Richard Price: Liberty's Apostle

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Chalice lighting

We come together at a dark time of the year
A time when days are short and nights are long
A time also when we may fear a fading of the light of liberty, the light of justice, and the light of love
Let us remember that our strength arises from a great light within
A light of goodness discerned and bolstered by the use of reason
May this time of darkness bring a new, brighter time
Let your light shine
Let our work and our words rekindle the beacons of liberty, justice, and love

Reading: Richard Price, from ‘Britain's Happiness, and the proper improvement of it’ (at Newington Green, Nov 29th 1759)

[I]t is, I think, our duty, as private men, to do what we can towards removing those offences which dishonour our country, by declaring our sentiments about them, on all proper occasions, with modesty and humility; by never complying in any instance contrary to our sentiments; and giving as far as possible, a publick testimony in favour of universal liberty and the simplicity of the Gospel. As long as wise men will not do this, or indulge timidity and indolence, it is certain, that corruptions must continue, and that no alterations or improvements can ever be expected.

Message (part 1) - by Rev. Andy Pakula

These words of Richard Price are very clear. It is our duty to speak out and to work to change what is wrong in our world. When Price spoke of offences that dishonour our country, he meant that not in the sense of patriotism or its more virulent form, nationalism. He meant that the honour of our country depends on it being a paragon of liberty and virtue and that we must speak out whenever it has not lived up to this ideal.

This was Richard Price, 18th century minister in this Meeting House. The man who would influence the fathers of the American Revolution, the revolutionaries in France, and leaders here in Britain as well as transform the life insurance industry, advise national economies, and co-create mathematics that today helps analyse drug testing and create useful spam filters. He also inspired Mary Wollstonecraft to her position on women’s rights leading her to write her pioneering work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Who was this amazing man? What underlay his remarkable contributions?

Before we go too far, I want to be clear that I am no historian. I am also not British, so I lack a strong grasp on the history of this nation. And I am not by any means an expert on Richard Price. My aim today is to share an introductory outline of Price’s life and ask what his legacy can mean for us today and in the future.

Richard Price was born in 1723 in Glamorgan, Wales. His parents were dissenters and his father was a dissenting minister. The dissenters - the ancestors of this congregation - were ejected from the Church of England for their unwillingness to obey the 1662 Act of Uniformity, which required all clergy to follow the rites and ceremonies as mandated by the Church of England. Price was thus born an outsider and as part of a tradition that taught it was better to be true to your values than to conform for the sake of safety and comfort.

He left Wales for London, studied at a Dissenting Academy in London, and in 1758, at the age of 35, he and his new wife moved into number 54 in the row of brick terraced houses on the west side of Newington Green and became the minister here.

For nearly 20 years, Richard Price developed his thinking in philosophy. He was a rationalist who believed in the use of reason in finding our way to answers in life. He believed that we all have an innate sense of morality which can guide us if we allow it to. He held strongly to the importance of living a life of virtue and this was at the centre of how he lived his own life. In his words:

“VIRTUE is the foundation of honour and esteem, and the source of all beauty, order, and happiness in nature. Beauty and wit will die, learning will vanish away, and all the arts of life be soon forgot; but virtue will remain for ever.”

In the same period of time, he focused on the mathematics of probability and prediction. This was very practical work - he supported life insurance companies which had previously built their businesses on poor predictions of longevity - a basis that could easily lead them to fold just when payouts were needed. The titles of his writings during this time tell us a lot about the work that occupied his mind:

1758 A Review of the Principal Questions and Difficulties in Morals

1759 Britain’s Happiness and the Proper Improvement of it

1764 An Essay Towards Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances and a Demonstration of the Second Rule in the Essay Towards the Solution of a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances

1765 Supplement to the Essay in the Doctrine of Chances

1766 The Nature and Dignity of the Human Soul

1769 Observations on the Expectation of Lives, The Increase of Mankind, The Influence of great towns on Population, and Particularly the State of London with Respect to Healthfulness and Number of Inhabitants

1770 The Vanity, Misery, and Infamy, of Knowledge without suitable Practice

1770 Observations on the Proper Method of Calculating the Values of Reversions

1770 On the Transit of Venus

1771 Observations on Reversionary Payments; On Schemes for Providing Annuities for Widows, and for Persons in Old Age; On the Method of Calculating the Values of Assurances on Lives; and on the National Debt

1772 Appeal to the Public on the Subject of the National Debt

1773 On the Insalubrity of Marshy Situations

1774 Calculations and Observations Relating to the Scheme of the Laudable Society for the Benefit of Widows

In the years leading up to the American revolution, Price established himself as a moral philosopher, a leader in the mathematics of probability, and an essential guide to the life insurance industry. He became a well-known and influential thinker and developed friendships with other thought leaders, including especially Benjamin Franklin, who would become one of the fathers of the American Revolution.

Reading: Richard Price, from a letter to Thomas Jefferson, 3 August 1789

We are duped by the forms of liberty. A representation so partial as to be almost a mockery and so venal as to be little better than a nuisance bears the name of a real representation. Our Patriots are vicious men, and their opposition in general is nothing but a vile struggle for power and its emoluments. It is happy for the people of France at this crisis that they have no forms to deceive them, and that their struggle is with absolute power avowed, and not with a power apparently limited but really absolute in consequence of an undue influence which overturns the constitution and spreads corruption thro’ every corner of the kingdom.

[The revolution taking place in France is] one of the most important revolutions that have ever taken place in the world. A Revolution that must astonish Europe; that shakes the foundation of despotic power; and that probably will be the commencement of a general reformation in the governments of the world which hitherto have been little better than usurpations on the rights of mankind, impediments to the progress of human improvement, and contrivances for enabling a few grandees to oppress and enslave the rest of mankind. Glorious patriots! How has my heart been with them? And how ardently do I wish they may finish the great work they have begun in a manner that shall be most honourable to themselves and most beneficial to the world to which they are giving an example.

Message (part 2) - by Rev. Andy Pakula

In 1775, the simmering tensions between Britain and its American colonies turned bloody. Rebellion of the colonies began in earnest with the confrontation between colonists and soldiers on the Green of Lexington, in Massachusetts. This took place, incidentally, meters from the door of the congregation I attended for thirteen years.

In February of the following year, Price published Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the War with America. It would be both enormously controversial and influential. The first edition sold out in 3 days. Eventually, it would be published in seven editions and appear in Dublin, Edinburgh, Boston, Charleston, New York and Philadelphia as well as being serialised in American newspapers. ‘Observations’ was also translated into Dutch, French, and German editions.

Price wrote:

“Government is an institution for the benefit of the people governed, which they have the power to model as they please; and to say that they can have too much of this power, is to say that there ought to be a power in the state superior to that which gives it being, and from which all jurisdiction in it is derived.”

These words seem obvious to us today, living in a largely democratic society with the disappearance in the western world of powerful hereditary rulers.

At the time, Price’s sentiments were anything but typical. The power of royalty was strong. Colonialism was the way the great powers grew and prospered. The government of the colonial powers was not for the benefit of or readily influenced by most of the people - and certainly not for the inhabitants of the colonies.

Price developed a regular correspondence with Thomas Jefferson and developed friendships with Tom Payne, John Adams, and other revolutionary thinkers and leaders of the time.

Price wrote more on the issue over the following two years. His chief position was the right of people of self-governance. And this view was based on Price’s very strong confidence in the ability of individual human beings to discern right from wrong. He wrote:

‘That every man’s will, if perfectly free from restraint, would carry him invariably to rectitude and virtue and that no one who acts wickedly acts as he likes…’

On the 14th of July, 1789, the Bastille fell. The French Revolution was underway. Price lauded the revolutionaries and developed correspondances with them.

His views on the revolution in France parallel those regarding the American Revolution: individuals have the right to self-governance. His outspoken views on the revolution earned him the condemnation of many and especially the powerful Edmund Burke who painted Price as an atheist and revolutionary. Burke’s very personal attacks would spur Mary Wollstonecraft to write in his defence - a document that would later be paralleled by her passionate plea for the rights of women.

What kind of person was Richard Price? He was brilliant. He was extraordinarily curious. He was courageous.

He was also a deeply good man - concerned always with pursuing a virtuous life and using his reason to discern the guidelines of such a life.

He was not always serious, despite his appearance in the only portrait we have of him.

His neighbour observed that Price possessed ‘that boyishness and love of frolic which have often characterised men of genius.’

Imagine the Price we think of as sombre when he challenged a visitor to a hopping race across a nearby meadow - and won that race.

Price was kind also to non-human animals. He was observed turning upright a beetle struggling on its back. On another occasion, he freed a flock of larks trapped in a net on Newington Green and then felt so guilty that he left some coins for the bird trapper.

Price was a loving husband who was devastated by his wife’s illness and death.

There are two points I especially hope we can take away from this necessarily brief and patchy look at the remarkable life of Richard Price.

The first flows from his comments on the difficulty of recognising the world’s wrongs. He writes, as we heard earlier, that ‘we are duped by the forms of liberty.’ He calls it happy for the people of France that they had before them such clear tyranny by absolute power and such a crisis. It is so much harder to see the injustice when it is clothed in the garments of deliberation and the language of freedom. This is a key point for our own times where deliberative processes and free elections can lull us into a sense of confidence and blind us to the injustices still to be addressed.

And secondly, Price’s work and words come from the enormous confidence he has in human goodness. This worth and dignity of each person is the reason they deserve and can be trusted with freedom.

I hope we all look forward to the next few years of learning about the great man who became minister in this meeting house 260 years ago and - from here - changed the world in so many ways.

Let us have his confidence in the virtue of humankind and be worthy of that confidence. Let us have the insight to see the wrong amid the “forms of liberty” and the courage to challenge those wrongs at all costs.

May it be so.

Closing words

Richard Price’s words struck many in his time as subversive
He was called radical, wicked, unpatriotic
But it is his vision that has come to pass while the once-widespread convictions of his critics have been consigned to the dustbin of history
What we have to say today - our calls for greater justice - may be criticised
Progress may be set back temporarily in the ebb and flow of the moment
But, as long as it is based in goodness and love, the growth will in the end prevail
The spirit of Richard Price and his love of liberty, justice, and goodness lives on in this place and in our hearts.
May it be so.