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How the Quakers Came to Pennsylvania

Updated on January 11, 2015

A Dream Takes Root

At the time of Charles II's reinstatement to the British throne, William Penn was a teenage student at Christ Church, Oxford. His father, at the time having high favor at court as a distinguished admiral, abandoned his influential friends to assist Charles in regaining his kingship. Young William, as an associate of the sons of the aristocracy, was being groomed for Court favor himself during this period, and was receiving the education to do so.

William Penn however had a rebellious streak in him, and while hobnobbing with the offspring of the influential he was covertly attending meetings and ingesting the teachings of the outlawed and reviled Quakers. It was while attending such gatherings that Penn first learned of the plan of a group of Quakers to flee persecution by heading to the New World to establish colonies in Delaware. Forty years on he would write, "I had an opening of joy as to these parts in the year 1661 at Oxford." As such, his fame and life became imperishably linked with the Quakers and America.


Quakerism in the 17th Century

Puritan thought gave rise to many religious sects in the 17th century, of which Quakerism was one of the most popular. The Quakers exercised the principals of the right of private judgment, the founding doctrine of the Reformation, to its most logical conclusion. A people so long oppressed and terrorized however were destined to embrace extremism once free. They went on the warpath against existing doctrine, shocking and horrifying even the most open-minded Reformists with their rejection of the trinity doctrine, and the rite of Baptism and other sacraments and Christian observances. Their intense spirituality, akin to fanaticism, was often pathetic in practice, though their humane idealism which fueled the abolitionist movement, prison reforms, and other charitable work helped shape the fundamentals of today's society.

The influence of the Quakers was widespread, and practices influenced by them appeared in Italy, France, England, and especially Germany. Perhaps their greatest religious influence was their ideal of “quietism”, today known as meditation, which was considered both a form of worship and a means of fostering moral consciousness. Quietism was even adopted as part of the spiritual program of the Roman Catholic until it was halted by the Jesuits. Other influences fueled by Quaker extremists included flamboyant behaviors such as:appearing naked as a warning sign from God, interrupting the sermons of preachers or ministers from other religions and even less fanatic Quaker sects, preaching openly in the streets (considered a detestable thing at the time), and the one from which their name cam, trembling (quaking) when preaching.

Socially the Quakers did not do much to help their already abhorrent image. They addressed all as one would a servant or inferior, using the words “thou” and “thee”, refused to remove their hats in public as was the custom of the times, and worst of all, refused to recognize the Crown or the Church of England. Their refusal to pay taxes filled the jails with Quaker rebels, and soon what property they had was consumed by fines. The combination of their street meetings and insubordination gave license to the Government to purposely seek them out and prosecute them, and as they grew in influence and numbers, laws were purposely established with a view to eliminating them. Some of those who were less fanatic managed to flee to the colonies in America, though they were welcomed there by conditions no less dour.

Massachusetts passed the first law in the New World against the Quakers in 1656. Between that date and 1660, four were hanged, including a woman, Mary Dyer. Though no more were hung, many were subject to public floggings and ostracism. Fines and other punishment were also common in colonies such as New York, and against their will, the Quakers were forced to seek out land of their own, lest their religion be established solely on the basis of martyrdom.


Dreams of a Separate Quaker Commonwealth

The principal leader of the Quakers at the time of the enforcement of the Massachusetts laws was George Fox (1624-16910, who looked to the forests and mountains north of Maryland near the drainage basin of the Susquehanna and Delaware rivers as a potential location for establishing a settlement. Though this land bordered a difficult coast which prevented ease of access to the sea, it was the only remaining decent area on the eastern seaboard not already occupied; the extreme north housing the Dutch and Puritans, the Catholics and Anglicans living in the south.

This particular region was controlled by the Susquehanna Indians, so Fox consulted with one of his brethren, Josiah Cole, who was familiar with both the area, and the local Indian tribes. Coale inquired of the Indian tribes, and his report via letter to Fox was: "As concerning Friends buying a piece of land of the Susquehanna Indians I have spoken of it to them and told them what thou said concerning it; but their answer was, that there is no land that is habitable or fit for situation beyond Baltimore's liberty till they come to or near the Susquehanna's Fort."

Though the bid by the Quakers was unsuccessful, wind of it got back to England and landed in the ears of the young William Penn. He was captivated by the thought, as would an adventurous and ideal driven seventeen year old would be, and the irrepressible dream of a designated homeland for his people in the primeval forest, away from the oppressive taxation and imprisonments of the Crown, would be a dream that, albeit not for many years, he would heartily pursue.

More than the consent of the Indians was required for the establishment of a Quaker colony, but a temporary refuge was found on the banks of the Delaware River in the province of West Jersey, on a piece of land purchased from Lord Berkeley by two members of the Quaker faith. William Penn would be made a trustee of the grant, and so he entered the world of colonization. The land and conditions were not ideal however, and the ideal Quaker colony never materialized; Quaker control of the region disappearing after 1702. Though Penn owned land in East Jersey, he never considered it as an alternative place to establish a Quaker colony.

Found temporary refuge in what is now Rhode Island after losing control of West Jersey, establishing control of the region and becoming prominent in the politics of North Carolina, while expanding their population into areas such as Long island and Rochester County. Their influence was not of a spiritual nature however, and though tolerated in these regions, there was no hope of converting these communities into recognized Quaker commonwealths.


The Quest for Autonomy and the Pennsylvania Charter

Not only was land needed by the Quakers to establish their own colony, but the British government would have to provide both a title in deed, and a formidable charter granting self government and invulnerability of the Quaker faith to outside influence. Such an event seemed unlikely given the history between the Quakers and the Crown however; only extraordinary influence at Court could effectuate such a thing, and the Quakers were in want of leverage. A combination of circumstances would overturn the odds however, and the dream of a great Quaker colony would soon become a reality.

The boyhood dream of William Penn faded not, and with the death of his father he would soon receive an inheritance worth sixteen thousand pounds which would provide him with additional financial power to pursue it. Penn's father had established a relationship with King Charles during his lifetime, serving as an admiral and accumulating monies owed to him in the amount of ₤16,000 before he died. Both the relationship and the Crown's debt were passed down to the young Penn, now 36, and he would soon use both to his advantage.

At the time, Penn was one of the leading Quaker theologians, and in spite of his beliefs was popular at Court. His own friendship with Charles and his heir the Duke of York was intact, yet the amount owed to him was a small fortune in those days. It was unlikely that the crown would pay the debt in cash, their coffers already depleted by war and the costs of colonization, so Penn came up with the idea of them settling the debt in the form of land; wild American land which the Crown held in abundance. Others such as Lord Berkeley had been given huge parcels of land for assisting Charles to regain the throne; all the more then should the Stuarts reward the Penn's for similar services, and additionally for not pressing their just claim for monies owed.

The Crown granted Penn his request, unwittingly handing over the most opulent domain in the region. The wealth of forests, lakes, and rivers accompanied by fertile soil and huge deposits of petroleum, coal, and iron, was the most valuable ever granted to a single owner. Control of over fifty five thousand square miles was given to the Quakers, and area which consisted of Delaware and New Jersey. The whole area was only three thousand square miles short of being as large as England and Wales. A boundary dispute with Maryland cut the total area to 45,000 square miles, but still such an area had never been granted to a sole proprietor; especially one who had scorned privilege, politics, and royalty, and whose sect was despised by those whom had granted it.

Though anyone residing within Penn's boundaries was a tenant, he was forced to provide them with free government. He made the laws, though they were subject to approval from his tenants and their appointed delegates, though Penn himself would retain a veto. In spite of being proprietor and chief lawmaker of the province, Penn remained in England for much of the time, appointing a deputy to oversee and administer affairs in his absence.

Penn would be deprived of control of his colony for a period of two years from 1692-1694 by William III, but Pennsylvania as it came to be known, was the most successful of all the early colonies, and remained in control of Penn and his heirs till the time of the American Revolution in 1776. During that time, his “Holy Experiment” as he liked to call it, proved that things like agriculture, art, and even commerce could thrive under religious law. He destroyed the myth that morals and prosperity could only be achieved under the direction of a specific religious doctrine, and that government could rule without wars and the debilitating oppression that the Quakers had for so long endured.

William Penn's Holy Experiment of Philadelphia

Quaker Ancestors?

If you think your ancestors may have been Quakers, you can find them using the Handy Pennsylvania Genealogy Handbook. It contains Internet Links, Physical Addresses, Email Addresses, Telephone Numbers, and Lists the Record Holdings of Every Important Archive and Organization in Delaware. In short, it contains everything you'll need to find Delaware Genealogy Records. What's more, ALL OF THE RESOURCES LISTED ARE FREE!


The "Life of William Penn" by S. M. Janney (1852); "The True William Penn" by Sydney G. Fisher (1900); The "Journal of George Fox" (1694); "History of the Society of Friends in America," 2, James Bowden vols. (1850-54), "History of the Religious Society of Friends," 4 vols. (1860-67), S.M. Janney


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    • Lady Guinevere profile image

      Debra Allen 

      3 years ago from West By God

      This is really interesting information. It gives rise to what the religious of America are trying to do today. I guess the books in the NT of the Bible today says it all right when Jesus said that there is nothing new under the sun. It just keeps going arund and around and around.


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