All who believed in God were welcome

WILLIAM PENN (1644–1718) was an accomplished and influential English gentleman who once disarmed a drunken man before a duel could ensue. There were many like him in the seventeenth century. But Penn also became a radical Quaker, a theologian, a defender of religious liberty, a political theorist—and the proprietor of colonial Pennsylvania, responsible for a territory nearly as large as Ireland. The one-time man of the sword would go down in history as a man of peace. 

Distinguished roots

William’s father, Sir William Penn, was a decorated ship’s captain who served in two Dutch wars and conquered Jamaica for the British. Oliver Cromwell made him an admiral, and Charles II knighted him. Sir William and his wife, Margaret, about whom we have little information, seem to have been conventionally religious but not devout. Though they never became Quakers themselves, they exposed young William to religion. Perhaps out of curiosity, they even invited Quaker traveling minister Thomas Loe to speak at their home. These experiences left an impression on young William, who later described “divine awakenings” he experienced as early as age 11.

Penn went to Oxford in 1660 as a 16-year-old, but during his second year was expelled from that Anglican institution—either for participating in a riot against the use of vestments, or for association with John Owen, a leading Puritan and former chancellor of the university. The teenager next went to France, ostensibly to take a grand tour. He was presented at court to Louis XIV and spent nearly two years studying at a moderate Calvinist academy. There Penn read the works of the early church fathers and more recent Christian humanists. His teachers advocated religious liberty for Catholics and Calvinists and defended Christianity as compatible with reason.

From there Penn’s father sent the young man to Ireland to manage his lands. Penn helped put down a rebellion, sought to become an army officer (his father refused), and went again to hear Loe. Soon he began regularly attending Quaker meetings for worship and became a Quaker. Quakerism provided the focus the young Penn sought, and he embraced distinctive Quaker testimonies: pacifism and a plain style of dress and speech. He left no record of ever questioning the authenticity or authority of his many experiences of the Inward Light of Christ in worship and in personal devotions. 

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The cost of Penn’s conversion to Quakerism was great. His father disowned him (although his mother gave him money to survive on). Almost immediately after converting, Penn wrote a tract that proclaimed all other churches apostate and questioned traditional doctrines: the Trinity, substitutionary atonement, and justification by faith. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London for blasphemy, writing from his cell, “My prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot; for I owe my conscience to no mortal man.”

In the tower he wrote a minor Christian classic. Still in print, No Cross, No Crown (1688) praises suffering: “No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory.” Charles II sent a moderate Anglican priest to persuade Penn to recant. Penn clarified that he accepted the divinity of Christ, but found the word Trinity unscriptural. This clarification, along with influence from his father and from the king’s brother, brought Penn’s release from prison.

Leading Quaker

Penn reconciled with his father, settled down, married, and began a family, though his first three children died. He preached in Quaker meetings and traveled as a minister to Ireland and Europe. He also defended his beliefs in debates with Presbyterians, Baptists, and Anglicans, and published numerous tracts. As a former aristocrat who had influential contacts at court, Penn appealed to the king and other nobles on behalf of Friends who had been thrown in jail for withholding tithes to the established church, refusing to take oaths, and not joining in public worship. 

Fearing a second Puritan revolution, Parliament after 1660 sought to force everyone to worship in the Church of England. Friends openly ignored this law. Penn now emerged as a leading defender of religious toleration. He appealed to Parliament with secular arguments for it: moral, hard-working people whose labor contributed to the country’s wealth were being imprisoned and reduced to poverty.

Speaking to religious audiences, Penn used a different tone. He argued that true religion was an inward, spiritual, voluntary matter between a person and God, not subject to interference from government. If Jesus and Paul preached the Gospel for free, why should Quakers be required to pay a tithe to a hireling clergy whose church they did not attend? 

Taking money without consent denied the fundamental right of an Englishman to his own property; forced worship led to hypocrisy by those who unwillingly conformed and jail for the courageous few who disobeyed. An individual’s conscience, the seat of religion, could not be coerced. Government should restrict itself to being “a terror to evildoers,” so that authentic religion could flourish.

 Things came to a head in 1670 when soldiers locked a Quaker meetinghouse in London, forcing Penn to preach in the street. Charged with inciting a riot, Penn turned the tables and issued a pamphlet portraying the heavy-handed actions of the prosecutors and judges. When the jurors sided with Penn, the court imprisoned them and tried to force a guilty verdict. Eventually the House of Lords ruled that a jury could not be coerced, establishing a basic principle of English and later American law.

Across the pond

With their rights still in jeopardy in England, Quakers set their sights on America as a place to finally find the freedom of worship they coveted. Penn first became involved with Quaker efforts to settle America by arbitrating a dispute over ownership of West New Jersey, which Quakers had colonized. Later he approved a New Jersey constitution providing for trial by jury, an elected assembly, secret ballot, and guaranteed rights for Native Americans. But he soon turned his efforts to the other side of the Delaware River.

Exactly why Charles II decided in 1681 to give to Penn the land named Pennsylvania (“Forest of Penn”) is unclear. Ostensibly it was to honor and repay a debt to Penn’s father the admiral. Yet it also served as a way to settle new land at no cost to the Crown, rid the country of troublesome Quakers, and please influential courtiers.

Penn saw the grant as a gift from God to create a “holy experiment.” “Experiment” in the seventeenth century could mean a holy experience, but also a scientific experiment: Christian people creating a “city upon a hill,” a “light to the nations” with good laws, religious liberty, and hardworking, prosperous settlers.

The name of Penn’s new capital expressed this ideal: Philadelphia, “brotherly love” in Greek, the city described in the book of Revelation where people did God’s will. Pennsylvania was also a place where Penn, habitually in debt, could regain his fortune by selling lands and collecting quitrents (land taxes).

Penn recruited devout settlers—Quakers and other dissenters—from the British Isles and northern Europe, promising cheap lands and political and religious liberty. He first came to Pennsylvania in 1681, laid out the plan for Philadelphia, began a pattern of good relations with the Native Americans, and established a government. Then he returned to England. 

Peaceful revolutions

The first Pennsylvania laws sought to create an orderly, deferential society with an aristocracy balanced by democratic elements. Drawn up by Penn and approved by settlers, they reformed abuses in the English legal system: guaranteeing trial by jury and proceedings in English; abolishing imprisonment for debt; making prisons into workhouses; and reducing capital offenses to two: murder and treason. 

Pennsylvania’s religious liberty meant freedom of belief, freedom to worship, no forced tithes, no established church, and no militia. Instead laws were designed to enforce morality. All who believed in God were welcome, but only Christians could hold political office. Legislation would be initiated by a council, which Penn personally appointed. There was also an elected assembly to vote on new laws. Almost immediately conflict erupted as the two groups vied for power. In Penn’s absence the colony proved almost ungovernable. 

Penn believed that government had a limited role: “Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad, if it be ill, they will cure it. But if the men be bad, let the government be never so good and they will endeavor to warp and spoil it to their turn.” He was caught between his ideal of a model society built on peace and love and his need to collect rent from afar. Disputes between Quakers and non-Friends over the need for defense of the colony, factionalism within the Quaker community, and opposition by virtually everyone to paying Penn taxes and quitrents made the colony a turbulent place.

In 1685 King Charles died, and his Roman Catholic brother James II ascended the throne. The new king, aided by Penn, sought to bring toleration for Catholics and others to Great Britain. But James’s autocratic policies and his favoring of Catholics resulted in a relatively peaceful revolution in 1688 that placed James’s Protestant daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange, on the throne. As an ally of James, Penn was accused of treason, lost control of Pennsylvania, and went into hiding.

Lasting legacy

In debt and disgraced, Penn experienced the death of his beloved wife, Gulielmas, after lingering illness, and the death of his eldest surviving son. He responded by writing a history of early Friends, a proposal for a parliament of Europe to bring respite from perpetual wars, and a series of maxims called Fruits of Solitude. In 1696 he regained governmental powers in Pennsylvania and returned in 1700 to solve its problems. The colony had now become prosperous, with Philadelphia emerging as a major port. 

Quakers had increased their numbers, expanded settlements, overcome a schism, and enforced their distinctive testimonies. They dominated the ruling assembly in Pennsylvania until after Penn’s death, but their political power and increasing wealth meant great problems maintaining religious purity. Penn, in a document called the Frame of Government, allowed the assembly to become the dominant force in government. The new Frame served as Pennsylvania’s constitution until 1776 and is commemorated in the inscription on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land.”

But disputes between Penn and the assembly continued; he became so discouraged with the colony that he offered to sell the right of government to the Crown. During negotiations in 1712, Penn had a stroke and the sale was not completed. The Penn family remained proprietors of the colony until the American Revolution. After Penn’s death the colonists finally began to appreciate his contributions in creating and defending Pennsylvania as a land of religious liberty, political freedoms, and economic opportunity. CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #117 The Surprising Quakers. Read it in context here!

By J. William Frost

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #117 in 2016]

J. William Frost is Jenkins Professor of Quaker History and Research, emeritus, Swarthmore College.
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