Religious Leaders of America's Past--William Penn in Quaker Pennsylvania

George Fox

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The Old World Background

Many people were involved in establishing the Quaker religion in the American colonies. Originally known as The Society of Friends or simply Friends began in 1647 when an Anglican, George Fox, spent his early youth going around England from church to church, preacher to priest but found no answer to his questions. He eventually did missionary work for the Quakers in both England and America

Early settlement in the New World

  • Several attempts for Quakers to settle in the colonies. In 1656 Quaker missionaries Mary Fisher and Ann Austin were seized in Boston by authorities. They were deported after there possessions were confiscated
  • Rhode Island welcomed them and they even elected Quaker governors for more than a century.
  • In Maryland the Catholic Lord Baltimore granted liberty of conscience to them.
  • In Long Island in 1657 Quaker missionaries drew Robert Hodgson drew crowds to his meeting. He was arrested, imprisoned and flogged. The citizens petitioned for his release and won.

William Penn received a grant of land that became Pennsylvania, which was payment of a dept owed to his father by King Charles II. The Duke of York, later King James II added the territory of Delaware. William Penn (October 14, 1644-July 30, 1718) Penn’s father was an Admiral in the Commonwealth Navy during the English Civil War.

William Penn

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Penn’s early life

His father was often away at sea. He caught the pox when he was five years old and lost all his hair. And it prompted his parents to move to the suburbs, an estate in Essex. His education was at Chigwell School by private tutors in Ireland and then at Christ Church, Oxford. There were no public schools and most of the schools were with the Anglican Church. Since the schools were very puritanical in its discipline and curriculum Penn absorbed much Puritan behavior and was considered to be serious, strict in behavior and lacking humor. Due to his stay in Paris, however, he did develop a taste for fine clothes and paid more attention to dress than the average Quaker.

He did have a stint at the military when he went to Ireland with his father in1666 to manage family landholdings. He even thought of a military career. But he gave that up. Under King Charles restrictions against all religions except the Anglicans increased. Quakers were targeted more than others. Penn was arrested for attending Quaker meetings. Although he was not a Quaker at the time, he declared himself one and joined them at the age of 22. His father objected to his conversion,  ordered him out of the house and withheld his inheritance.

Quakers refused to bow or take off their hats to social superiors because they believed all men were equal which did not go over well in a Monarchy. They did not pay tithes, refused to swear oaths to the king. They had no formal ceremonies, but indulged in silent meditation in a meetinghouse. Each individual gets God’s communication directly.

When he was about fifteen he met Thomas Loe, a Quaker missionary who was  criticized by both Catholics and Protestants. However, he was admitted to the Penn household and influenced young William.

He enrolled in Oxford in 1660 as a gentlemen scholar. with a servant assigned to him. There was a mixture of Cavaliers, Puritans and Quakers there. Status wise he was one of the Cavaliers but his sympathies were with the Quakers who were being picked on by that group. He became reclusive to avoid conflict. During that period he also found that he did not care for his fathers military view or his mother’s society sensibilities.

Penn learned to think and reason When the Dean of the college was censored and fired for his free thinking, Penn stood by him, which resulted in himself getting fined and reprimanded. The Admiral pulled him out of Oxford hoping to get his son to look in other directions. It did no good. At eighteen he was sent to Paris to get him away, improve his manners and get exposure to another culture.

In France he was bothered by the extravagant displays of wealth. He was impressed by Notre Dame and Catholic ritual but was not comfortable with it. He turned to French Protestant theologian Moise Amyraut who had a view of religion that Penn liked.

Treaty with the Indians

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Penn’s activism

Penn became the first theological theorist and legal defender of Quakerism. He provided its written doctrine and helped establish its public standing. He got in trouble himself by writing tracts criticizing the other religions.

After several conflicts with the English authorities over his religious activity Penn proposed to the King a mass emigration of the English Quakers. For whatever reasons the king went along with it and granted Penn land that became Pennsylvania. The King named it Pennsylvania in honor of Penn’s father.

 Penn went to the colony in 1682. He made friends with the Indians and met with them at Shackamason, which was an ancient meeting place for the Indians.  And a treaty was signed that all were satisfied with.

Penn had a carefully worded a Frame of Government for Pennsylvania which gave the citizens booth liberty and responsibility. It was a government dedicated to religious freedom, equality and peace. Pennsylvania was Penn’s “Holy Experiment.” His charter guaranteed free and fair trial by jury, freedom of religion as well as from unjust imprisonment and free elections.

The business side

He hoped it would be a profitable venture but proclaimed he would not exploit either the natives or the immigrants. He set about establishing a legal framework for an ethical society with power derived from the people, in the way of a Quaker meetinghouse. He also thought it important to limit his own power. The government would have two houses, safeguard private property rights and free enterprise with fair taxes. Only two crimes, treason and murder, would be capital offenses. Prisons would be progressive. His laws of behavior were somewhat Puritanical such as no swearing, lying, drunkenness, stage plays, gambling etc.

However, Penn was not a good businessman and did not pay attention to details. Therefore he ran into troubles and conflict later. He died penniless in 1718.

United States Constitution

Later in the 1700’s when the Founding fathers met to write a constitution they used Penn’s example to work from. Most of our freedoms and rights come from what was set forth by William Penn.

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Comments 23 comments

Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

I didn't know very much about William Penn's life. Now I want to read more about him. Thanks for the information.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for being the first to comment. There is a lot to learn about him. He accomplished much, but his lack of practical detail was unfortunate.


Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 6 years ago from Moundsville, WV

dahoglund,

Thank you for writing such a great and detailed hub on the life of William Penn. I got an education on the details of his life that I've never heard before!!!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

I'm glad you found it informative. I think Penn had an important influence on such things as our constitution. It is sad that his life ended more or less in failure.Thanks for commenting.


Captain Jimmy profile image

Captain Jimmy 6 years ago from WV

Good Hub! Fact filled! I enjoyed it!

http://hubpages.com/religion-philosophy/Where-Your


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for reading it. I appreciate your comment and am glad you liked it.


Coolmon2009 profile image

Coolmon2009 6 years ago from Texas, USA

I learn a few things about William Penn I didn't know. It has been a while since I read about him. Good article!!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

It's always good if someone learns something from an article. Thanks for the comment.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 6 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

In American literary history we get the impression that Pennsylvania started off and continued for some time as an oppressively religious part of the New World/USA.

According to you William Penn wasn't oppressive at all but valued freedom of religion and thought. Obviously some of his followers couldn't live up to his ideals very well.

I am not surprised he wasn't a very good businessman. Ideals and money don't go well together. You often either have one or the other. A pity he became penniless.

Good read.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for reading and commenting. Penn's children did not follow in his footsteps. I'm not familiar with the history you refer to. My sources were primarily Wikipedia and a Quaker history site.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

Very informative and interesting about the life of William Penn. Thanks!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for commenting. I think Penn contributed a lot to the values of the country.


2patricias profile image

2patricias 6 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

We became interested in William Penn a few years ago through hearing someone read from an article that he had written.

Our small town has an annual church service for the new mayor (we have a new mayor every year), and some years the previous mayors read a Bible verse, or poem, or whatever. On this ocasion the previous mayor was a Quaker and he chose something be W.Penn.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

I learned about Penn when I researched the article, although I already had some respect for him and the Quakers. Thanks for your comment. It is interesting that you get a changeover in mayors every year.


ruffridyer 5 years ago from Dayton, ohio

I visited an quaker open house. The people were warm and friendly, still have the same ideals. I asked about quaker oatmeal. I was told that the church has nothing to do with the company, in fact quaker oats SUED the church over the name. The company lost.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

I had a college professor who was a Quaker. Unlike so many teachers today he never tried to persuade students to accept either his religious or political view.Thanks for commenting.


ajwrites57 profile image

ajwrites57 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

dahoglund Appreciate the insights about William Penn. It would be interesting to explore what ways the Founding Fathers used Penn's principles to set up the government. Thanks! :o)


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 3 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

aj, certainly the principles of limited government, power from the people and protection of private property are principles the founders share with Penn. Obviously other influences also contributed to our constitution. To some extent we have drifted away from these things. As you say, it would be interesting to explore how much direct influence Penn had on the founders. Also, how far we have drifted away.

Thanks for reading my hub on William Penn.


ajwrites57 profile image

ajwrites57 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

dahoglund--you're welcome. Too bad they didn't lay some groundwork or framework for humanely dealing with the Native Americans, as Penn did. (Also, too bad they didn't address slavery when they formed the Constitution--would have saved many lives.) As far as how far we have strayed, let's just say that the book is still open on the issue. Hopefully, we can stem the tide of the Constitution's erosion.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 3 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

aj, I am not sure if the relationship with the Indians was brought up or not when the constitution was formed. The slavery issue was, but it could not be reconciled and still form a union at that time. At least that is what they though. I agree that the erosion of the constitution is still reversable but it has been going on throughout my lifetime.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 3 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

aj, I am not sure if the relationship with the Indians was brought up or not when the constitution was formed. The slavery issue was, but it could not be reconciled and still form a union at that time. At least that is what they though. I agree that the erosion of the constitution is still reversable but it has been going on throughout my lifetime.


ajwrites57 profile image

ajwrites57 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

dahoglund, yes, many of the Fathers were slave holders, especially those from the southern colonies. So, I guess it was a divisive issue even at this early stage of the new country. Wonder what Franklin's stance on slaves was? I can't seem to remember any of his comments on the issue.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 3 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

aj, I don't recall any Franklin comments on slavery. It might not have been a subject close to him as he was a business person and not of the social and economic class to own slaves. Even for those against slavery, it was not a simple problem as integrating slaves into society would have been a problem.

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