circulated among all classes, not excepting the higher and clerical orders, and were opened, read, and detained by them ; so that for many months, the family had the pleasure of hearing of their letters in such bands. As to personal violence, a young man, mistaken for a son of Priestley, was nearly killed, and Priestley himself obliged to ride four nights, two of them on horseback, and sometimes under an assumed naine, until he reached London ; even there bis friends induced him to wear a dre-s, that disguised birn, and not to venture for some time into the streets.
We may be occupying 100 much room with the particulars of this disgraceful business, but it seems to us not only of interest, but of importance, as throwing light on the character of the times, and the character of Priestley linself, Seldom has any one shown more of the pbilosopher or the Christian. He says very little about it himself, and all he does say is in an uncomplaining and cheersul tone. Nor was he alone in this. His wife, a woman of strong mind and firm spirit, exhibits the same delightful temper.
delightful temper. We cannot resist giving part of a letter, which she wrote to Mrs. Barbauld, just after the riot, showing the way in which they both received it.
"I believe there is something inherent in me, which always makes me swim at the top of affliction, so that I am ready to pop out to the first friendly hand that offers assistance ; otherwise I am surprised at myself that I have borne it so well, and greatly rejoiced that Dr. Priestley has kept up under that, and all the malignity that has attended it. Our property