Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) has a special position in the history of the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Northumberland, PA. Priestley, as an ordained clergyman, wrote many theological works that upset the established church in England, primarily because he challenged the divinity of Jesus. Priestley was also an educator, political theorist and amateur scientist most famous for his discovery of the gas oxygen. He counted Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Watts as his friends.

After living happily in Birmingham, England for a decade, in July 1791, a mob incited by local authorities (and probably King George III) burned his home, church, library and lab as well as those of other Unitarian and dissenting families. The mob had a list. Priestley and his family fled to London. His three sons left for America in 1793 to speculate on land in the Loyalsock Valley near Forksville with the hope that English settlers would come to America and buy the lands. Fearing imprisonment, Joseph Priestley and his wife Mary left for America in May 1794, eventually settling in Northumberland to be near their children and grandchildren. Priestley built a large house and laboratory that is now a state museum. In this house Priestley taught school and held Unitarian services, to which local folks were invited, and many came. Joseph Priestley died in 1804 and is buried with his wife and youngest son in the Riverview Cemetery in Northumberland. His oldest son Joseph continued to live in the house until 1811 when he returned to England. Priestley’s grandson, Joseph Raynor, returned to Northumberland in 1819, married a local lass and with other English settlers in the area formed the Unitarian congregation that eventually built the Priestley Chapel in 1834. The chapel was used for service until 1911 when it was given to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in Boston. UUCSV used the chapel from its inception in the 1990s until 2006 when the congregation outgrew the space and moved to its current location.

The UUCSV holds the Priestley Service in March to coincide with the Priestley House Museum and Priestley Chapel Open House, celebrating Joseph Priestley’s birthday.