16. With God, Is Priestley Safe? 1789-1802

The storming of the Bastille in July 1789 was celebrated by the English literati with more than a hint of envy. William Blake wrote: “The fire is falling! Look up! Look up! O citizens of London, enlarge thy countenance.”

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote: “No fetter vile the mud shall show, and eloquence shall fearless know.” William Wordsworth supported with his feet and went to Paris. It was a reaction that wasn’t shared by very many and when Joseph Priestley preached support for the progress across the Channel, the Birmingham mob burnt down his house, forcing him to go on the run. But most English men and women had hardly realized there had been a revolution going on just across the English Channel.th-1

Priestley was one who thought deeply about life’s meaning and its process. He had been taught his chemistry in the English provinces during the 1750s when some of the spirits of alchemy were still around yet the Enlightenment spread far enough to have reached the school where he taught and preached. Caught with his allegiances astride these different paradigms, Priestley settled his reputation on the strength of science in general and experimentation in particular, for this could purify God’s ingredients for a better synthesis of reality. He held that his chemistry laboratory produced results with God’s blessing. This was in contrast to Lavoisier’s different view from across the English Channel that scientific experiments just revealed another dimension of nature, from a deeper level for sure, but just adding detail, not a new and different kind of world.

Priestley had uncovered a very different level of knowledge from anything that had been experienced before. One of his experiments measured how long a candle stayed alight inside a bell jar. When he put a mouse inside the same closed system, the flame lasted less time, but with a plant instead the flame burnt longer. The respiring mouse took up more oxygen leaving less for the flame while the green leaves of the plant photosynthesized to produce more oxygen. Within his lifetime Priestley had come a long way, from his teachers’ alchemy which had failed to make any precious elements, to the first outline of cellular biochemistry.

Priestley went away to live the rest of his life in North America to escape the uncertainty in England, where the rigours of the State and the control of the Church were making things so intolerable for him. In England he felt that the monarchy and its hereditary succession prevented him and others from extending the human mission, begun by studying the bible and now being extended by scientific experimentation. It meant that he was fighting the English, where many people questioned the existence of God and others the value of science. The French had been freed of those constraints and they could use science freely. So for Priestley, if this were not the case in England, then he would try America: at least they wouldn’t burn his house down.

Another to envy the French was Coleridge, who like Priestley, had found inspiration from Erasmus Darwin.

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Coleridge and Wordsworth published Lyrical Ballads in 1798, just after the political trouble with Zoonomia from which Darwin never really recovered his earlier reputation. Lyrical Ballads contains some powerful poems including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written with a rhythm and story-telling style so familiar in Erasmus Darwin’s poems that it could have been his work. But this 1798 collection marked a new age, the start of the Romantic movement, with shorter and more natural writing. It was to leave precise narrative to the scientists so the poets could get on with what they felt inside themselves. Darwin’s poetry was very eighteenth century, over-formal and very well- mannered. Indeed, from then on Erasmus Darwin really was left behind by Wordsworth and the other romantic poets. His work came from his head while theirs came from their hearts: science and the arts were moving away from one another.

In 1801 the poet Robert Southey wrote to Coleridge saying that: “experimental philosophy always deadens the feelings; and these men who botanise upon their mothers’ graves may retort and say that cherished feelings deaden our usefulness.”


Southey was convinced that science and art were different ways to approach life and attracted different sensibilities, different personalities.

The common response to this was celebrated the following year by Sir Humphrey Davy, whose lectures at the Royal Institution had gained an unsurpassed notoriety.

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The lectures guided Coleridge and Wordsworth to where poetry and art were leading. They were all looking at a scientific revolution effecting the “impressions which we habitually receive” and setting a new level of perception and understanding to life. It was not only thoughts that Coleridge enjoyed sharing for some have suggested that he found Banks, still President of the Royal Society, to be “a reliable source of new exotic and experimental drugs such as Indian hemp, ‘Bang’ and cannabis.”

As a foreword to the third version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Coleridge quoted the brave Cambridge revolutionary Thomas Burnet from 1692: “I can easily believe .. the image of a greater and better world; lest the intellect, habituated to the trivia of daily life, may contract itself too much, and wholly sink into trifles. But at the same time we must be vigilant for truth, and maintain proportion, that we may distinguish certain from uncertain, day from night.”

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The impact of the violence in France during the revolution was considerable and there was real fear that it would spread across Europe. For many it was a time to reflect and withdraw from revolutionary thoughts, to leave science to the technocrats with their chemistry and electricity. In England there was even a small religious revival, one of whose reflective thinkers was yet another man from East Anglia. William Paley (1743-1805) was born in Peterborough, studied at Christ’s College Cambridge


and became Archdeacon at cathedrals in Durham, Lincoln and Carlisle. In Natural Theology, published in 1802, Paley used a memorable metaphor: as a watch needed a maker so did life. It explained how, when all the different parts of the watch were put together properly, they achieved much more than when they were separate or put together wrongly. It depended on a designer to orchestrate the parts. Paley then argued that the organs and tissues of a living organism, or even the individual components of an ecosystem, only worked when they were together in an active system.

Paley’s book was a great success and he became a well-known national figure. There was support for his explanation of adaptation by God’s design for it appeared to be an antidote to the extremists, and extremism was not popular in Britain especially just a few years after the French revolution. The English were well-aware that Napoleon was on the rampage. Paley wanted to connect the physical environment of nature to a functional design provided by God, but he, also, had no evidence, let alone suggestions of how experiments were to be performed to obtain any. Instead, all he had were the same old examples of static skeletons and buried bones. He was looking backwards.

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Despite that impasse, the competitive scientists Faraday and Davy, representing the authority of the Royal Society, gave Paley public support, though Davy may have thought differently in private: they both knew the issue was a powerful political tool as well as a philosophical minefield. They were both physical scientists and it was up to the biologists to find the evidence for the origin of plant and animal structures. On the other hand, there were plenty of well-known artists who wanted to make links with science and who had put God, or more importantly the institution of the church, to one side.

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