Gunpowder Joe: The Reaction

Image: Cartoon: The Repeal of the Test Act: A Vision, 1790.

From such implacable Tormentors
Fanatics, Hypocrits, Dissenters
Cruel in Power, and restless out
And when most factious,most devout
May God preserve the Church and Throne
And George the good that sits thereon
Nor may their Plots exclude his Heirs
From Reigning, when the right is theirs
For should the foot the head command
And Faction gain the upper hand
We may expect a ruin’d land

Image from: Birmingham City Archives, Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins

It could be argued that Priestley was merely headstrong or naïve and foolhardy. There is no doubt that his opponents seized upon his words and manipulated them but Priestley was not so gullible as some might think. F.W.Gibbs claimed that Priestley was continually prodded by some of his friends to go beyond his self-imposed limits of reason and argument,  but it is highly unlikely that someone so independently-minded as Priestley would allow himself to be unduly influenced by others. Priestley was his own man, even if it lost him friends. Furthermore, it could be argued that Priestley was very well aware of the effect his words would have, especially on the masses. In 1790 his Familiar Letters Addressed to the Inhabitants of Birmingham, Letter III, On the Test and Corporation Acts, Priestley claims that the church would procure a law to banish Dissenters, rather than burn them as had happened in previous centuries.  The emphasis is Priestley’s. Was he in fact foreseeing the next year when his house would be burned and he would be banished from Birmingham, eventually even fleeing to America? It is hard to imagine that someone of his intelligence would not have had some idea of the animosity he would arouse with his ill chosen words. Later in the same letter he hinted that he might decide to flee the country if persecuted.  Again, was this suggestion prophetic? Throughout his Familiar Letters Priestley returns to the theme of gunpowder, unwilling to let the matter die a natural death: “Will the clergy seriously say that they are afraid of my arguments, and as much terrified at them, as they would be at real gunpowder?

Priestley was undoubtedly deeply offended by some of the attacks upon his character. Indeed, it should be remembered that this was not a one sided fight, as Martin Smith has been careful to point out,  but Priestley must shoulder his share of the blame for provocative writing. One of the worst examples of this was addressed to another of his opponents, Rev. Edward Burn: “I call upon you, sir, in the face of this town, and of your country, before whom you have published these accusations of me…To a charge of this serious nature, you must not sir be silent. I demand a distinct and explicit answer

Priestley had thrown down the gauntlet and effectively lit the gunpowder fuse. Did he get more than he expected in July 1791? Perhaps he got exactly what he expected. Was this why he showed so much calmness in the face of adversity?


38 Gibbs, F.W., Joseph Priestley: Adventurer in Science and Champion of Truth (Thomas Nelson, 1965) p185

39 Priestley, Familiar Letters Letter III On Test and Corporation Acts, p15

40  Ibid, p 20

41 Priestley, Familiar Letters Letter VII Of Mr Madan’s Letter to the Author, p11

42 See Smith, op cit, p 11-15 for a fuller description of this pamphlet war

43 Priestley, Joseph, Letters to the Rev. Edward Burn, p 33-4, quoted in Smith, op cit, p15

Gunpowder Joe

Image: Political Portraiture no 3 Political Gunpowder

Image from: Birmingham City Archives, Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins

Priestley first earned the nickname “Gunpowder Joe” in 1787, when an earlier work of his, Reflections on the Present State of Free Inquiry in this Country, was deliberately misquoted and taken out of context. The misquoted phrase, however, was ill advised in the extreme, especially as it was associated with the Gunpowder Plot on November 5th 1605. Priestley had been advised against including it by his great friend and editor, John Towill Rutt,  but showed his usual stubbornness and independence of mind by insisting on its inclusion.

We are, as it were, laying gunpowder, grain by grain, under the old building of error and superstition, which a single spark may hereafter inflame, so as to produce an instantaneous explosion: in consequence of which, that edifice, the erection of which has been the work of ages, may be overturned in a moment, and so effectually that the same foundation can never be built upon again.

One could argue that the analogy could be employed against Priestley because of his numerous, deliberately inflammatory remarks. He seemed to delight in repeating the gunpowder analogy. In a letter to William Pitt, the young Prime Minister, he explained:

The gunpowder we are so assiduously laying grain by grain under the old building of error and superstition, in the highest regions of which they inhabit, is not composed of saltpeter, charcoal and sulphur, but consists of arguments; and if we lay mines with such materials as these, let them countermine in the same way.

Despite his protestations of peaceful intentions and methods, it was too late; the damage had already been done.

35  Clark, op cit, p 154-5

36  Quoted in Ibid

37  Quoted in Ibid

Priestley and the Church of England

Image: St Philip’s Church, Birmingham from the print by William Westley, 1732. Spencer Madan the Rector of the Church, and Priestley engaged in a theological pamphlet war.

Image from: William Hutton, An History of Birmingham (1809 edition). Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library.

Less conscientious Dissenters could get round this thorny problem by occasionally conforming and attending Anglican Communion once a year. However, even this loophole was closed in 1711 when the Occasional Conformity Act was passed showing that resentment against Dissenters was still high. Furthermore, the Corporation Act was even further strengthened in 1673 when the Test Act was passed, requiring holders of all civil and military offices to sign a declaration against transubstantiation, in order to exclude Catholics from all government offices. A second Test Act was passed in 1678 as a result of anti-popery hysteria after the Titus Oates plot.

These two acts stood unrepealed for over a hundred years and were the causes of long standing grievances for both Dissenters and Catholics alike. Priestley believed in complete religious freedom for all and was naturally incensed by them. During the course of his increasingly acrimonious pamphlet dispute with Spencer Madan, Rector of St Philips Church in Birmingham, he set out his reasons for wanting their repeal and accused Madan of misleading the public into believing that the two Acts were necessary for the continuing survival of the Church of England. Priestley maintained that they were only necessary for the financial maintenance of corrupt churchmen.  Is it any wonder that Madan was incensed? Priestley later denied ever campaigning for the repeal of the Acts: “I was not particularly concerned in the conduct of it”.  It would seem that his memory could be extremely selective when it suited him.

Priestley was an extremely skilled writer, using considerable wit and humour to make his point. In the second of his Familiar Letters, he questions where Madan’s principles had come from: “It must be from some very obscure quarter inaccessible to all mankind.”  Unfortunately, such was his wit that it only served to enrage further those who could not match him in sarcasm. The pamphlet war became more and more bitter and protracted on both sides, at times becoming very personal: “When men are treated like dogs, they will snarl at those who hold the whip over them, whether they receive a blow or not”.

There had already been considerable local tension over the struggle for control of the Birmingham Library, which had been very efficiently reorganised by Priestley since 1780. He had, before 1786, opposed the inclusion of any controversial books of any kind, whether written by himself or others. However, in 1786, a group of churchmen effectively took control of the running of the Library and forced a vote to include Priestley’s History of the Corruptions of Christianity. Priestley immediately changed his stance to advocate the inclusion of all controversial writings. This change of heart was immediately manipulated against him to insinuate that he was just trying to force his own books into the Library. Priestley replied with his high-handed Address to the Subscribers of the Birmingham Library, which John Money has called “ a prime example of his combative righteousness which his adversaries must have found so galling” .

29 Coffey, op cit, p 178

30 See Priestley, Familiar Letters III On Test and Corporation Acts

31 Quoted in Clark, op cit, p152

32 Priestley, Familiar Letters II, p10

33 Priestley, Familiar Letters II On Test and Corporation Acts, p 5

34 Money, John, Experience and Identity: Birmingham and the West Midlands 1760-1800 (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1977) p 127

Priestley and the Church of England

Image: Bishop Samuel Horsley, one of Priestley’s main Anglican opponents.

Image from: Birmingham City Archives, Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins.

In his religious views Priestley attracted most opposition and almost hatred from the Established Church, the Church of England. Some of his most vociferous opponents were churchmen. William Hutton even cynically claimed that they could make their names from attacking Priestley. “To dispute with the doctor was deemed the road to preferment. He had already made two bishops, and there were still several heads, which wanted mitres, and others who cast a more humble eye upon tithes and glebe lands.20Hutton had a point; Priestley was following in the footsteps of the 17th Quakers by threatening the livelihoods of Anglican churchmen. Paul Langford called Priestley the high priest of rational dissent21, which, as Roy Porter has explained, was the natural conclusion of “the searchlight of reason and standard of debate”22. Despite the illusion of religious toleration, after the misnamed Toleration Act of 1689, the provisions of the Test and Corporation Acts forced Dissenters into becoming outsiders. Priestley, as always, took this belief of rational dissent to its most logical conclusion. He became a full-blown Socinian, later known as Unitarian, denying the divinity of Jesus Christ and viewing the worship of Christ as idolatrous. It was no wonder that he attracted so much opposition from churchmen.
For over a hundred years, religious tensions had been simmering between Anglicans and Dissenters, despite the 1689 Toleration Act. In fact, the term toleration was something of a misnomer. The preamble to the Act states that it was an act for ”some ease to scrupulous consciences in the exercise of religion”23. The emphasis should be on the word some. The Act repealed neither the Act of Uniformity nor the Clarendon Code and merely exempted Dissenters from any of their penalties. During the passage of the Bill through the Commons, one Whig was heard to remark dryly, that “the Committee, though they were for Indulgence, were for no Toleration.”24 Furthermore, the aforementioned exemptions were only granted to Trinitarian Dissenters, explicitly excluding anti-Trinitarians (Socinians or Unitarians), Roman Catholics, Jews and even atheists.
Unitarians had even more cause for grievance after the 1698 Blasphemy Act was passed. This was specifically directed against any who denied the Trinity and a second offence could even result in three years imprisonment.25 As a result of this, it could be argued that the Unitarians gradually replaced the Quakers as the Dissenting whipping boys of the established Church during the course of the eighteenth century.
The Quakers had slowly lost their reputation for religious fervour over the course of the eighteenth century and had acquired a reputation for passiveness. They concentrated their attention on the removal of the burden of paying tithes by pressurising successive governments throughout the century by the highly organised compilation of the Great Books of Sufferings.26 For the Unitarians, however, any grievances were made even harder to bear when they were refused access to civil and military offices, and therefore any real political influence, under the Test and Corporation Acts. It was their agitation for the repeal of these acts, which would result in national and local tensions in Birmingham immediately prior to the 1791 Riots.
Although always mentioned together when discussing the dissenters’ grievances, the Test and Corporation Acts were actually slightly different. Together, they presented formidable obstacles to eighteenth century Dissenters taking their places in society and ever fulfilling their full potential. The Corporation Act of 1661 required all holders of municipal offices to take the Oath of Allegiance and Supremacy, abjure the Solemn League and Covenant and finally to take communion in the Church of England. The last requirement effectively excluded all conscientious Dissenters from holding civil office. In practice, the effects of this could prove much worse as it was still possible for Dissenters to be elected to office by Anglican colleagues, whether in spite or not, and then to be fined for failing to serve.27 The first Sampson Lloyd had had this very problem in 1696-7, when he was pricked High Sheriff for the county of Herefordshire. He turned for help to his brother-in-law Ambrose Crowley junior, who was at the height of his wealth from his iron trade in London and had acquired some influence as a member of the Court of Common Council of the City of London. It was only through a lot of hard work that he was able to get Sampson discharged from the duty.28

20 Jewitt ed., The Life of William Hutton quoted in Smith, p12
21 Langford, Paul, The Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford) p 99
22 Porter, Roy, Flesh in the Age of Reason (Allen Lane, 2003) p 363-4
23 Coffey, op cit, p 199
24 Ibid
25 Coffey, op cit, p 200
26 For details of religious tensions against the Quakers in seventeenth-century Birmingham, see Hill, Gay, Religious Rivalries (Unpublished MA thesis, University of Birmingham, 2003).
27 Coffey, op cit, p 168
28 Lloyd, Humphrey, The Quaker Lloyds in the Industrial Revolution (Hutchinson, 1975) p 71-2

Priestley and John Wesley

Image: Portrait of John Wesley struck off by electricity by Joseph Priestley

Image from: Birmingham City Archives, Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins.

In stark contrast to his firm beliefs in strict social discipline, Priestley was a strong believer in complete freedom of worship. This was extended to its logical conclusion, including Roman Catholics and even non-Christians. He was one of the few non-conformist supporters of the Catholic Relief Act of 1791, which introduced formal toleration of Catholic worship and schools.16 While these views found favour with Roman Catholics, who probably mistrusted Priestley’s motives, they were anathema to many of his fellow Dissenters.
One fellow Dissenter who disliked and mistrusted Priestley was John Wesley. He declared Priestley “one of the most dangerous enemies of Christianity”17. Possibly Wesley saw Priestley as a threat to his particular brand of enthusiastic Christianity, Methodism, which appealed more to the lower classes. There was even a popular Methodist hymn lampooning Priestley: “Stretch out thy hands, thou Triune God:/ The Unitarian fiend expel/ And chase his doctrine back to hell.”18 Wesley need not have worried. The feelings were entirely mutual. Priestley disliked all forms of enthusiasm in religion, and was unlikely to want to appeal to the lower classes in this way. He retaliated in his anonymous tract, Appeal to the Professors of Christianity.19

16 Coffey, John, Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England 1558-1689 (Longman, 2000) p205; Porter, Enlightenment, p 412
17 Porter, Enlightenment, p 409
18 Quoted in ibid
19 Ibid

Priestley, Subversion and 1791

Image: James Watt, one of the Priestley’s colleagues in the Lunar Society. Priestley tried to persuade Watt to join the Warwickshire Constitutional Society in 1791. Image from Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library.

After the 1791 riots, Priestley was quick to proclaim his innocence. He wrote: “the only sufferers were that very description of men against whom the popular resentment had been excited several years before, viz. the Unitarian Dissenters in general, and myself in particular, whether we were at the dinner, or concerned in promoting it, or not… Of the principal sufferers…only three were at the dinner, and their houses were the last that were destroyed.” 7
Immediately before leaving for America in 1794 Priestley referred to: “the great odium that I have incurred; the charge of sedition, or of my being an enemy of the constitution or peace of my country” 8

As Martin Smith quite rightly points out, although Priestley could indeed claim that he had only been defending himself against his detractors, it should be remembered that he had many axes to grind.9
Priestley denied all interest in what could be termed high politics, that is, party politics10, but was more interested in what he called freedom. He distinguished between two different kinds of liberty, civil and political, in his “Essays on the First Principles of Government”11
. In 1793, he wrote to the Morning Chronicle: “I am not, nor ever was, a member of any political society whatever, nor did I ever sign any paper originating with any of them.”
Taken at face value, this denial appears to be unequivocal, however, he apparently pressurised both Matthew Boulton and James Watt, fellow members of the Lunar Society, to join him as members of the Warwickshire Constitutional Society only two weeks before the riots of 179112
. Although, strictly speaking, this denial was true, as no agreement was actually signed, it would appear that he was being deliberately economical with the truth.
Political tensions in England were much greater after the French Revolution started in 1789. Many within the English Establishment saw the revolution as a dangerous precedent and were particularly uneasy, because of the comparisons that could be drawn with the execution of Charles I in the seventeenth century. Many Dissenters, including Priestley, applauded events in France, not necessarily because they hoped for the overthrow of the monarchy in England. Much of Priestley’s pamphlet war with Spencer Madan in 1790 was taken up with Priestley’s protestations, on behalf of Presbyterians in general, of their loyalty to the present system, while at the same time pressing for both political and religious reforms.13

It is curious that Priestley’s belief in civil liberty did not extend to his opinions on poor law relief, of which he was a stern opponent, nor to his belief in stern social discipline. He was a strong believer in capital punishment, solitary confinement and meagre diets as part of vigorous punishment for criminals14
. Again, these opinions naturally attracted the opposition and even hatred of the poorer classes, once they had been made aware of Priestley’s views. The pamphlets aimed against Priestley and attributed to one John Nott, although there is no proof that Nott actually existed, were quite clearly written to appeal to the artisan classes, who were unlikely to have ever read Priestley’s writings or heard any of his sermons: “If you ben’t melancholy mad, as I guess you to be, what makes you rave so much about gunpowder…Why you’d be frightened out of your senses”15

7Quoted in Clark, op cit, p 15
8Ibid, p 24
9Smith, Martin, Conflict and Society in late 18th century Birmingham Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, 1977), deposited in Birmingham Reference Library) Appendix I pi
10 Porter, Roy, Enlightenment (Allen Lane, Penguin, 2000) p 412
11 Ibid
12 Robinson, Eric, New Light on the Priestley Riots (Historical Journal, Vol III, 1960) p 73-75
13See Priestley, Familiar Letters
14 Porter, Enlightenment, p 374-5, 413
15 Smith, p 17.There is a full list of these tracts in his bibliography


Image: Portrait of Joseph Priestley.

Image from: Birmingham City Archives, Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins

Joseph Priestley’s importance as a scientist, theologian, philosopher and political theorist has long been recognised. John Ruskin Clark called him a “comet in the system” 1 but a meteor might be a more apt description, a brilliant or dazzling shooting star, which was destined to be short-lived. In Priestley’s case this was bound to happen, given the opposition and even resentment that his natural brilliance attracted. Furthermore, Priestley was no stranger to controversy and indeed, it could even be argued that he courted and relished controversy, despite his protestations of innocence: “Besides, my controversial writings bear but a small proportion to the rest of my publications.” 2

Priestley was undoubtedly loved by many of his contemporaries as well as hated by his opponents. We have many surviving contemporary opinions of him but most of these were from fellow Unitarians or other dissenters. Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, daughter of the Birmingham Quaker, Samuel Galton, and fellow Lunar Society member, described him as: “A man of admirable simplicity, gentleness and kindness of heart, united with great acuteness of intellect…and utterly far as I am removed from a belief in the sufficiency of Dr Priestley’s theological creed, I cannot but here record this evidence of the eternal power of any portion of the truth held in its vitality.” 3

Catherine Hutton, daughter of William Hutton who was a fellow sufferer in the 1791 Riots, was a devoted member of Priestley’s congregation. She described him as “fervent, though not intemperate”.4 Possibly her love and sympathy for him coloured her opinion. Even the greatest of Priestley’s admirers could hardly describe his religious and political views as not intemperate. A more balanced view of Priestley came from Catherine’s father, who, although having good reason to resent Priestley for being the cause of the riots in which he also suffered greatly, concluded: “However just might have been Dr Priestley’s sentiments, yet had he not had promulgated them on one side, and party violence opposed them on the other, perhaps the peace of my life had never been wrecked in the terrible tempest of ninety-one.”5 Even Catherine later agreed with her father that Priestley was not such an innocent victim of the riots.6

1Clark, John Ruskin, Joseph Priestley: a comet in the system(Torch Publications, USA, 1990)
2 Priestley, Joseph, Familiar Letter addressed to the Inhabitants of Birmingham Letter XI Of Controversy (Thompson, Birmingham, 1790) p 26
3 Quoted in Macmillan’s Magazine 1874: Collected Essays III Joseph Priestley(, endnote 4
4 Catherine Hutton’s Letters, Birmingham Reference Library (afterwards BRL) 66997, p 24
5 Quoted in Clark, op cit, p 19
6 Ibid, p 20

Gunpowder Joe: Priestley’s Religious Radicalism

Image: Cartoon: The Friends of the People, showing Joseph Priestley on the left

Image from: Birmingham City Archives, Priestley Collection by Samuel Timmins

Text: Gay Hill


This article was originally presented in a public day school, “Joseph Priestley and Birmingham” organised by the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of Birmingham on Saturday 28 February 2004. Gay Hill explores Priestley’s involvement in campaigns for religious and political reform in late eighteenth-century England.