The letters of Joseph Priestley to Theophilus Lindsey written between 1769 and 1794 offer a valuable insight into Priestley’s life and work and shed much light on the development of rational dissent during the second half of the eighteenth century. During the period covered by the letters Priestley worked as a dissenting minister at Leeds, a librarian to the Earl of Shelburne at Calne, and a minister and leading advocate of the Unitarian movement at Birmingham. Lindsey seceded from the Established Church and founded the first Unitarian chapel at Essex Street in London. The letters contain a mass of information on the composition, printing and distribution of Priestley’s works in church history, theology, and politics, and describe in detail the controversies he engaged in with major political and ecclesiastical figures, including Edmund Burke, Samuel Horsley and William Blackstone. The letters are set against the turbulent political climate of the years leading up to the French Revolution, and contain a record of the increasing hostility towards political radicals in England resulting in the Birmingham riots of 1791 and Priestley’s eventual decision to emigrate to America.
Most of the letters in this collection were originally printed in John Towill Rutt’s nineteenth-century edition of The Theological and Miscellaneous Works of Joseph Priestley (1817-32). However Rutt’s edition of the letters was incomplete, and those that were published were often heavily edited. This collection is thus the first full transcription of Priestley’s letters of the period. It contains all of Priestley’s 115 letters to Lindsey that are known to have survived from the years 1769 to 1794, including six complete letters not available in print and over 15,000 words of text omitted from Rutt’s edition.
For further biographical information on Priestley see Robert E. Schofield, ‘Priestley, Joseph (1733–1804)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn. and Simon Mills, ‘Joseph Priestley’, The Literary Encyclopedia.
For more information on the sections of Priestley’s letters omitted from J. T. Rutt’s edition see Simon Mills, ‘Aspects of a Polymath: Unveiling J. T. Rutt’s Edition of Joseph Priestley’s Letters to Theophilus Lindsey’, Enlightenment and Dissent, 24 (2008), 24-53.
For biographical information on Lindsey see Albert Nicholson, ‘Lindsey, Theophilus (1723–1808)’, rev. G. M. Ditchfield, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn.
Theophilus Lindsey’s letters from the period 1747 to 1788 are available in G. M. Ditchfield ed., The Letters of Theophilus Lindsey, Volume I: 1747-1788 (Boydell Press, 2007).
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