6 July 2013

Joseph Priestley in Birmingham: Religious Dissent and Political Change

Produced 1790 by William Dent, this charicatured representation of Joseph Priestley depicts him in a barrel with the word FANATICISM written on the side. The group in front ask if there is such a thing as a Devil, to which Priestley replies NO, but behind him is the Devil in flames about to skewer him. Priestley was progressive; he promoted free inquiry in religion, made prominent discoveries in science (he discovered oxygen) and dealt in radical politics including promoting the ideals of the French Revolution which had erupted a year previously. The cartoon is actually quite threatening, with the Devil stating that if Priestley 'had eyes behind [he'd] know better'. Just over a year later Priestley was taught his lesson for talking so candidly, as the rioters of 1791 burnt his home and the meeting house that he preached in to the ground. This was more than just questioning doctrine; Priestley shook the very core of established order. This spirit of questioning remained in Birmingham though, after Priestley abondoned the town following the riots, and it was one of the leading lights in political, and consequently social reform over the next few decades.

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