"PRIESTLEY AND JEFFERSON SHARED… AN ENTIRE WORLDVIEW, AN UNABASHED APPRECIATION OF MODERNITY": FIRST EDITION OF JOSEPH PRIESTLEY'S FOUR-VOLUME HISTORY OF EARLY OPINIONS CONCERNING JESUS CHRIST, 1786, EXCEEDINGLY RARE UNCUT IN ORIGINAL BOARDS
PRIESTLEY, Joseph. An History of Early Opinions concerning Jesus Christ, Compiled from Original Writers; Proving that the Christian Church Was at First Unitarian. Birmingham: Printed for the Author, By Pearson and Rollason, 1786. Four volumes. Octavo, original half cream paper and original blue-gray paper boards, uncut and largely unopened; pp. 402; 450; 444; 400. Housed together in a custom chemise and clamshell box.
First edition of Priestley's "most widely known work," substantially triggering Britain's 1791 "Church-and-King" riots that set his home ablaze, prompting his exile in America where he was welcomed by Jefferson, who owned a personal copy of this four-volume work and deemed Priestley one of the "few lives precious to mankind," a rare uncut, largely unopened copy in original boards.
Britain's Joseph Priestley, the controversial theologian, philosopher and scientist especially famed for his discovery of oxygen, was also a "laissez-faire theorist in economics… a founder of the modern Unitarian movement" and a vocal supporter of the American Revolution who counted Franklin and Jefferson as close friends (Kramnick, Religion and Radicalism, 507). In History of Early Opinions concerning Jesus Christ, deemed his "most widely known work," Priestley's view of Christ and prayer, and his focus on "a serious and rational investigation of the Scriptures and history," proved so provocative that it sparked a "widespread public perception of him as an enemy to both church and state"—leading to Britain's notorious 1791 "Church-and-King riots" (Haykin, Socinian and Calvinist Compared, 179-87). There, over a period of several days, mobs attacked and set fire to Priestley's "house, his library, laboratory and papers… and his life was saved only because he had fled" (ANB).
When Priestley was forced to leave England for exile in America, his "champion" was Jefferson, who often noted that it was Priestley and his writings that formed his "educational, theological and political attitudes… Through Priestley, Jefferson came to philosophical materialism… and notions of the materiality of the soul… But it was more than just specifics that Priestley and Jefferson shared. It was an entire worldview, an unabashed appreciation of modernity" (Kramnick, 18th Century Science, 2). Jefferson, who had a personal copy of this four-volume edition of History of Early Opinions in his library, declared that Priestley's "antagonists think they have quenched his opinions by sending him to America, just as the pope imagined when he shut up Galileo in prison" (Hayes, Road to Monticello, 463). "Nothing pleased Priestley more during his last ten years in America than Jefferson's election to the presidency in 1800. It marked a personal milestone for Priestley. He wrote, 'I now for the first time in my life… find myself in any degree of favor with the government of the country I which I have lived.'" Yet more than "the discoverer of oxygen or one of Jefferson's 'few lives precious to mankind,' Priestley was the quintessential… reformer-scientist lifting the weight of mystery and tradition from both the universe and the polity" (Kramnick, 18th Century Science, 6, 30). During Jefferson's tenure as president, Priestley died in Pennsylvania in 1804. Vol. I with folding "Biographical Chart" as frontispiece. Volume IV with Account of the Editions of the Ancient Writers Quoted in this Work at rear, and publisher's six-page advertisement. ESTC T36365. Sowerby 1527. Each volume with bookplates of the Howard family, Earls of Suffolk & Berkshire. Spines numbered and titled in early unidentified cursive.
Text fresh with minimal edge-wear, soiling to original boards. An exceptional near-fine copy, uncut and unopened in original boards.