Sunday at The Priestley House

Intrigued by the Jefferson Bible, I thought I would try to understand a little more about the Jefferson idea of church.  It turns out that while he was Vice President (at the time, the government seat was Philadelphia), Jefferson attended meetings, these newly established by a man named Joseph Priestley who arrived June 4, 1794 through New York as a political/religious refugee from England.  Priestley was a scientist and a religious scholar.  Although never accepted into either of the 2 dominant universities in England (Oxford and Cambridge) because of his classification as a (religious) Dissenter, he was proficient in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew and he had a microscope, a telescope, and glassware.  His studies of the physical nature of electricity and the interactions of matter as well as his theoretical ideas of the former led him to think carefully about the nature of G_d and the idea of the Trinity – whether G_d could be man, spirit, or something even more abstract.  He brought his observations and theories to bear on religious thought to support and theologically contribute to a recently founded Unitarian Church, that in keeping with its name, rejected the concept of Trinity, for one of Unity.  He was hired as a religious man and teacher, but insisted on being able to continue his work during the week on the passionate observation of matter using chemical methods.

After Priestley’s British house was burned because of his radical political views, Priestley moved to the colonies, specifically Pennsylvania – founded by Penn, a Quaker, granted through Charles II in 1691.  Penn would only visit Pennsylvania twice for relatively short periods in his lifetime, ruling it from England, but his authority over the colony during the time was characterized by his doctrines questioning the Trinity (1), originally published in 1668, and for which he would be sent to the Tower of England without trial.

Jefferson would attend meetings in Philadelphia in the newly established Unitarian tradition coincident with Priestley’s arrival there.  Although Priestley only stayed briefly in Philadelphia, establishing his American house a 5 day horse-carriage ride away in the country township of Northumberland instead, the Philadelphia meeting house would eventually turn into The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia with its own ordained minister.

The pups and I headed up to visit the house – somewhat more modest in aspect than Monticello, in keeping with Quaker values, but definitely nonetheless exciting on the interior.


The town at the time had a Quaker church, a Weslayan church, and a population of about 100.  Meetings would be held in the parlor among 10-20 attendants arriving by horse carriage to a house that was yet without electricity.


After touring the house, I spontaneously opened a copy of the Jefferson Bible in the museum area (the original is at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC), wondering which page G_d would lead me to:


So, up for discussion, is Kosher and Jesus.

1) Penn, William. (1812) The Sandy Foundation Shaken. p. 15

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