Freethought Archives > Matthew Turner & William Hammon > Answer to Dr. Priestley's Letters (1782)


"Be it therefore for the future remembered, that in London in the kingdom of England, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-one, a man has publickly declared himself an atheist."

Matthew Turner (d. 1788?), a Liverpool physician, is credited with the authorship or co-authorship of the Answer to Dr. Priestley's Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever. This pamphlet is thought to be the first work of avowed atheism ever published in Britain.

Very little is known of Turner's private life -- even his exact dates of birth and death are uncertain.  He is described in the Dictionary of National Biography as "a man of unusual attainments. A good surgeon, a skilful anatomist, a practised chemist, a draughtsman, a classical scholar, and a ready wit, he formed one of a group of eminently intellectual men, who did much to foster a literary and artistic taste among the more educated classes at Liverpool." 

Turner pioneered the use of ether for medical purposes; his only other major publication is a pamphlet on this subject.  He was a friend and helper of Josiah Wedgwood, whom he introduced to Thomas Bentley.  Turner was also a founding member of the Liverpool Academy of Art.  His lectures at the Warrington Academy first interested Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) in chemistry. Priestley, who became a Unitarian minister, was later to publish Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever (1774), a defence of natural theology.

In early 1782 the Answer to Dr. Priestley's Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever, Part I appeared. It purported to be the work of two writers. The editor, who signed himself "William Hammon," claimed in his introduction that the main body of the Answer had been written by an unnamed friend. This anonymous friend, who suspected himself to be the "Unbeliever" addressed in Priestley's Letters, has been identified by subsequent scholarship as Matthew Turner.

The projected Part II of the Answer never appeared, although Priestley himself replied immediately to Part I with his Additional Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever, published later in 1782.

William Hammon, the purported editor of the Answer, is otherwise unknown. If "Hammon" was not merely a pseudonym invented by Matthew Turner to conceal his sole authorship of the Answer, then there appears to be no information concerning his identity.



An account of the extraordinary medicinal fluid, called aether. By M. Turner, Surgeon.

Printed by John Sadler, 1761.
Another edition, London: J. Wilkie, no date. (Some sources assign an inaccurate date of 1743.)

Answer to Dr. Priestley's Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever, Part I.

London: 1782.
Reprinted 1826 (in The Deist; or Moral Philosopher, edited by Richard Carlile); 1831 (in The Law of Reason); 1833 (London: J. Brooks).

'On the cure of the Ascarides by Tobacco Fumes in the form of clyster.' Letter to Dr. John Fothergill in Medical Observations and Inquries, Vol II. By a Society of Physicians in London.

Printed by William Johnston. London: 1764.