Providence Today: William Penn – Seed of a Nation

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
Providence Today has you at Welcome Park in historic Philadelphia, the place where William Penn lived for a couple years in a slate roof house while he was here in his city, Philadelphia. We want to give you a quick overview of William Penn’s life and how it was used in God’s providence to help shape the story of America. As we do this, we’re helped by the timeline that’s right here along the wall at Welcome Park. Let’s walk along and get it.

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
You can see it begins with the story of William Penn, a gentleman uniquely born as a son of an admiral. And it’s remarkable as you look at the quote along the top, it says, “By liberty of conscience, we understand not only a mere liberty of the mind, but the exercise of a visible way of worship.” Do you hear that word, exercise of worship? The free exercise of religion. That becomes part of the First Amendment.

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
It’s not just what you believe on the inside, but the right to practice your faith in your community without fear of persecution. Now, as a son of an admiral, he began at Oxford University. And because of the upheaval of that time religiously and otherwise, he ends up getting expelled from Oxford. He had been influenced by the Puritans and with the reestablishment of the Anglican Church under Charles II. He protested. Well, in God’s providence later on in his life, having studied for a while in France, he is converted by a Quaker street preacher.

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
And as a Quaker minister, he now begins to break the law preaching without a license, preaching in public in London and elsewhere. And so, in that process, he became keenly aware of the need for religious freedom. There was a need for a time for tolerance in a time of intolerance. And that, we can see, is about 1667 when this happens.

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
There is a need now for a tolerance that doesn’t exist. He faces the intolerance of a society that has no room for anything but the established church. And so, as a minister, he faces the joy of preaching, but the persecution that comes with it. And as a lawyer, having been trained in law, he also becomes a defender. A defender of the Friends, another name of the Quaker movement going back to the founder, George Fox, who said, “The king of the universe when he came to the world, he called people he met his friends. How much more we should all be friends under the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.”

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
And so, the vision then is something that is going to take place of, how can we find a realm where there is not persecution? So the next quote says, “This day my country was confirmed to me by the name of Pennsylvania. My God will, I believe, bless and make it the seat of a nation.” Pennsylvania was the name that was given to it by Charles II, when a great debt that was owed to the Penn family, Admiral Penn, now becomes his as an heir, and he asked to be paid in land.

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
The king says, “It will be named Pennsylvania.” And Penn said, “Don’t name it for me. That’s vainglory. I am a Quaker.” And the king says, “I’ve written it. That’s what it will be.” And he said, “Well, then let it be known it’s named for Admiral Penn, my father. Not for me.” But then with this opportunity, 1681, to become a founder of Penn’s Woods, Pennsylvania, he calls it his holy experiment. It’s something that he wants to be used to bring glory to God. As a visionary, he says, “For my country, I eyed the Lord in obtaining it, and desire that I may not be unworthy of his love, but do that which may answer his kind providence.”

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
He recognized that God was at work opening this door. And he says, “And serve his truth and people, that an example may be set up to the nations. There may be room there, though not here, for such an holy experiment.” He said it may not be possible in England, but maybe there, it will be an example to the nations of a holy experiment of bringing liberty to people that their consciences might be free.

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
And so, this map reminds us that he planned the place chosen between two navigable rivers, the Delaware and the Schuylkill. And then, the planned city. We see the map that was designed with all of the streets very squared and very large so that there could be a growing city. In fact, in Welcome Park around a statue, you see all of these grids of the streets that he intended to have. One of the things he realized as he came to this part of the world, that he would have to engage those who’d been here for generations and centuries, the Native Americans.

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
And so, because he was a man of peace, he established a peaceable agreement between the Native Americans and the Quaker settlements, and there was not war between them. They worked out their conflict. He bought the land from them as he went into their territories, creating, if you will, a wonderful agreement between the natives and the immigrants that were coming.

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
He obviously was a great promoter. He wrote some account of the province of Pennsylvania in America, lately granted under the great seal of England to William Penn. He wanted people to come here. So, the persecuted people of Europe were invited to come and find inexpensive and sometimes free land, and the freedom of conscience. It was very, very successful. As a result, many people came.

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
He is a law giver. He realized that men make laws, but only good men can make laws good. If there’s good laws and good men, they will be good. If they’re bad men with good laws, they’ll corrupt it. If there are bad laws and they’re good men, they will correct them. He needed, in his mind, people of character. But he wanted good laws with good men and good citizens to create them.

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
And so, he becomes a statesman. In the midst of all sorts of wars and conflict, he wanted to have a place of freedom. We see the quote along the top, “Any government is free to the people under it where the laws rule and the people are a party to those laws.” We sometimes speak of that as the rule of law. William Penn said, “We want the law to be king in this land. And that the people will obey it and that will create peace, will create justice, create order.”

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
He had to work continuously with the leaders of England. He got into trouble with them. He wrote great books. There’s a whole story here that we can’t tell, but that’s a part of his life. The intrigues with royalty and the many contributions of his academic skills. But he becomes, if you will, a proprietor. This was a proprietary colony. He owned it under the rule of the king. And so, that’s part of the story.

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
And that’s what brings him right here to what we now call Welcome Park, where the slate roof house is. He had to deal with quarreling, all kinds of conflicts, and try to bring peace. But ultimately, I believe his greatest contribution was his charter of privileges, which begins and ends with a promise that no one will ever be persecuted because of their religious beliefs in his city. That meant years later, when Roman Catholics were banished from all the English-speaking world, they were able to practice only in Philadelphia. The mass was still legal here because he promised in his charter that no one would be persecuted for their religious convictions.

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
And so, there’s great struggles. He nearly went bankrupt. There were many problems. If it weren’t for his wife and help, it may not have survived. But at the end of the day, as we come to the Liberty Bell we realize, this did become the seed of a nation. On July 8th, 1776, a bell that was commissioned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s charter, there’s a new nation. Here in Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, Penn’s vision for a seed of a nation came to pass.

Dr. Peter A. Lillback:
And remember, he recognized all of this happened because of divine providence. Providence is still at work. Thank you for listening to Providence Today. If you’d like to know more about the work of God in history, I hope you’ll come to our website, providenceforum.org. Download our free app, our faith and freedom app. Or get some of our literature, and you’ll learn more about the founding era of America and how faith and freedom go hand in hand. Once again, thanks for listening to Providence Today. (Music).

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