Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

William Penn

1644 – 1718 

William Penn was born near Tower Hill, in London, on 14th October 1644, in the middle of the Civil War. His father was Vice-Admiral Sir William Penn, a great sea-captain. in the 1650s, during Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, Penn senior experienced great success in sea battles with the Dutch, for which he was made an Admiral and granted Shannagarry estate in Ireland. But then he was sent to help colonise the West Indies, which didn't end well for him, so he retreated to Ireland with his family.

Young William Penn was by now reading widely, and there were many radical political and religious ideas in the air. During this time he heard Quaker missionary Thomas Loe speak, which clearly impressed him. Then, aged 16, he went to Christ Church, Oxford. The Church of England was the only legal form of worship at this time and students were expected to attend services.  Penn found this impossible to accept, and began to organise meetings and to challenge the authorities. By 1662 they could take no more, and expelled him.

His father was very annoyed, and sent him to France, hoping to dispel his rebellious ideas. In fact Penn used the opportunity to explore his ideas further,  by enrolling in the Huguenot Academy and learning from Moise Amyraut, a strong supporter of religious freedom.  He returned home to study law, until the Great Plague of London broke out in 1666, when his father sent him far away to Ireland, to manage Shanagarry.  Here he encountered Thomas Loe again, and became a convinced Quaker.

In 1668 he was imprisoned for seven months for his religious beliefs. While in prison he wrote No Cross No Crown, one of his most influential books. Around this time he also met Gulielma Springett, daughter of Mary Penington and step daughter of Isaac Penington, both committed Quakers. In 1672 William and Gulielma married, and went on to have seven children, five of whom died in infancy.

By 1670 a new Conventicle Act banned public meetings of more than 5 people, in an attempt to suppress all but Anglican worship.  William Penn and his friend William Mead spoke to a large crowd in London’s Gracechurch Street, and were arrested and tried at the Old Bailey. The Penn-Mead Trial has gone down in legal history due to Penn’s skilled arguments and the courage of the jury. It set a precedent for the rights of juries to reach independent conclusions and is still referred to today. It is a very important part of Penn’s legacy, both in the UK and in the US.

William’s father had died in 1670. Part of William’s inheritance was a crown debt of £16,000 which his father had lent to Charles II soon after the monarchy was re-established. In 1681 in settlement of this debt he was granted land on the west bank of the Delaware River in the American Colonies. Penn wanted the province to be called Sylvania, but the King insisted on the name Penn being prefixed in memory of his father, so it became Pennsylvania.

He went to America in 1682 and spent two years there establishing the colony. He called it his Holy Experiment because it was to be a place where the Quaker ideals of equality, religious freedom, and open democratic processes could be put into practice in ways that seemed impossible in Europe.  He treated the Lenape Indians with great respect and made a treaty with them for the use of their land.  Voltaire said of the treaty that it was the only one “not ratified by an oath, and that was never infringed."

Penn also drew up a remarkably progressive constitution for Pennsylvania.  He believed that if people had freedom, education and equal rights under moral laws that they themselves had helped to make, things might go wrong from time to time, but would put themselves right. It served as a model for several other states, and was a key influence on the US constitution drawn up in Philadelphia nearly a century later.

He had an early opportunity to demonstrate that he was really serious about equal rights and moral laws when Margaret Mattson was brought before him in 1683, on a charge of witchcraft. Such charges were all too common then, but Penn's verdict on Margaret was that she was 'guilty of the common fame of being a witch' which was undoubtedly true but not an offence, and she was set free. There were no more witch trials in Pennsylvania.

Soon after Penn’s return to England in 1684, the King died and was succeeded by James II. As a close friend of the new King, Penn did much to further religious freedom. The culmination of this was the 1689 Act of Toleration which enabled Quakers and all other religious groups to worship openly.

In 1694 Gulielma died. Two years later he married Hannah Callowhill, much younger than he was. They had seven children together, four of whom survived to adulthood. In 1699 they went to America, to live at Pennsbury, near Philadelphia. Penn had to return to England in 1701 to sort out financial problems, and he never returned to his Holy Experiment. His health declined and in 1712 he had a stroke and suffered from memory loss. He died in 1718 and is buried in the grounds of Jordans Quaker Meeting House in Buckinghamshire, along with his wives and several of the children.

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Image of William Penn reproduced by kind permission of the copyright holders Pennsbury Manor