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Cover for the book Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America

Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America

J. D. Bowers
  • Copyright: 2007
  • Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25
  • Page Count: 296 pages
  • Illustrations: 4 b&w illustrations
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-02951-1
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-271-02950-4
“This beautifully and persuasively written account of the contributions of Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism to the development of liberal religious thought in nineteenth-century America offers a valuable contribution to the growing historiography on the transatlantic exchange of ideas in the early republic and on the role of religious thought in influencing political discourse on such topics as toleration and cultural identity. Professor Bowers renders complex issues of religious belief and denominational difference understandable while stressing their importance in a broader context of social, political, and intellectual history.”
“A resolute and positive reaffirmation of Joseph Priestley’s place in the heritage of American Unitarianism. J. D. Bowers reminds us of both the complexity and importance of theology in early American history.”
In Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America, J.D. Bowers turns the historical lens and brings into focus two significant American locations where Joseph Priestley’s earliest efforts to establish liberal religious congregations took root in the early national period—Philadelphia, the nation’s capital and Northumberland, the frontier outpost that was Priestley’s home from 1794–1804.

“Readers seeking evidence of English Unitarianism’s contribution to the history and development of Unitarianism in the religious landscape of America’s Atlantic world will be rewarded with this volume, which is well-steeped in pertinent pamphlets, tracts, letters, and sermons that inform the author’s position on English Unitarianism’s critically influential role in the development of Unitarianism in America.”
“A welcome contribution to the long-neglected historiography of American Unitarianism.”
“This book is an example of Unitarian historiography at its best, wherein interesting detail is intertwined with a most stimulating argument.”
“An indispensable study of the origins of American Unitarianism and of Pennsylvania religious history.”
“An indispensable study of the origins of American Unitarianism and of Pennsylvania religious history.”

Many have argued that American Unitarianism originated solely from within Congregationalism and developed independent of outside influences. William Ellery Channing's “Unitarian Christianity” sermon in 1819 was a key moment in the history of the denomination, as Channing consciously sought to define the parameters of the faith and eliminate all vestiges of competing influences. Yet the American Unitarian tradition was far more complex than its nineteenth-century adherents were willing to admit. In Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America, J. D. Bowers reexamines its origins, course, and development and subsequently reveals the extent to which Joseph Priestley's ideas concerning Congregational polity were recognized and established within the United States.

In contrast to studies that simply trace the history of the denomination as it flows out of New England and is controlled by Bostonians, Bowers shows that Priestley's legacy grew in importance throughout the nineteenth century and held sway throughout many of the frontier regions of the nation. By discussing the complexity of interdenominational rivalry, lack of central control, and a continuous transatlantic exchange among religious liberals, he shows that English Unitarianism continued to serve as an essential and noteworthy foundation for subsequent developments within the American denomination as it endured the challenges of Protestant orthodoxy, unregulated liberalism, Transcendentalism, and the never-ending quest to define liberal religion in America.

This is an insightful account of an often neglected set of tenets and developments in the denomination's history. It uniquely traces the course of continued English influence as it established a new point of reference for understanding the dynamic origins of denominational development, Unitarian thought, and liberal religion.

J. D. Bowers is Assistant Professor of History at Northern Illinois University. He has worked extensively with the Joseph Priestley House and Museum, serving as a consultant and writing a guide for docents.






1. English Socinianism: Antecedent to American Unitarianism

2. The Socinian Migration and the Founding of American Unitarianism

3. Joseph Priestley and Unitarianism in Philadelphia

4. Unitarianism in Northumberland and the American Religious Frontier

5. Socinianism, Arianism, and the Quest for Unitarian Identity

6. “Respecting the Good Cause in Our Neighborhood”

7. Conclusion: The Death and Resurrection of English Unitarianism?



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