Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

J.D. Bowers
J.D. Bowers

Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

September 10, 2007

NIU history professor will hold
book signing at Barnes & Noble

DeKalb, Ill. — J.D. Bowers, a professor of history at Northern Illinois University, will hold a signing for his new book, “Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America,” from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, at Barnes & Noble, 2439 Sycamore Road, DeKalb.

The book, published by Penn State Press, is getting attention in American religious history circles among both scholars and an ecumenical swath of religious believers. The cross-denominational appeal is no surprise to the author.

“There was a time when Unitarians were avowed Christians, a time when, instead of a universal creed, they had several competing and exclusive creeds, all contending for the right to be the sole Unitarian belief system,” Bowers says.

“My book explores that time period, from the late 1700s until the late 1800s, and the people who were central to the disputes and the various and competing religious theologies,” he adds. “People inside Unitarianism as well as outside the denomination are naturally curious about an era and set of ideas that were both so different from modern Unitarianism.”

Bowers directs the secondary history and social studies teacher-certification program at NIU. He has been working on the book for nearly 10 years.

“It has been a real labor of love,” he says. “I grew up just four blocks from the American home of Joseph Priestley and have always been fascinated with his innumerable contributions to the fields of religion, science, politics and education.”

While Priestley was an enlightenment figure, dabbling in many fields of study, Bowers’ book focuses primarily on his contributions to the development of liberal religion in America.

Bowers’ work is “a resolute and positive reaffirmation of the complexity and importance of theology in early American history,” notes the prominent historian Daniel Walker Howe, who has his own new book coming out on the nation’s early national period, also focusing on the developments within American religion.

Bowers has worked extensively with the Joseph Priestley House and Museum in Pennsylvania for more than 10 years, serving as a historical consultant and researcher. He also wrote a guide for docents on Priestley’s religious activities and beliefs.

“I am humbled to be a part of a larger conversation on the way in which religion has played a role in American society,” Bowers says. “Theology, and the complexity of theological systems, rarely makes its way into general public discourse, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts. It is exciting to reengage people on the topic of theology and its historical development.”

Bowers has extended an open call to Unitarian congregations and interested community groups who wish to hear him speak.

“Historians need to do a better job at engaging the wider public in their research and discourse,” he says.