“Oxygen, Soda Water, Gunpowder, and You”

by Rev. Kevin Tarsa

Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains

July 29, 2018


Time for All Ages        “Joseph Priestley”

from the Tapestry of Faith “Miracles” curriculum by Adrianne Ross, Chris Jablonski, Miriam Smith, & Susan Lawrence.



Sermon      “Oxygen, Soda Water, Gunpowder, and You”   by Rev. Kevin Tarsa


Joseph Priestley, O2 and Soda Water

Joseph Priestley not only isolated oxygen and identified it as a component of the air we breathe, he identified 10 gaseous compounds, including Nitrous oxide (laughing gas), hydrogen chloride, ammonia, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide.  He also wrote an important text on his study of electricity and his electricity producing inventions.

Along the way, he invented …soda water.

Yes, we have a Unitarian minister to thank for carbonated beverages!

Joseph Priestley created soda water by pouring water back and forth between two glasses while holding them over the fermentation vats at the brewery near where he was living. Why he thought to do this, I have no idea. He was a creative and open experimenter.

He discovered that if he poured water back and forth over the fermenting mixture for two minutes, the water would pick up some of the mephitic air being released from the vats, what we know as carbon dioxide, making the water pleasantly bubbly.

He called his carbonated water Pyrmont water, while others called it “windy water,” and when Priestley speculated that his invention might prevent scurvy, the British Navy sent Caption Cook out on the high seas with ships equipped with soda-water machines.

Informed of this by a spy, the French government figured it must be some great military secret, and so they set out to make their own windy water.

If you are wanting to learn more, there is a very engaging telling of Priestley’s story in a book titled, The Invention of Air, and Priestley features prominently in the first episode of a PBS series titled The Mystery of Matter.

Although he is not well known now beyond science history textbooks, in his time, he was spoken of by fellow progressive scientists with the kind of respect reserved for people like Sir Isaac Newton. Steven Johnson, the author of The Invention of Air, notes that “in their legendary fourteen-year final correspondence” …Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote 165 letters to each other. In those 165 letters, they mention Benjamin Franklin five times, George Washington three times, Alexander Hamilton two times, and Joseph Priestley 52 times!

Born in 1733 in England, Priestley was one of the first English ministers to claim the name Unitarian. A good friend of Benjamin Franklin and a key influence on Thomas Jefferson’s religious ideas, Priestley spent the last 10 or so years of his life and ministry in Pennsylvania, not long after a raging mob in Birmingham, England burned his church, his home, and his laboratory on the evening of July 14, 1791, and then threatened to come after him and his family.

The date of the attack was no mere coincidence; July 14, 1791 was the 2-year anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in Paris, France. Priestley and a number of his friends and colleagues had been voicing support for the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and had been hinting that revolution might not be such bad thing for England.


But even before that, Priestley’s religious views had him in hot water with the public. In 1782 he had published his “History of the Corruptions of Christianity,” in which he wrote that he didn’t believe in the biblical miracles, the trinity, or the divinity of Jesus. He believed Jesus was entirely, if powerfully, human. After an angry backlash from the religious leaders and the public, he wrote a sermon in response, titled “The Importance and Extent of Free Enquiry.” In it he reassured his flock:

“Let us not, …, be discouraged, though for the present we should see no great number of churches professedly Unitarian. It is sufficiently evident that Unitarian principles are gaining ground every day (Johnson 177).”

Did I mention that he was optimistic? Thomas Jefferson echoed Priestley’s sentiment in his own conviction that our entire country would one day become Unitarian.

Joseph Priestley was living, thinking, experimenting and writing at significant thresholds  – at a time of paradigm shifts – in science, in industry, in religion, and in politics, entering new territory in all those arenas at the same time, all connected, as they always are.

Free Inquiry

Priestley believed that in order to move forward in each of these realms of science, religion and politics, what was most important was making room for free inquiry, for unencumbered questioning. As he put it, for:

promot[ing] the most perfect freedom of thinking and acting…in order that every point of difference [might] have an opportunity of being fully canvassed, not doubting but that…Truth [would] prevail, and that then a rational, firm, and truly valuable [agreement would] take place (147).”

If ideas of all kinds have a chance to be raised and fully and freely examined and vetted then we will, in the end, reach truths, he believed.

New forms of communication – the brand new postal services of the day, and a new coffeehouse culture in England that kept progressive thinkers in lively conversation with one another – were allowing information to be shared much more quickly and widely – precursors to the internet and Facebook and Twitter.

At a time when scientific discoveries were transforming people’s sense of the world, where it came from and how it works, Priestley said that the Bible ought to be re-translated continually, updated based on our new knowledge.

He believed that truth, in the end, was absolute, but that our human understanding of truth would keep unfolding forever, in a gradual and collective process. We would never reach Truth completely, but we would always be moving upward, toward it.

He brought this spirit of free inquiry and the canvassing of truth to everything he did. In his scientific explorations he would just try things, keeping exhaustively detailed notes on his experiments, and then he would share that information freely.

Some of his friends encouraged him hold his hard won discoveries closer to his chest, but he believed in maximum openness and the generous circulation of ideas, and ao he put his soda water formula in letters and pamphlets and told it to anyone who would listen. He believed that scientific advancements came not from individual great thinkers, but from the many small discoveries of truths available to all people.

About 12 years after his Piermont water creation, one Johann Schweppe patented a method of carbonating water …and, I expect, made a lot more money than Priestley ever did.

Our 4th Principle

In earlier sermons based on Joseph Priestley, I’ve been drawn to tie our fourth Principle – our Unitarian Universalist commitment to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning”  – to Priestley’s ideas. It is indeed THE central principle in Unitarian Universalism, freedom of inquiry that allows us to reach all the other principles, demanding that we discern and interrogate truths together, and that we hold even our most cherished convictions with a loose enough grip that we will be able let go of them when new experiences and knowledge lead us to new truths.

In religious language, we say that for Unitarian Universalists, revelation is never sealed once and for all – that our understanding of truth will continue to evolve, and, fair warning!, that our new experiences and discoveries might at any moment shake up everything we think we know.

The Gunpowder Sermon

I mentioned earlier Priestley’s sermon, “The Importance And Extent Of Free Enquiry.”

In that sermon he offered his Unitarian congregation metaphors for thinking about and facing their challenging times, metaphors for the significant, confusing, and seemingly sudden transformations taking place all at once in industry, in religion, in science and in politics.

He began by offering his people gentle images of farming: of a seed that lies quietly underground, in the dark, invisible all winter, but that bursts forth with green life in the spring, seemingly out of nowhere.

Then he moved on to more dramatic metaphors: earthquakes and volcanoes that lie dormant for ages, and then suddenly erupt, releasing tremendous amounts of energy in violent outbursts, quickly re-shaping the landscape for a new age.

And then, to encourage his congregants, Priestley said:

“We are, as it were, laying gunpowder, grain by grain, under the old building of error and superstition, which a single spark may hereafter inflame, so as to produce an instantaneous explosion; in consequence of which that edifice, the erection of which has been the work of ages, may be overturned in a moment, and so effectually as that the same foundation can never be built upon again.

Priestley delivered this incendiary sermon on Guy Fawke’s Day, the day commemorating the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a conspiracy by a group of English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant King of England and replace him with a Catholic. The conspirators placed kegs of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords, intending to blow it up while the body was in session, but the plot was discovered and the conspirators executed.

Priestley’s sermon became known as The Gunpowder Sermon, and his antagonists referred to him as “Gunpowder Joe.”

What about U(U)s? Today?

This year, reflecting on Priestley’s life and work, I’m taken with the parallels to our current age, wherein the established anchors and norms in science, economics, religion and politics are all shifting – seemingly suddenly, but not really….and wherein our ability to share information has become enormous and instantaneous.

I’ve wondered how we might best prepare ourselves for and midwife goodness in the midst of the paradigm shifts underway, how we might even help midwife those paradigm shifts themselves – knowing that our path forward is going to be through them, not around them.

I wondered what edifices of error and superstition we might be called to blow up, with our courageous love and our grains of carefully laid explosive pow(d)er.

It’s easy and tempting to think that we progressive UUs are all about the work of laying explosive powders grain by grain – or keg by keg sometimes – underneath other people’s errors and superstitions. And while there is important work to do there, it’s important to name that we have our own errors and superstitions that need toppling.

As an institution and as individual UUs, those of us who are white are being called to face our racism, our white supremacy and our white fragility, for example. My sermon on Joseph Priestley and my own presence notwithstanding, we are being called to center the voices of people of color and other people marginalized by the status quo, to commit to de-center whiteness, maleness, ablebodiedness, heterosexuality – not because everything else is better than those things, but because everything else has been excluded for so long, keeping us not only unjust but dangerously out of balance, missing the perspectives and the people that we must include if we are to reach truths fully.

But this is about more than the privileged luxury of reaching for truths. The stakes are higher and more visceral now, in an era in which human behaviors are re-shaping not only culture and biology, but re-shaping the very geology of the earth.

Unnecessary Bifurcations

Michael Hogue, whose ideas and book American Immanence I drew upon at the beginning of the month, says that a whole set of false and oppositional separations needs toppling, a set of long-time and increasingly dangerous bifurcations: either/or’s that are not only untrue, but unnecessarily framed as if they are in opposition to one another.

These false and oppositional bifurcations that need toppling include, he says, the artificial separation in our minds and hearts between human and animal, culture and nature, mental and physical, God and world, religious and secular, us and them…

Now, if it is difficult to imagine re-uniting some of those pairs, to imagine, for example, that religious and secular, or mental and physical, or human and animal could be false and dangerous separations, I invite you to remember that many enlightened people in Europe once thought that trees polluted the air and ought to be chopped down near a home, not knowing our symbiotic relationship, that trees breathe in our carbon dioxide to their benefit and breathe out, to our benefit, life-sustaining oxygen. We have our own edifices, “the erection of which has been the work of ages.”

All of these problematic bifurcations, Hogue says, are anchored in and enabled by one foundational edifice of error that needs dismantling if not destruction. It has driven the interconnected theological, political, and scientific assumptions that are leading us to crises.

It is the erroneous separation we have made between humanity and the earth, between humanity and nature….as if we came from somewhere outside of nature and are separate from it, as if we are really from and belong in a different realm, as if we are exceptional to all else that exists, when in truth, no matter how multifaceted and complex we may be, we are fully of the earth.

As Kichwa, an indigenous culture of the Andes, teaches, “We are Earth walking.”

Or as some of the most ancient stories in the Hebrew Bible remind us, we are made “of the dust of the ground.” (Genesis 2:7).


As to exactly how our separating of humanity and earth/nature leads to our theological, scientific and political hazards, that will need to be a focus for another time.

I would point out this morning an irony and source of hope and encouragement from Michael Hogue: that the current crises arising out of this foundational error separating humanity and nature are finally getting us to a place to where we can see our error and must face our error.

Because we humans can now change not only culture and biology but also the geology and climate of the earth itself in ways that affect human wellbeing, increasingly we can no longer consider ourselves as separate from the earth. Hogue says that our crises are unsettling the false separation that has led to them, opening up space now for new possibilities. The error is beginning to topple itself.

Everything, everything, is connected, even if we don’t now know or will ever know all the ways that this is true. Revelation will never be sealed.

Our work ahead, according to Hogue, and I’m agreeing, is courageously and actively to point out and critique the artificial separations we’ve held, to lament them and unsettle and disrupt them, maybe blow them up, including separations we may be holding onto ourselves, and then constructively and creatively to reimagine the symbols, meanings, and practices that underlie our cultural systems.

In other words, our work is to point out the errors and superstitions of our edifices with all the courageous love we can muster, to lay our individual grains of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual gunpowder underneath them, and to find the spark to set them alight, even under some of our own most cherished notions that keep things separated.

And then, to realize together new ways forward built on our awareness of our complete inter-relatedness, our thorough inter-connectedness, our oneness of being in this world and of this earth – to build on this awareness new structures that are “radically relational, politically enlivened” and “engaged, spiritually vital, environmentally and socially just…” and, underneath it all, “ecologically attuned,” and so perhaps, just perhaps, sustainable.

Our work is cut out for us.

And I realize that I am speaking in broad generalities.

The path ahead will be to discern and act upon the specifics…to identify and address those bifurcations deeply, one by one. That is work we will need to do together…if you are willing.

My hope is that it will be so.

Blessed be.



Hogue, Michael S. American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America, 2008.