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Risking Unpopular Beliefs – 10/21/2012

There is nothing worth doing – no story worth telling – that does not require some risk of some sort. At the opening of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the titular character, a fellow named Bilbo Baggins, lives a quiet life in a quiet part of the world. Each day begins, unfolds and ends in largely the same way, as Bilbo cleans the same little house, works the same little garden and sees the same little set of neighbors. Things are predictable, familiar, and entirely unremarkable.

Until one day he is visited by a band of strangers about to undertake a dangerous quest and hoping to recruit him to their cause. The offer is bewildering and unexpected, though not unattractive. He is reminded of the romantic stories of his distant ancestor’s journeys and exploits, and feels a pull towards the thrilling and foreign possibility of stepping out beyond his tiny corner of the world. Still, taking that first step into the unknown means leaving home, with its relative comfort and safety, behind. It means risking what he has for something uncertain. Yet, without the decision to take that risk, there would have been no story for Bilbo Baggins at all.

Whatever our ideas or values, we cannot put them into practice, cannot accomplish anything without the courage to risk. To love is to risk losing, to try is to risk failing, to struggle is to risk defeat. Without courage, our other virtues simply gather dust. So today and on several Sundays in the months to come, we will be reflecting on the courage to risk: what it looks like, where it comes from, and what it means to practice it. We’ll also be focusing on examples of courageous people from our own history as Unitarian Universalists. Today, that person is one of our British Unitarian ancestors: a man named Joseph Priestley.

Joseph Priestley was a polymath – a fun little word for someone who is learned and accomplished in many different fields of study at once. In an age in which professions are becoming more and more specialized, and following baseball teams in both the American League and the National League qualifies as “broad expertise”, it can be hard to believe the extensive range of topics that Priestley and others like him explored. He was a man of science, conducting experiments on the creation and behavior of electricity and on air and other gases. He is credited as one of the discoverers of oxygen, and invented the process of carbonation – getting fizzy bubbles into water and other beverages. He was also a scholar of history and grammar, an educator who built schools and wrote text books. He was what might be called today a political pundit, publishing articles on public policy and civic dispute and engaging in live debates with opposing figures. And Priestley was also a minister and theologian, a church founder and denominational organizer.

For Joseph, his many different interests and areas of study were connected to his determination to learn and pursue the truth wherever it took him. He believed that study and the application of reason could provide the best answers to human questions. The value of the scientific method, of which he is a pioneer, may feel at times disputed in our own age, but in Priestley’s it was held in far lower regard. Again and again throughout his life, Priestley published, preached and advocated for the conclusions he reached by applying logic to his studies of the natural world, of history, of law and of the bible. This got him into a lot of trouble.

Probably the peak of that trouble came in 1791, when Joseph Priestley was serving as the minister of a dissenting congregation in the city of Leeds. The city exploded into what came to be known as the Priestley Riots, and for four days homes and churches burned while a marauding mob made violence in the streets. But to understand why that happened, you’ll need a little background.

The idea of the separation of church and state was only in its infancy in the United States then; it had no foothold at all in Great Britain. The Church of England was the established religion of the English state; anyone who worshipped outside of its system or held beliefs contrary to any of its doctrines felt the weight of official repression. Dissenters, as the non-Catholic folks in this category were called, were marked for special taxes, barred from public office and lived with the real threat of criminal penalties for being too successful in spreading their faith. The marginalized congregations of dissenters were mixtures of Baptists, Methodists, Quakers and others. Priestley spent his ministerial career serving these congregations, and his personal theology evolved relatively early in that career to a number of classical Unitarian positions. These included the view that the teacher Jesus, though a uniquely important spiritual figure, was not God; an opposition to Calvinism’s expectation that almost all people were damned from birth; and a belief that the human capacity for reason was a great gift, and should be used to discern the truth in all matters – including the religious.

Priestley’s views were radical for his day – even for the marginalized and heretical congregations he served. And while he wrote about these ideas in pamphlets and books that he published, and preached on them occasionally, he seems to have been quite content to serve as minister among people who did not share his beliefs. The reverse was not always the case however, and so he served a few different communities before eventually helping to found the first explicitly Unitarian congregation in England. Together with other leaders, Priestly began to build the beginnings of a Unitarian denomination in Great Britain, today the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. He was serving one of these congregations in Leeds when the riots broke out.

Joseph Priestley held a catalog of unpopular ideas and beliefs, and his insistence on speaking them aloud and writing them down made him a figure of public scorn in England. He was nicknamed “Gunpowder Joe” to mock his scientific work and point to extreme danger that his heretical beliefs were believed to pose. He was despised for his religious ideas, but also for his political arguments supporting the American and the French revolutions. Political cartoons of the era show him breathing smoke and fire from the pulpit, cavorting with the devil and tossing flaming copies of his pamphlets as though throwing bombs. The vilification by his opponents, including religious and civil leaders, came to a boil in the summer of 1791.

The rioters may have been directed by a local authorities, but they seem to have been triggered, at least in part, by the decision to include some of Priestley’s books in the local public library. These weren’t even his religious texts, but instead some of his books on science and history, which were extremely important works in their fields and were used by students and other scholars for decades after his death. Nonetheless, popular anger over the affront of having a heretic’s books in the public library was enough to whip a drunken, angry mob into action. They burned down or looted four churches, including Priestley’s, and twenty-seven homes, again with Priestley’s destroyed.

He had risked holding unpopular ideas, and had paid dearly for it, but he survived the attack. I am left wondering where he might have turned for comfort in the aftermath of that time. Priestley challenged the idea that the bible was divinely inspired but he still found its words to be profoundly important and meaningful. And if he did turn to scripture for a model of persisting in following beliefs that are unpopular, dangerous and costly, he would have found many to choose from. The tradition holds that Abraham, the first monotheist of his place and time, was the son of a man who carved idols for a living. Responding to the divine as he understood it not only alienated him from family and culture; it even undermined his father’s livelihood. Ruth took her mother-in-law Naomi’s god as her own, forsaking land and culture to join a marginalized religious group in a precarious geopolitical position. Stephen, traditionally considered the first Christian martyr, was stoned for expressing his beliefs.

Priestley did not give up on advocating for his positions, but he did decide, eventually, to move to the newly formed United States, where he could speak his mind and follow his conscience with greater protection under the law. And here is where our story gets sticky in an important way. I’ve spoken before and many of you know about the origins of Unitarianism in the US, how it is rooted here in New England. When Priestley arrived on this side of the Atlantic, the American Unitarians were just beginning to come together as a movement, and they wanted nothing to do with Joseph Priestley. They were still deciding about whether or not to accept the label Unitarian – it was originally leveled as an insult. Priestley wore it proudly. They downplayed their theological differences with the orthodox Christians that they shared towns and congregations with. Priestley was plain about what he stood for, and though he called himself a Christian, most others disagreed. The American Unitarians were the liberal wing of New England Congregationalists, whose congregations in Massachusetts blurred the line between church and state: receiving public funding and enjoying preferential legal protections. Priestley was fleeing the iniquity of state-sponsored religion, and did not hesitate to criticize and challenge it. So our ancestors here in New England largely disavowed Joseph Priestley, as if saying “Whoa, whoa: we might be Unitarian, but we’re not that Unitarian!”

In some sense, Priestley had the last laugh here. He settled in Pennsylvania and helped found congregations there that joined up with the New Englanders when they finally got their act together. His theology would, in some ways, be quite conservative by the standards of our modern congregations, but his ideas are still much closer to where our faith has evolved over the centuries than were his New England contemporaries’. With his belief that the universe could be holy without any need for an immaterial or supernatural level of existence, we can see traces of our present in his past.[i]

Priestley never sought to be labeled a radical, but he expressed his positions and he argued for them, and that appellation fell on him speedily enough. The New England camp were a part of the mainstream establishment when he arrived, and hoped to remain as such. This tension still exists within our movement, as it does to some extent within each human heart: the struggle between wanting to be our own truest, most authentic selves, and wanting to be accepted as a part of the dominant group, with all of the rights and privileges that entails. To choose the truth in our own hearts over what others expect or demand of us may be a danger to our reputations, to our comforts, to our wellbeing or to our very lives. But to do otherwise is destructive to the soul.

Many of our ancestors were turned away, persecuted, expelled or disowned for holding to what they believed, when people in authority preferred a different version of the truth. In fact, many of us here today have had that experience personally. That history and those experiences have led us to build communities on cooperation within difference, rather than relying on enforced sameness. It is an imperative of our faith not only to risk living out what we truly believe, but also welcome and encourage others to do so as well – even when our beliefs are not perfectly matched.

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Practicing both of those requires tremendous risk, and so both require a great deal of courage. Blind confidence will not suffice. We need to know not that we are right – plenty of people in the world are already certain of their own particular outlook – but that if we will not speak for what we love, no one else can be expected to. And so we also listen to the truths that other’s treasure, without worrying that just listening will somehow put our own hearts at risk.



[i] For more and better background on Priestley and these and other stories from his life, please see Motion Towards Perfection: The Achievement of Joseph Priestley, by Schwartz and McEvoy and Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America, by J.D. Bowers.

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