William Penn -“Early American Heroes of Religious Liberty” (Pt 4/5)

William Penn, along with Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and George and Cecil Calvert are the great architects of religious freedom in America. Because of Quaker Oats, Pennzoil, and the State of Pennsylvania, William Penn is the most famous of these early advocates of religious liberty.


William Penn (1644-1718) became a “Quaker” while enrolled in Oxford University. 

Quaker” was originally a derogatory name for the Religious Society of Friends or Friends Church founded by George Fox . (“Shaker,” “Methodist,” and “Mormon” also began as pejorative names.)

George Fox considered himself “restoring” the “true” and “pureChurch of Christ.  He rejected established religions with their professional clergy.

Quakers believe that every person is entitled to the Spirit and direct access to the “light within.” Quakers do not have religious rituals or professional clergy.  Some disavow the concept of original sin.  Quakers are pacifists and conscientious objectors. Obviously, these views were anathema to the government and to the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England during colonial times.

Expelled from Oxford

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When William Penn became a member of the Friends Church, he was expelled from Oxford for his religious beliefs.  (Remember, the universities founded in Europe and America were established by churches.)

Arrested in Ireland and London

William Penn then traveled through Europe and then to Ireland.  He was a homeless preacher, without “purse or scrip.”  When he reached Ireland he was arrested. He returned to London where he was again arrested.  This time he was imprisoned in the infamous Tower of London

Preaching religious liberty and “Primitive Christianity”

Penn advocated religious liberty. He urged his followers to adhere to the spirit of “Primitive Christianity.” He wrote several pamphlets. When imprisoned in the Tower of London, he wrote the Christian classic, “No Cross, No Crown” (1669).

Penn publicly branded the Roman Catholic Church as the “Whore of Babylon.”  He called Puritanshypocrites and revelers in God.” He defied the Church of England. Only the Quaker religion was spared from his tongue lashings.

No matter where he went, he was persecuted for his religious views.

Establishing a religious colony in America

Frustrated with the lack of religious freedom and tolerance, he became interested in the idea of establishing a Quaker colony in America where the Friends could worship freely.

“The Birth of Pennsylvania”

A major emigration of Quakers to America was already underway. The New England Puritans and the Virginian Anglicans rejected them. This created conflict in the King’s colonies.

Thus, William Penn requested a grant from the King to establish a colony. Penn first called it “New Wales.”  Then he named it “Sylvania” (Latin for “forests” or “woods.”) The King changed the name to “Pennsylvania” in honor of William’s father, a renowned English admiral and powerful landowner.  

Charter of liberties

Governor Penn drafted a charter of liberties for the new colony. He believed that “all persons are equal under God.”

The charter guaranteed the right to a fair trial by jury, freedom from unjust imprisonment, and free and fair elections.  His new government guaranteed private ownership and free enterprise. Penn believed a check and balance was necessary to control executive power.

Laws of crime and behavior

Only two crimes could result in capital punishment: murder and treason.  (At this time, English law recognized almost 200 capital crimes.)

Penn thought prisons should be rehabilitative “workshops” rather than hellish punishments.

The laws of moral behavior were strict.  The laws forbade: swearing, lying, drunkenness, and “idle amusements,” like stage plays, gambling, costume parties, cock-fighting and bear baiting.

Charter of religious freedom

Most important to William, the charter guaranteed freedom of religion.  He called Pennsylvania his “Holy Experiment.”

William Penn named the capital of the colony Philadelphia, which means “Brotherly love” in Greek.  (His statue tops the City Hall building.)

Philadelphia City Hall

The guarantee of freedom of religion attracted not only Quakers, but other persecuted religious minorities, like Mennonites, Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, and Amish.  (To this day, Pennsylvania is known as “Amish Country.”) 

Statutes of religious freedom

In 1682, under Penn’s leadership, the Pennsylvania assembly enacted statutes guaranteeing freedom of religion.

  “[N]o person . . .  shall be molested or prejudiced for his or her conscientious persuasion or practice
 “Nor shall he or she be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatever, contrary to his or her mind, but shall freely and fully enjoy his or her Christian liberty . . . without any interruption or reflection. 
And if any person shall abuse or deride any other for his or her different persuasion and practice in matters of religion, such person shall be looked upon as a disturber of the peace,  and be punished accordingly.”

Legacy and lasting influence

William Penn had a profound influence on the Drafters of the Constitution. He left an extensive legacy of political and religious treatises. He wrote about 1,000 maxims about human nature and morality.

  • “If men be good, government cannot be bad.”
  • “Let us then try what love can do to mend a broken world.”
  • “Patience is a Virtue.”
  • “Between a Man and his Wife nothing ought to rule but Love. Authority is for Children and Servants.”

In 1984, President Reagan and Congress officially declared William Penn an Honorary Citizen of the United States.

(Sources: London, Religion and Law: Cases and Materials, pgs. 5-10 (1998); Stokes and Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, pgs. 3-9, 19 (1964); Martin, Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America, pgs. 86-89 (1984); Backman, Christian Churches of America: Origins and Beliefs, p. 41 (1976); “Quaker,” “William Penn,” “Philadelphia,” Wikipedia)

(Other Articles: http://www.londonedition.net)

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