William Penn And His Holy Experiment
William Penn, English religious and social reformer and founder of the Province of Pennsylvania, was born on October 14, 1644, in London. After suffering persecution in England for his adopted Quaker faith, Penn would establish freedom of worship for all inhabitants of his North American colony. Pennsylvania, while predominantly Quaker, soon became a haven for minority religious sects from across Europe, as well as the most culturally diverse of the thirteen original colonies.
Time is what we want most, but what, alas! we use worst; and for which God will certainly most strictly reckon with us, when Time shall be no more.
William Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude. Originally published 1693.
Born the privileged only son of Admiral Sir William Penn, a landed gentleman, the younger William Penn was, at an early age, greatly affected by the preaching of Quaker itinerant minister Thomas Loe. At the age of eighteen, in 1662, Penn was expelled from Christ Church College, Oxford for nonconformity. Sent on a grand tour of Europe by his father, he completed his schooling in France before returning to London to study law briefly at Lincoln’s Inn. Penn soon entered into the management of his father’s affairs, which brought him into contact with the Restoration court of King Charles II. These duties also took him to Ireland, to settle family land claims there.
By the time that he returned from Ireland in 1667, and to the shock of his family, William Penn had joined the radical Religious Society of Friends. At that time, Friends—commonly called Quakers—were subjected to persecution by the government due to their unconventional religious views. Quaker beliefs, which stressed the presence of the Inward Light, or Spirit of God within each person, implied a level of personal equality that was seen as a threat to both church and civil authority. Penn soon became a spokesman among the Quakers, and was jailed four times for advancing his dissenting beliefs. His No Cross, No Crown, written in 1669 while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for blasphemy, condemns the worldly excesses of Restoration England, urging instead the rejection of personal vanities along with Quakerism’s message of larger social reform.
Upon the death of his father in 1670, William Penn inherited title to the family estates in England and Ireland and began to frequent, as had his father, the English court. There he established friendships with King Charles II and especially with his younger brother, the Duke of York (who later became James II). Both an idealist and a pragmatist, Penn used his political influence to campaign for religious toleration and other principles of liberal government associated with the emerging Whig party of his day. He also continued to preach and publish on behalf of the Society of Friends, producing dozens of books and pamphlets during the 1670s alone. In 1672, Penn married Gulielma Springett, a fellow Quaker; they had four children who survived infancy.
Seeing limited prospects for religious toleration or political reform at home in England, Penn directed his energies toward America. Having recently helped to fund the Quaker colonization effort of West New Jersey, in 1681 Penn obtained a large grant of land from King Charles II in payment of a debt owed his father. This land grant would become Pennsylvania. On August 24 of the following year, Penn further acquired the “three lower counties”, which later became Delaware.
As sole proprietor, Penn established the Province of Pennsylvania (meaning “Penn’s Woods” and named for his father) as a “holy experiment”—intended for Quakers but open to everyone. Published in 1682, Penn’s Frame of the Government of the Province of Pennsilvania in AmericaExternal provided that all believers in “One Almighty and Eternal God…shall in no wayes be molested or prejudiced for their Religious Perswasion or Practice in matters of Faith and Worship.” Together with Penn’s 1701 Charter of PrivilegesExternal, which granted significant rights of governance to an elected legislature, this document is an important precedent for the shaping of the U.S. Constitution decades later.
Penn also worked hard to attract settlers and sold land at the reasonable rate of £100 for 5,000 acres—partly to smooth out his own difficult personal finances. As an added incentive, purchasers of the first 500,000 acres received bonus lots of land in Penn’s planned capital city, the future Philadelphia. A Brief Account of the Province of Pennsilvania in America of 1682 was one of nine promotional tracts published by Penn to advertise the virtues of his colony. Some of these tracts were translated into Dutch and German to draw potential migrants from Northern Europe, where Penn had strong ties from his journeys as an itinerant preacher. With plenty of fertile land and guaranteed freedom of worship, Penn’s colony grew rapidly, attracting settlers of multiple religious denominations from Great Britain and Europe.
By the time that William Penn made his first visit to Pennsylvania, arriving aboard the ship Welcome in October 1682, Philadelphia (meaning “City of Brotherly Love”) was already under construction in accordance with his plan. Mindful of London’s devastating fires and epidemics, Penn instead envisioned “a green country town, which will never be burnt and always be wholesome.” Philadelphia became the first gridded city in America, featuring parallel streets and blocks of uniform dimension stretching for a mile between two rivers. By the time of the American Revolution, Philadelphia had become the largest city in North America, serving as site of the Continental Congress, and briefly as the U.S. capital before the founding of Washington, D.C.
Among his accomplishments in governance, Penn is remembered for interacting peacefully with the Lenni Lenape (or Delaware) Indians; there were no armed conflicts between Pennsylvania and native tribes until shortly before the outbreak of the French & Indian War. The iconic image of William Penn signing a treaty with the Indians, first depicted by painter Benjamin WestExternal in 1771, has entered historical imagination through borrowings in popular art and in the acclaimed folk art paintings of Quaker Edward HicksExternal. With the 1894 erection of William Penn’s statue on the tower of Philadelphia’s City Hall, Penn’s own image also became an enduring icon of Pennsylvania history.
Forced to return to England in 1684 to defend the terms of Pennsylvania’s charter, Penn spent less than two full years in residence in his new colony. The rise of King James II, and especially his subsequent fall from power, caused Penn to suffer further political complications—including the removal of Pennsylvania from his control for several years. Still, Penn continued his writing on behalf of Quakerism, authoring such works as Some Fruits of Solitude in Reflections and Maxims Relating to the Conduct of Human Life (1693), An Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe (1693), and A Brief Account of the Rise and Progress of the People Called Quakers (1694).
Following the death of his first wife, Penn married Hannah Callowhill in 1696; they had seven surviving children. Three years later, she accompanied him when he returned to Pennsylvania for his second two-year visit.
William Penn’s final years did not go well. Some of the officials who he appointed turned against him. Pennsylvania also never provided the financial relief that Penn had hoped for, and, due to the dishonesty of his principal agent Philip Ford, he even spent time in debtor’s prison. Following a paralytic stroke that left him memory-impaired for his last six years of life, William Penn died in 1718. His sons, who did not follow him into Quakerism, continued as Pennsylvania’s proprietors until the time of the American Revolution. Yet, despite his life’s late frustrations, William Penn is remembered both as an inspiration to generations of Quakers, and as a forward-thinking colonial founder who helped lay the groundwork for some of the best elements of America’s emerging cultural and political character.
- Visit the exhibition Religion and the Founding of the American Republic to learn more about the important role of religious groups, including Quakers, in creating the United States.
- Browse the Legislative Petitions Digital CollectionExternal to learn how religious freedom in Virginia was affected by the American Revolution.
- Search Today in History on Quaker to read more about famous members of the Society of Friends including philanthropist Johns Hopkins, abolitionist Lucretia Coffin Mott, and suffragist Alice Paul. Compare the life of William Penn to that of Rhode Island’s formerly Puritan founder, Roger Williams, or to America’s first Catholic bishop, John Carroll.
- Search Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885 on William Penn to find a number of pieces written to celebrate the bicentennial of Pennsylvania’s founding, along with Shackamaxon Schottisch and Bicentennial Grand March.
- Browse Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey by location for more than 900 surveys of Philadelphia architecture. Search the collection on Quaker Meeting House for more than 60 examples of Quaker sites of worship.