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William Penn and His Quaker Faith in America

Updated on April 26, 2010

Penn's Holy Experiment

Quakers in North American Colony

Interviewing original Quaker immigrant to Pennsylvania, Mr. Thomas Andrews, who came from England in 1682 on the same ship as Mr. William Penn.
By Michael M. Nakade

The following was a recorded (fictional) interview done by one of the newspapers in Philadelphia in 1722.

Q1: Mr. Andrews, you are a Quaker. Will you explain your faith to us?

A 1: First of all, I don’t like the label, Quaker. We go by “Friends.” We believe that Christ is a spiritual reality that all human beings can experience. We don’t treat Christ like an ancient figure who simply taught us to believe in him for the right to go to heaven after our time on earth. We believe that all of us have Christ in us and that we can come to experience our inner Christ. Secondly, Christian is someone who shows a change in his life. That change indicates a real turning point in one’s life. Third, our church is not just a building but the fellowship of people who have had their lives changed by Christ. Fourth, we want to simplify our religious practices. We don’t want our church to be decorated elaborately or have lots of complicated rituals. We want to sit in our church quietly and experience Christ. When we feel moved by the spirit, we stand up and talk. We are all equal in this sense. No one is better than anyone else in our church. There is no hierarchy.

Q2: Thank you for your thorough answer to my question. The next question is regarding your immigration to Pennsylvania in 1682. Why did you come to North America?

A 2: What I said above regarding my faith was deemed offensive to religious establishment in England at the time. We were considered too radical by the Anglicans and the Puritans. I was arrested like William Penn in the 1670s. We met while we were in prison. Luckily, Mr. Penn’s father was a famous navy officer in England and loaned the money to the royal family. Instead of getting the money back, Penn, Sr. was given the land in North America. The land was then called Pennsylvania, Penn’s woodlands. Penn, Jr. inherited the land and decided to try the Holy Experiment. Penn, Jr. opened up Pennsylvania for everyone and insisted on religious freedom. When I heard that he was going, I decided to go with him.

Q3: What was Penn, Jr. like?

A 3: He was really a smart man, educated at Oxford and knew how to negotiate with the royal family and everyone else. He represented our religious community very well. At the time, many people thought that we were a bunch of weirdos because of our unconventional religious beliefs and practices. But, with Mr. Penn, we gained a certain measure of credibility. You have to remember that his father, Penn, Sr. was a big shot in England. Penn, Jr. spent two years in Philadelphia and returned to England. He came back to Philadelphia in 1699 and spent another two years there. So, he actually lived in America for only 4 years total, but his legacy is great. He was tolerant of all different religious groups. He was a man with a big heart.

Q4: What was the city of Philadelphia like in those days?

A 4: It was wonderful. The city was designed on a rational grid system so that anyone could find anyone’s home or business very easily. It was a model city from a construction point of view. Mr. Penn made sure that it wouldn’t be like London where lots of streets were there to confuse people.

Q5: How were people in Pennsylvania like in those days?

A 5: First and foremost, Pennsylvania was a proprietary colony, meaning that the king of England granted the gubernatorial rights to the individual owner. The individual owner, in this case, Mr. Penn, advertised that people in Europe could move to Pennsylvania for commercial and farming benefits. And, when people arrived, he governed according to his own vision. He wrote the “Frame of Government” and set up the ground rule for Pennsylvania settlers. He called it the Holy Experiment, and it was really different from other colonies such as Massachusetts and Virginia. How different? Well, Mr. Penn granted religious freedom to every immigrant. Pennsylvania was opened up especially for those who were persecuted in Europe. Ana Baptists from Germany and Lutherans from Scandinavia came here to seek religious freedom. By and large, we all respected each others' differences and got along well. Oh, by the way, famous Pennsylvania Dutch is actually a group of Germans. The word German in German language is Deutsche, and some English folks thought that they heard “Dutch.”

Q6: Was “religious freedom” a very new concept when you lived in the late 17th century?

A 6: Oh yes.  When I lived in the 17th century Europe and America, there was this belief that folks had to belong to the same church to live peacefully. That was because the same religion meant the same worldview. People couldn’t live together happily when they lived next to the people of different worldview. That’s why allowing people of different religious faith to live next to each other was considered very radical at the time. So, yes, ‘religious freedom’ was a new concept.

Q7: What do you think is the historical significance of Pennsylvania?

A 7: Mr. Penn’s Holy Experiment succeeded. We showed that religious freedom would work and that a colony could prosper without religious uniformity. Our success paved the way for future generations. The First Amendment to the US Constitution was a direct result of our success. When we look at the Puritans in Massachusetts, we notice a huge hypocrisy. Those people left England for North America so that they could enjoy their religious freedom. But, they would not allow religious freedom to others. They tolerated no one except their own religion. Or, look at it this way. They were persecuted when they were a minority. But, as soon as they became the majority, they turned to being the persecutors of minority groups. In light of what the Puritans did, our achievement is very significant, historically.

Interviewer: Thank you, Mr. Andrews. It was nice to learn about how the Quakers worked to make the Holy Experiment a success in Pennsylvania.

(Information indicated in this work came mainly from The Teaching Company’s Lecture Series on American Identity, Lecture 3, “William Penn – The Religious liberty Advocate” by Patrick N. Allitt.)


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