Peter Lillback for Colonial Society of PA
An address by Dr. Lillback for the Colonial Society of PA, December 2017
The William Penn Story
Transcript of Dr. Peter Lillback’s address given recently for the Colonial Society of PA:
So, at any rate, thank you so much for the privilege to celebrate William Penn. William Penn’s name is known all around the world. Everybody has heard of Philadelphia and of Pennsylvania. I travel the world for Westminster Seminary. When I say Philadelphia, they say, “I’ve heard of that”. It’s not like “Where is it?” They know about it. But when we’re here in Philadelphia, in the region, or Pennsylvania and we ask the question, “Well where did William Penn get a big name like that?” Nobody knows. They say oh wait a second, isn’t it something about brotherly love or something? They know a little bit, but it actually comes from the bible and what is extra ordinary for us is we think about William Penn, when we see him towering over city hall with that massive statue that’s here to his commemoration, we forget that he was a minister of the gospel. You realize that his name should be the Reverend William Penn. He was a minister and as a clergyman I really take great delight in that. As a historian I really appreciate the history of William Penn and what I would like to do tonight is tell you something of the story of this man that you honor in this colonial society. You’re celebrating another anniversary of his landing here in Pennsylvania and that story is something that you especially should know and I hope you’ll learn some new things that you can carry with you and celebrate.
The first thing that I’m going to begin with is that William Penn, like every one of us, had a family. We come into the world because of people who have gone before us. You’re in this organization because of family members that go all the way back to the colonial era. And so, William Penn had a family and his father was an admiral in the British Navy. William Penn’s grandfather, the father of his father, had also been a navy man and so you can see he had come from a naval tradition. Now what’s interesting is that his father, Admiral William Penn, Sir William Penn, was a very shrewd naval person. He was able to play the politics of his era in such a way that he could be on the side of the man who was against Charles the first. Remember the name Oliver Cromwell? OK he’s the man who chopped off the head of Charles the first. That’s a little bit of a painful story in history and then there was now the ending of the Cromwellian era and the return of Charles the second to whom you’ve given a toast tonight. He was able to actually be on his side on the return. So, we can’t go into all the details of how clever his father was, but he was a great admiral, he had fought often. He was from a very powerful family in terms of this military side and he was shrewd. You might say he knew how to play his cards very carefully. He was on the side of the winner. Now the reason that we need to appreciate that is that young William Penn, when he goes to Christ College at Oxford University, it’s now at a time when there’s been a restoration. Charles the second has come to the throne. The puritan era, the era of Cromwell has now passed and young William Penn is now studying and he sides with the Puritans, not with the restoration. That’s the old guard. There was a great theologian by the name of John Owen. At Westminster we have students that still read John Owen’s theology. One of the great puritans. He was not one of the Anglicans. He was one of the ones that helped overthrow the king and so his father was very, very upset. As the story goes, young William Penn refused to put on the vestments that were now required of a good Anglican student studying at Christ college and the puritans wouldn’t’ wear these kind of vestments. The Anglicans, well you’re supposed to. After all, this is what we do and he refused. He got kicked out of school. Guess what happens when you come home to your father who’s the admiral of the navy who’s really excited about the king and you’re coming home for not honoring the kings church. What does he do? He’s furious. He drove him out of the house with a cane. But thank god for mothers. You know mother’s really have a hand of keeping things a little more balanced. She said we can’t lose our young son, and so she sent him off with father’s blessing to France. To get him out of this puritan Anglican conflict and he goes and he studies and he gets a little more of the high society, the French culture, a little more comfortable with being in the elite context from which he was, but he also studied in the home of another theologian by the name of Moses Amyraut. I won’t go into his theology, but he was in the reform tradition and when he comes back he is now a theologically trained young man. He was a minister. But as he begins to develop his understanding of things, he encounters the study of the law and so he becomes an attorney. OK, now what’s interesting is that as he is walking through London in the time of when the plague had hit and then the great London fire, this is a time tremendous upheaval in history. He hears the preaching of someone by the name of Thomas Lowe. Thomas Lowe had been a Quaker preacher who had happened to visit admiral Penn’s house. So, he had actually known him a little bit from an earlier time and the sermon that he heard by a street preacher– remember street preaching was utterly illegal in England. It was also illegal for anyone to preach without a license from the king. You had to be in a church and you had to have the king’s signature to preach. He didn’t have the signature. He didn’t have the license. He wasn’t in a church. So here he was preaching illegally and Penn, because he kind of knew him, stopped to hear him and the sermon that he heard on the street corner in London goes something like this. There is a faith that’s overcome by the world and there’s a faith that overcomes the world. Which is yours? And he said that question and that preaching gripped his soul. He said I am just floating along with my culture just doing whatever happens? I just believe what anybody tells me? Or do I have a faith that really believes something and takes it hold and is willing to take hold of it no matter what it costs? Now I’m not real theatrical but I brought a prop. Anybody recognize what this might be? It almost fits. OK. Now you need to understand the founder of the Quakers. A man by the name of Fox, John Fox, was someone who had already been willing to break the law of England. He would preach on street corners. He didn’t have a license from the king and one of the things that really got him in trouble was that when the noblemen like the esquire Curt Chainey the seventh came by, a former governor of seven historical societies, he wouldn’t take off his hat and bow and say “Your excellency”. He said “I refuse to do that. I’m not taking my hat. Why?” Because the king of kings and the lord of lords of history named Jesus Christ came to the world and he said I call you my friends. If the king of the universe looks at everyone and says we’re all friends, then how can I be forced to take my hat off and bow before a friend?
We’re all friends. And of course, you know one of the names for the Quakers are the friends. It’s part of its history. And so now a little aside here. You all know the story that when I came to seminary to go to Westminster many years ago, there was the rule that no building could be built taller than the brim of William Penn’s hat. Do you remember? You might have been around debating that when that was going on. I remember when the law was passed and said no, we’re not stopping at the brim. The skyscrapers are going up. The brim is no longer sacred and you know what happened? The curse of William Penn fell on Philadelphia. We no longer had championship teams. The weather was ice on the basketball, baseball, football– couldn’t get a winner and then finally as the Comcast tower is being built someone realized maybe if we put a bobble head doll of William Penn and the brim was back on the top of the tallest building– well that was the great year of the world champions Philadelphia Phillies. Now I hate to say the curse has only been partly broken but there it is. OK?
So, the point is the Quaker tradition becomes very important. William Penn as a young man basically breaks from the high lofty tradition of the Anglican church. He’d been schooled in theology. He becomes a Quaker preacher and that means that he’s now really broken the bond with his father and so as you tell the story of this man it’s very interesting. He becomes a street preacher– really someone from the high nobility of England or let’s say the high prestigious class and he’s out preaching on the street corners and he gets arrested. He gets thrown into the tower of London. This is where the high-level prisoners go. And while he’s there he beings to write books and it would be fun to talk about some of his books, but I’ll give you a homework assignment. You all, since you’re part of a society that honors William Penn, you should know about his most important book he ever wrote. It’s called “No Cross, No Crown”. It has been modernized and put into readable English. I think it’s something that you might really benefit on. I actually brought some quotes, but since I’m not giving you a full two-hour lecture like I’m used to giving I won’t quote it tonight. But what he’s saying is that burying the cross of Christ, being willing to suffer for what you believe because of what’s true is absolutely part of receiving the glory that comes at the end of a life that’s lived through god. He said discipleship. This man was a minister. You can’t forget that. This is part of his teaching. At any rate as he’s in the tower of London as he’s writing an idea comes to his mind. He says “What would the world be like if there was a society where people could believe what they really believe from the heart and yet they would have complete privilege to exercise their civil liberties and their social responsibilities by full participation government? Would it be possible that you could actually be a government official and you didn’t have the same faith as the governor or the king of your country?” People thought what a ridiculous, foolish, utopian, impossible idea. It just couldn’t happen. Well William Penn pursued that as part of his vision. Now one quick anecdote before we get into America. It was interesting that at one point he was arrested again and because he’d been trained not just in theology, but also in law, the judge brought him in and said I’m going to find you guilty for breaking the law, for preaching without a license, preaching outside of a court. You’re going to be judged and he said you cannot judge me, I insist that I have a jury. And the judge says what right do you have to a jury? And he began to quote the Magna Carta. He just happened to be a lawyer and he forced the judge to admit, OK I guess you have the right to have a jury. So, the jury is in paneled and the case is made and the judge says to the jury here’s what the law says, here’s what William Penn has done. No preaching unless you’re in a building, unless you have a license. He did it on a street corner. No license, no church. Now you have to find him guilty and William Penn says, “You cannot find me guilty because this is an unjust law”. And the judge says get that man out of my court. And so, they put him behind a wall and he says “Do not listen to what you just heard”. And William Penn said over the wall says “It is an unjust law. You have the power to find me innocent before an unjust law”. And they’re hearing all this going. Can you imagine the chaos? And what happens is that the judge actually takes the jury, because they found him innocent, and puts them in jail. And said the entire jury is jailed with William Penn and said “You are going to stay there until you find him guilty”. And they refuse. And he’s found innocent. And William Penn, the street preacher lawyer, is the one who establishes the great right of trial by jury in English law that you actually find in the United States Bill of Rights. But he doesn’t stop his work here. That’s the amazing thing.
That would have been enough to make history, but his father who had kicked him out of the house was so impressed with his son’s absolute commitment to his conscience, to what he believed, the courage to pay the cost for what he thought was right, that he is now on his deathbed and he calls his son home. And Sir William Penn says to young William Penn, the street preacher, Quaker, lawyer, theologian and says I want you to be my heir. I want you to receive everything. And you need to remember that this man had honored Charles the first. He was on good terms now with Charles the second and had done quite well under Oliver Cromwell. Very clever man. All of this had been accumulated. And there was a large debt that needed to be paid to the Penn family. And so, when Admiral Penn dies, young William Penn who can read a legal contract and a will says I want to speak to the king. And he’s able to approach the king with his request and said your majesty, it is not my desire to be paid in lands and monies in England. I would rather ask you the right to be paid in land that’s far distant from here, 3,000 miles across an ocean. Lands that are undeveloped, unknown, utterly insignificant to your crown. Would you allow me to have those as a full payment of the debt that’s owed to my father’s estate? All I would ask is that you let me be the writer of the laws of my colony. Will you let me write the constitution of my proprietary colony? And the king who had a cash problem said it’s a deal. OK? He said you can have the land and he carved out a piece of land, 150 miles by 300 miles. Imagine that. This whole thing was his backyard. And he comes over here and he establishes then a place that is going to be called Pennsylvania. When the king settled he said Penn’s Woods, Pennsylvania. Penn said it cannot be called that. I’m a Quaker. It would be vain for me to be the one for whom this land is named. And the king says what I’ve written, I’ve written. And so, he said let it be henceforth known that this state is not named for me but for my father. So, you need to know that Pennsylvania is named for Admiral Penn and not William Penn. Did you know that? You live in Pennsylvania, you should know that. [laughing] Well, he had the right now with the law to establish his own colony and he established a city. A city that was between two rivers and it became known as Philadelphia.
Why did he choose Philadelphia? Because one it is actually a city in ancient history, a city that’s mentioned in the bible, and further it is a moral value that is a virtue of Christians actually identified as Philos Adelphos in Romans chapter 12. Let brotherly love continue among you. And so the story that comes from the city, where did the first Philadelphia come from? Well, as you might know in a dynastic setting the most dangerous person in a kingdom is often the second born brother. Why is that? Well if the first older brother somehow dies, guess who takes over? And so there’s great concern. Let’s keep that younger brother kind of always under surveillance, right? But there was a historic king who so appreciated the loyal honor of his younger brother that he built a city called brother’s love, Philos, like philosophy, philanthropy, philatoly. Adelphos, brother. A love of brother. It’s mentioned in revelation chapter 3. It says let brotherly love continue. The same words in Romans 12. So that becomes the name of our city and William Penn actually created a prayer for the city. He said it’s a prayer given to a city before it was born. If you don’t know that prayer, it’s still on a plaque in city hall. You can read it. It’s a prayer that comes right from revelation chapter 3 where the book of revelations speaks about the historic city of Philadelphia and says that the lord will keep you in your great hour of testing when it comes upon you. And William Penn says lord, keep the city when the great hour of testing comes upon it. Some of us think that great hour of testing happened right after the Battle of Brandywine. When the city fell into the hands of the British and congress had to flee, but that’s for another day.
But what we see then is that Penn has the opportunity to establish a capital city and a proprietary colony that will be loyal to the king and he opens it up for people for his vision that he had in the tower of London where people who are persecuted and had every other religious challenge they would be welcome to come to his place and have civil liberties. So the final version of his charter in 1701, it was earlier in the 1680s when he first began to develop, in its final version it begins and it ends– and the very first part with these words “No one will ever be molested in their conscience because of their religious beliefs”. He says, “It will forever be the right of each person to worship god according to the dictates of their own conscience”. This is something that had never been established on this scale before. It’d been attempted slightly up at Rhode Island by another minister Roger Williams, but now William Penn. Now what you find here then, and the governor asked this question earlier, he said is there any connection between the protestant reformation and William Penn? OK so you remember 500 years of the protestant reformation was just October 31. Well the answer is that when the reformation happened the reformers wanted to have the freedom of conscience and they were persecuted by the historic ancient church of Rome. But when they had the rights to their own places, guess what they did? They persecuted people that disagreed with them because they said we got what we wanted and you can’t come in. This is what makes William Penn such a genius. He was, in fact, fighting for the same freedom that every protestant had longed for, but he understood something else. He understood the freedom. This is Penn in his own words. “The freedom that we long for ourselves we must give to others. I want to be free.” That means I’ve got to let you be free. And so, where did he get that idea? Well he wrote a great book on the liberty of the conscience and on its cover he put a verse and I bet every one of you can quote this verse. I’ll give you the reference and none of you will know what it is. It’s Matthew Chapter 7 in verse 12. Nobody knows what that is. Now if you’re a good bible student you say well that comes out of the sermon on the mount doesn’t it? Yeah, that’s right, but here’s what it says. “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you”. Have you heard that before? That’s called the golden rule. On the cover of the great case for the freedom of conscience that William Penn wrote to defend the idea that there should be a civil society where everyone’s conscience is free, he says it grows out of the teaching of Jesus called the golden rule. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. He basically was saying I didn’t like it when the Anglicans put me in the tower of London because I was a Quaker. Now the Anglicans are coming to Philadelphia and they want to build this church called Christ Church. Do you know what the tallest steeple was in America for over 100 years? It was the Anglican Christ Church of Philadelphia. William Penn didn’t say you aren’t welcome here. You put me in jail. You don’t come in. He said you come here. All I ask is that as you build your church and you exercise your faith, you give me the freedom that I give to you. This experiment that seemed to be a utopian folly was so successful that when the liberty bell rang out on July 8, 1776 which is 75 years after the final version of his charter, Philadelphia had grown to be the second largest English speaking city in the world. It’s extraordinary and you may remember that with the glorious revolution in England when the Protestant monarch was established and the Catholic religion was set aside, when that happened the mass was banished in every English-speaking domain under the king in the entire world. It was illegal except for one city on the planet. You know what it was? Philadelphia. You know what church? Old Saint Josephs. There’s a plaque there to this day that says “When the English monarch banished the mass for the Catholic, it did not touch the city because of William Penn’s charter that protected the right of conscience.” Protestant and Catholic, Quaker, Native American, Jew, they all found the ability to work. Now I need to be historically honest, for Penn the right to vote had not been granted to people who were not Christians under his chapter. That will come later, but at this point he said you have every right to be part of our society. This was a gigantic step that never happened before in history.
So, as we conclude a first cut on the life of William Penn what might be some take aways that we should remember? I would humbly suggest first of all to a group that honors William Penn as deeply as you all do, that you would remember how the Judeo-Christian value system was at the very core of his experiment. It was not irrelevant. He was not a deist. He was not a secularist. He was not an atheist. He was a deeply devout Christian and it was his Christian faith that created the liberties that are unparalleled in the world to this day. Half of the world still does not have the liberties that we take for granted every day that had become enshrined in the first amendment. It really was first portrayed and projected and developed by Penn’s charter. Secondly, I would like to suggest to you that learning history really matters. We who are people of faith, if you might be, I noticed that Curt was free to pray in the name of Jesus, so I assume many of you may be Christians. I don’t know that for a fact, but if you are I want to say to you the secular world says to Christians get out of the public square. You don’t belong here. You are an interloper. I have just given you the historical evidence that it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ from Matthew chapter 7 verse 12 established by a minister, theologian, lawyer, and great real estate entrepreneur who actually created the liberties that we enjoy to this day. History really matters. And so finally the last take away I might give you is that wouldn’t it be great that if we did a better job of making sure people at least knew a little more about William Penn and his life, people don’t even know the basic facts of his life and that’s really true because I tell these stories. I conclude with this. I have, for the last 20 years, had the privilege to have professors who come into Philadelphia from China. That’s why this big fat book Sacred Fire is being– an abridged version by the way– is being translated into Chinese and you know what they always most remember on their trips? The professors I work– they tell me we never forget the story of William Penn and Philadelphia. He said it’s so incredible. Why? Because they’re still trying to figure out how do you give religious liberty to people in a society and they marvel that we did it here in our city. When 2001 came, that’s a long time ago already– this is when the providence forum was just starting. It was 1999, it was the end of a research I was doing and I came across Penn’s final charter and I said my goodness Philadelphia is the place where religious liberty was born. Look at this great language. I said I’m new to the city. I’ve been around for a little bit. I’m a historic– I want to be part of the celebration of this. I can’t wait! And I said who’s celebrating it? Guess what? I looked around and nobody was celebrating. The 300th anniversary of the most extraordinary statement on religious liberty in the history of the world. The reason Philadelphia became the place where the United States was born and the reason was because of the unique freedoms it had here and everybody had forgotten. Now we had a big celebration, but instead of finding– I had to put it together. Curt helped me do it along with others. We had the University of Pennsylvania and a lot of other people we got involved. I’m challenging you as a group. You hold the tradition of William Penn more than anybody. Let the story be heard. It’s extraordinary. So, thank you for letting me– I did preach tonight, but look it’s Sunday, what do you expect? [laughing] As I wrap up tonight if you’d like a copy of Sacred Fire, I brought the hard-back versions. I have about 16 or something over there. They’re $20 each. That’s a good bargain price for it. I’m glad to sign it. They make great Christmas gifts. If you don’t need Christmas gifts you can exercise with them or use them as doorstops, they’re real good. [laughing] Thank you so much for the privilege of being with you. [applause]