Soda-water, Unitarianism, and Australia

What do soda-water, Unitarianism, and Australia all have in common?

The answer is a delightfully weird man named Joseph Priestly, who had a hand in the beginnings of them all.

I’m interested in Non-Conformist/Dissenting heroes to balance out my Anglican-eye view of Church history – with Joseph Priestly, I reckon I’ve struck solid gold.

The ‘Non-Conformists’ were groups of people, who, for reasons of conscience, could not remain within the Church of England. The Act of Uniformity passed by the British Parliament under King Charles II in 1662 had legislated that all Christian services had to be performed in accordance with the Book of Common Prayer. It also re-established the system of Bishops, and Episcopal ordination that had been abolished by Cromwell and the Puritans.Catalogue of Non-Conformist Sects The result was that around 2000 Non-Conformist clergy were forced to leave the Church. At that time there was no welfare State, and some of these men were well past being able to find other professions. It led to hardship and impoverishment for many godly people.
Furthermore, the Parliament passed a number of other Acts that excluded Non-Conformists from holding public office, from receiving University Degrees from Oxford or Cambridge (the only Universities), from having any form of religious meeting, or from going within 5 miles of their former Churches. The restriction on being able to hold Non-Conformist religious meetings was lifted by the Act of Toleration in 1689, but the other restrictions persisted until 1829.

The long and short of it is this, Joseph Priestly was a very smart kid who grew up bearing a certain weight of religious discrimination. I reckon he would have been like those kids from ‘parent controlled schools’ – weird and socially awkward, but super-smart.

Anyway, Priestly discovered soda-water en route to discovering oxygen. He was a member of the Royal Society and was considered a possibility for the post of scientific officer on board the Endeavour, sailing with Captain Cook to the South Seas. As it turned out he presented soda-water as a light refreshment for Captain Cook, and it went along on the grand Antipodean adventure instead. Priestly thought soda-water might provide a cure for scurvy. Scoffers insist he was wrong but there has been a lot less scurvy since we all started drinking fizzy drinks.

Portrait of Joseph PriestlySome people remember Priestly as the discoverer of Oxygen, I suppose that is a big deal. I can’t help thinking however, that Oxygen was already there, hanging around whether he discovered it or not. Soda-Water, on the other hand, wasn’t, and it is deliciously refreshing.
Unfortunately, Priestly completely failed to see the commercial appeal of soda-water and it was left to Johann Jacob Schweppe to make bucket loads of cash out of the invention.

I suppose I should mention that he supported the founding of the Unitarian Church, turns out he was about as orthodox as a float full of Uniting Church ministers at Mardi Gras (Not Very).

The real reason I like Priestly is his sincere belief that the democratisation of science would have revolutionary implications in politics, ethics, and theology.

“The English hierarchy has reason to tremble even at an air pump or an electrical machine”.

Listen to this podcast from the BBC to find out more.

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