There is a new book out on Joseph Priestley -- The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson. See the New York Times review of it here, the LA Times' here, and the New York Post's here.
Some of the reviews have noted Priestley's close association with Jefferson and Franklin. However, Adams regarded him as something of a mentor as well (though they had a falling out because of Priestley's support of Jefferson over Adams and for the French Revolution which Adams opposed). What's also interesting is though he holds Priestley in the highest regard, Adams isn't afraid to criticize him. He's clearly obsessed with Priestley's theories and agrees with him on the central principles of unitarianism. But Adams often thinks he can "out do" Priestley as a theologian.
Such confidence (some might say arrogance) in theological matters itself attests to Priestley's influence. One of Priestley's central tenets was that the Bible is only partially inspired, that man's reason can determine which parts of the Bible are valid. And, intuitively, Jefferson, Adams, Priestley and company all disagreed over which parts of the Bible were valid, which weren't.
And in doing some research for this post I just found that Liberty Fund has reproduced much (but not all) of John Adams' correspondence. Stuff I had to type from my books I can now copy paste and link. Some highlights follow. Before we get to the Liberty Fund letters, there is one they didn't reproduce (as of this moment) that is on googlebooks, to Thomas Jefferson, Dec. 3, 1813, that I am going to highlight:
Oh! that Priestley could live again, and have leisure and means! An inquirer after truth, who had neither time nor means, might request him to search and re-search for answers to a few questions.
1. Have we more than two witnesses of the life of Jesus— Matthew and John?
2. Have we one witness to the existence of Matthew's gospel in the first century?
3. Have we one witness of the existence of John's gospel in the first century?
4. Have we one witness of the existence of Mark's gospel in the first century?
5. Have we one witness of the existence of Luke's gospel in the first century?
6. Have we any witness of the existence of St. Thomas' gospel, that is the gospel of the infancy in the first century?
7. Have we any evidence of the existence of the Acts of the Apostles in the first century?
8. Have we any evidence of the existence of the supplement to the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, or Paul and Tecle, in the first century?
Here I was interrupted by a new book, Chateaubriand's Travels in Greece, Palestine and Egypt, and by a lung fever with which the amiable companion of my life has been violently and dangerously attacked.
December 13th. I have fifty more questions to put to Priestley, but must adjourn them to a future opportunity.
Now to the Liberty Fund material. To Thomas Jefferson, 4 October, 1813:
θεμις was the goddess of honesty, justice, decency, and right; the wife of Jove, another name for Juno. She presided over all oracles, deliberations, and councils. She commanded all mortals to pray to Jupiter for all lawful benefits and blessings. Now, is not this (so far forth) the essence of Christian devotion? Is not this Christian piety? Is it not an acknowledgment of the existence of a Supreme Being, of his universal Providence, of a righteous administration of the government of the universe? And what can Jews, Christians, or Mahometans do more? Priestley, the heroic Priestley, would not have dared to answer or to ask these questions, though he might have answered them consistently enough with the spirit of his system. I regret, that Grotius has not translated this hymn, and cannot account for his omission of it. Duport translates the above line only by,—
Moses says, Genesis i. 27: “God created man in his own image.” What, then, is the difference between Cleanthes and Moses? Are not the being and attributes of the Supreme Being, the resemblance, the image, the shadow of God in the intelligence and moral qualities of man, and the lawfulness and duty of prayer, as clearly asserted by Cleanthes as by Moses? And did not the Chaldeans, the Egyptians, the Persians, the Indians, the Chinese, believe all this, as well as the Jews and Greeks?
Alexander appears to have behaved to the Jews as Napoleon did to the Mahometans in the pyramid of Grand Cairo. Ptolemy, the greatest of his generals, and a greater man than himself, was so impressed with what he learned in Judea, that he employed seventy learned men to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, nearly three hundred years before Christ. He sent learned men to collect books from all nations, and deposited them in the Alexandrian library. Will any man make me believe that Cæsar, that Pompey, that Cicero, that Seneca, that Tacitus, that Dionysius Halicarnassensis, that Plutarch, had never seen or heard of the Septuagint? Why might not Cleanthes have seen the Septuagint? The curiosity of Pompey to see the interior of the temple shows that the system of the Jews was become an object of speculation. It is impossible to believe that the Septuagint was unknown and unheard of by Greeks or Romans at that time, at least by the great generals, orators, historians, philosophers, and statesmen, who looked through the then known world for information of every thing. On the other hand, how do we know how much Moses, Samuel, Joshua, David, Solomon, and Esdras, Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah learned in Babylon, Egypt, and Persia? The destruction of the library at Alexandria is all the answer we can obtain to these questions. I believe that Jews, Grecians, Romans, and Christians all conspired or connived at that savage catastrophe. I believe Cleanthes to be as good a Christian as Priestley.
To Thomas Jefferson 17 July, 1813:
Now, I see not but you are as good a Christian as Priestley and Lindsey. Piety and morality were the end and object of the Christian system, according to them and according to you. They believed in the resurrection of Jesus, in his miracles and inspirations. But what inspirations? Not all that is recorded in the New Testament or the Old. They have not yet told us how much they believe or disbelieve. They have not told us how much allegory, how much parable they find, nor how they explained them all in the New Testament or Old.
To Thomas Jefferson, 18 July, 1813:
What does Priestley mean by an unbeliever, when he applies it to you? How much did he unbelieve himself? Gibbon had him right when he denominated his creed “scanty.” We are to understand, no doubt, that he believed the resurrection of Jesus, some of his miracles, his inspiration; but in what degree? He did not believe in the inspiration of the writings that contain his history. Yet he believed in the Apocalyptic beast, and he believed as much as he pleased in the writings of Daniel and John. This great and extraordinary man, whom I sincerely loved, esteemed, and respected, was really a phenomenon; a comet in the system, like Voltaire, Bolingbroke, and Hume. Had Bolingbroke or Voltaire taken him in hand, what would they have made of him and his creed?
To Thomas Jefferson 25 December, 1813:
I return to Priestley, though I have great complaints against him for personal injuries and persecution, at the same time that I forgive it all, and hope and pray that he may be pardoned for it all above. Dr. Brocklesby, an intimate friend and convivial companion of Johnson, told me, that Johnson died in agonies of horror of annihilation; and all the accounts we have of his death corroborate this account of Brocklesby. Dread of annihilation! Dread of nothing! A dread of nothing, I should think, would be no dread at all. Can there be any real, substantial, rational fear of nothing? Were you on your deathbed, and in your last moments informed by demonstration or revelation that you would cease to think and to feel at your dissolution, should you be terrified? You might be ashamed of yourself for having lived so long, to bear the proud man’s contumely; you might be ashamed of your Maker, and compare Him to a little girl amusing herself, her brothers, and sisters by blowing bubbles in soapsuds; you might compare Him to boys, sporting with crackers and rockets, or to men employed in making more artificial fireworks, or to men and women at fairs and operas, or Sadler’s Wells exploits; or to politicians, in their intrigues; or to heroes, in their butcheries; or to Popes, in their devilisms. But what should you fear? Nothing. Emori nolo; sed me mortuum esse nihil æstimo.
To return to Priestley—you could make a more luminous book than his upon the “Doctrines of Heathen Philosophers, compared with those of Revelation.” Why has he not given us a more satisfactory account of the Pythagorean philosophy and theology? He barely names Ocellus, who lived long before Plato. His treatise of kings and monarchy has been destroyed, I conjecture, by Platonic philosophers, Platonic Jews or Christians, or by fraudulent republicans or despots. His treatise of the universe has been preserved. He labors to prove the eternity of the world. The Marquis D’Argens translated it in all its noble simplicity. The Abbé Batteux has given another translation. D’Argens not only explains the text, but sheds more light upon the ancient systems. His remarks are so many treatises, which develop the concatenation of ancient opinions. The most essential ideas of the theology, of the physics, and of the morality of the ancients are clearly explained, and their different doctrines compared with one another, and with the modern discoveries. I wish I owned this book, and one hundred thousand more that I want every day, now when I am almost incapable of making any use of them. No doubt, he informs us that Pythagoras was a great traveller.
Priestley barely mentions Timæus; but it does not appear that he had read him. Why has he not given us an account of him and his book? He was before Plato, and gave him the idea of his Timæus, and much more of his philosophy. After his master, he maintained the existence of matter; that matter was capable of receiving all sorts of forms; that a moving power agitates all the parts of it, and that an intelligence directed the moving power; that this intelligence produced a regular and harmonious world. The intelligence had seen a plan, an idea (logos), in conformity to which it wrought, and without which it would not have known what it was about, nor what it wanted to do. This plan was the idea, image, or model, which had represented to the Supreme Intelligence the world before it existed, which had directed it in its action upon the moving power, and which it contemplated in forming the elements, the bodies, and the world. This model was distinguished from the intelligence which produced the world, as the architect is from his plans. He divided the productive cause of the world into a spirit, which directed the moving force, and into an image, which determined it in the choice of the directions which it gave to the moving force, and the forms which it gave to matter.
I wonder that Priestley has overlooked this, because it is the same philosophy with Plato’s, and would have shown that the Pythagorean, as well as the Platonic philosophers, probably concurred in the fabrication of the Christian Trinity. Priestley mentions the name of Archytas, but does not appear to have read him, though he was a successor of Pythagoras, and a great mathematician, a great statesman, and a great general. John Gram, a learned and honorable Dane, has given a handsome edition of his works, with a Latin translation, and an ample account of his life and writings. Zaleucus, the legislator of Locris, and Charondas of Sybaris, were disciples of Pythagoras, and both celebrated to immortality for the wisdom of their laws, five hundred years before Christ. Why are those laws lost? I say, the spirit of party has destroyed them; civil, political, and ecclesiastical bigotry. Despotical, monarchical, aristocratical, and democratical fury, have all been employed in this work of destruction of every thing that could give us true light, and a clear insight of antiquity. For every one of these parties, when possessed of power, or when they have been undermost, and struggling to get uppermost, has been equally prone to every species of fraud and violence and usurpation. Why has not Priestley mentioned these legislators? The preamble to the laws of Zaleucus, which is all that remains, is as orthodox Christian theology as Priestley’s, and Christian benevolence and forgiveness of injuries almost as clearly expressed.
To Thomas Jefferson, 4 March, 1814:
You will perceive, by these figures, that I have been looking into Oriental history and Hindoo religion. I have read voyages and travels, and every thing I could collect. Not the least is Priestley’s “Comparison of the Institutions of Moses with those of the Hindoos and other Ancient Nations,” a work of great labor, and not less haste. I thank him for the labor, and forgive, though I lament, the hurry. You would be fatigued to read, and I, just recruiting a little from a longer confinement and indisposition than I have had for thirty years, have not strength to write many observations. But I have been disappointed in the principal points of my curiosity.
I am disappointed,—
1. By finding that no just comparison can be made, because the original Shasta and the original Vedas are not obtained, or, if obtained, not yet.
2. In not finding such morsels of the sacred books as have been translated and published, which are more honorable to the original Hindoo religion than any thing he has quoted.
3. In the history of the rebellion of innumerable hosts of angels in heaven against the Supreme Being, who, after some thousands of years of war, conquered them, and hurled them down to the region of total darkness, where they suffered a part of the punishment of their crime, and then were mercifully released from prison, permitted to ascend to earth, and migrate into all sorts of animals, reptiles, birds, beasts, and men, according to their rank and character, and even into vegetables and minerals, there to serve on probation. If they passed without reproach their several gradations, they were permitted to become cows and men. If, as men, they behaved well, that is, to the satisfaction of the priests, they were restored to their original rank and bliss in heaven.
4. In not finding the Trinity of Pythagoras and Plato; their contempt of matter, flesh, and blood; their almost adoration of fire and water; their metempsychosis, and even the prohibition of beans, so evidently derived from India.
5. In not finding the prophecy of Enoch deduced from India, in which the fallen angels make such a figure.
But you are weary. Priestley has proved the superiority of the Hebrews to the Hindoos, as they appear in the Gentoo laws and institutions of Menu, but the comparison remains to be made with the Shasta.
In his remarks on M. Dupuis, p. 342, Priestley says: “the history of the fallen angels is another circumstance on which M. Dupuis lays much stress.” According to the Christians, he says, vol. i. p. 336, “there was, from the beginning, a division among the angels; some remaining faithful to the light, and others taking the part of darkness,” &c. “But this supposed history is not found in the Scriptures. It has only been inferred from a wrong interpretation of one passage in the second epistle of Peter, and a corresponding one in that of Jude, as has been shown by judicious writers. That there is such a person as the devil, is no part of my faith, nor that of many other Christians; nor am I sure that it was the belief of any of the Christian writers. Neither do I believe the doctrine of demoniacal possessions, whether it was believed by the sacred writers or not; and, yet my belief in these articles does not affect my faith in the great facts of which the Evangelists were eye and ear witnesses. They might not be competent judges in the one case, though perfectly so with respect to the other.”
I will ask Priestley, when I see him, do you believe those passages in Peter and Jude to be interpolations? If so, by whom made, and when, and where, and for what end? Was it to support or found the doctrine of the fall of man, original sin, the universal corruption, depravation, and guilt of human nature and mankind, and the subsequent incarnation of God to make atonement and redemption? Or, do you think that Peter and Jude believed the book of Enoch to have been written by the seventh from Adam, and one of the sacred canonical books of the Hebrew prophets? Peter, 2d epistle, chapter 2, verse 4, says: “for if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment.” Jude, verse 6th, says: “and the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains, under darkness, unto the judgment of the great day.” Verse 14th, “And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold the Lord cometh with ten thousand of his saints, to execute judgment upon all,” &c. Priestley says, “a wrong interpretation has been given to the texts.” I wish he had favored us with his right interpretation of them.
In another place, p. 326, Priestley says, “there is no circumstance of which M. Dupuis avails himself so much, or repeats so often, both with respect to the Jewish and Christian religions, as the history of the fall of man, in the beginning of the book of Genesis. I believe with him, and have maintained in my writings, that this history is either an allegory, or founded on uncertain tradition; that it is a hypothesis to account for the origin of evil, adopted by Moses, which, by no means, accounts for the facts.”