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Religious Freedom / Spiritual Freedom

November 10, 2014

“Religious Freedom and Spiritual Freedom” is an address I gave for the 34th World Congress of the International Association for Religious Freedom, in Birmingham, England, last summer. Considering that they meet only once in every three or four years, it’s not surprising that the IARF should be the oldest inter-religious association in the world. Having observed its flagging fortunes in recent years, I wanted to move us to dig a little deeper into the question, Who are we and what is our mission? As T. S. Eliot said, “A tradition cannot be inherited, it must be earned.”

Here I want to amplify the theme of my address: Commitment to religious freedom in the political and social spheres is born from and sustained by a commitment to spiritual freedom, something we carry within us, something that, far from languishing  in the face of difficulty or outright oppression, can flare out the more brightly. A case in point follows.

I shared my IARF address with David B. Parke, an old friend who is a minister, editor, and church historian (see his richly annotated anthology, The Epic of Unitarianism). In it I refer to Joseph Priestley, the scientist and Unitarian theologian whose laboratory and library in Birmingham were destroyed by a mob in 1791. David’s e-mail response to my talk cites a document I had not read before, in which Priestley exemplifies the power of spiritual freedom, seen in his judgments-with-magnanimity in the face of a violent and irreparable violation of his own religious freedom. And to think that it happened in what we thought must have been the most enlightened nation on earth at that time!

David wrote: “Your invocation of Priestley as a ‘great soul’ might have included Priestley’s extraordinary valedictory to the citizens of Birmingham after the riot. He wrote:

‘July 19, 1791 To the Inhabitants of the town of Birmingham ‘My Late Townsmen and Neighbors,

‘You have destroyed the most truly valuable and useful apparatus of philosophical instruments that perhaps any individual, in this or any country, has ever possessed of, in my use of which I annually spent large sums with no pecuniary view whatever, but only for the advancement of Science, for the benefit of my country and mankind. You have destroyed the Library corresponding to that apparatus, which no money can re-purchase except in the course of time. But what I feel far more, you have destroyed manuscripts which have been the result of the laborious study of many years, and which I shall never be able to recompose; and this has been done to one who never did, or imagined, you any harm.

‘In this business we are the sheep and you are the wolves. We will preserve our character and hope you will change yours. At all events we return you blessings for curses, and hope that you shall soon return to that industry and those solemn manners for which the inhabitants of Birmingham were formerly distinguished.

‘Yours faithfully, J. PRIESTLEY.’

David notes his source: “Autobiography of Joseph Priestley Introduction by Jack Lindsay, Memoirs of Himself, An account of Further Discoveries of Air (Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press [First American Edition, 1970, Associated University Press, Cranbury, NJ 08512]).”

Among Priestley’s “discoveries of air” was the discovery of oxygen! I hope you’ll be intrigued to read my address, on the “Sermons and Addresses” page of this blog, on the much-used and much-abused term “freedom,” with notes on Joseph Priestley, Arnold Toynbee, William Ellery Channing, and why we need an international association for religious freedom. –GKB

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard Boeke permalink
    November 10, 2014 10:44 pm

    Dear Kim:


    Can I pass this on to the Unitarian and the IARF Facebook column?

    Jopie is in the Netherlands.

    She returns Wednesday afternoon.

    Next Monday, the 17th, I go in to get a new right knee.

    Barbara knows the routine …

    Love and Blessings to both of you,


    • November 10, 2014 11:06 pm

      Dick, Glad you liked it. Yes, pass it on. I did not yet get the whole address up on the blog as noted in this post. But I did send the address to Robert Papini. I would have sent it to Witjke, but had no email address for her. (Interested in your communications with her about the Peacemaking Com. budget. Not sure what to make of it.) Kim

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