The Life and Legacy of William Penn

The Life of William Penn

William Penn was baptized in All Hallows by the Tower in London on October 23, 1644, as the son of William and Margaret Penn.  His father would become an Admiral under Charles II.  Raised an Anglican, he attended Christ Church College in Oxford at the age of sixteen.  At this time, Penn went to hear Thomas Loe (d. 1688), a fiery Quaker preacher, sermonize the new gospel of the Society of Friends.   

Penn bristled under the new religious discipline at Oxford, and was eventually expelled for “rioting” with other students in the quadrangle of Christ Church College. Furious, Penn’s father sent him to France where he spent some time at the Royal Court in Versailles.

Leaving Paris, he then traveled to Saumur, France. There he lived with and studied under the illustrious French Reformed theologian, Moses Amyraut (1596-1664).  Here Penn experienced personally under the Edict of Nantes the attempts by the French Huguenots to enjoy religious freedom in a tenuous toleration of their faith by the Crown that supported a state religion.  The Huguenot experience of religious liberty at that time was unique in all of Europe.  For only in France was there toleration of a religion contrary to the religion supported by the state.

Upon returning home, he studied law at Lincoln Inn in London, and experienced the great suffering and pain caused by the Black Death of 1665 and the great London fire of 1666.  Penn even entered into naval combat as he served for a time on ship.  But Penn once again encountered Thomas Loe and heard Loe’s sermon on the theme “There is a faith which overcomes the world, and there is a faith which is overcome by the world.”  Penn left this meeting as a confirmed Quaker.  His father could not break Penn’s convictions, and finally drove him from home.  Penn’s mother continued to assist him with his living expenses, however.

Penn became a preacher for the Quakers.  His preaching of these beliefs ultimately found him imprisoned in the Tower of London.  Here Penn wrote his classic work entitled “No Cross, No Crown” based on the last words he had heard from his mentor Thomas Loe upon his deathbed.  

It was during these days of imprisonment that he developed his dream of a place where freedom of conscience in regard to religion would be maintained. After nine months, Penn was released from the Tower.

Before Admiral Penn died however, he and his Quaker son were finally reconciled. Thus when the Admiral died, the younger Penn became his heir.  Charles II also owed the Admiral’s estate 15,000 Pounds for a monetary loan.  Since the King was facing financial difficulties, he was disposed to Penn’s request to be paid by a tract of land in America.  An essential part of receiving the land was that Penn would be its proprietary governor with the power to make its form of government and its essential laws.  This enabled Penn’s dream of a commonwealth with religious liberty to become a reality.

This petition was received June 14, 1680, and the patent was signed by the King on March 4, 1681.  The name of the new territory was left blank for the King to fill in.  Charles chose the name Pennsylvania.  Penn said he had wanted it to be New Wales, but accepted the name and said it was named in his father’s honor.  

Thus Penn had the opportunity to create the home for the free exercise of religion.  Penn’s Charter, which became the first Constitution for Pennsylvania, ensured that no citizen would be “molested or prejudiced” because of their faith, nor would anyone be “compelled to frequent or mentaine any Religious Worship place or Ministry contrary to his or theire mind”.  So important were these provisions, Penn ensured that they could never be violated.  At the end of the Charter, Penn reiterates:

But because the happiness of Mankind Depends So much upon the Enjoying of Libertie of theire Consciences as aforesaid I Doe hereby Solemnly Declare Promise and Grant for me my heires and Assignes that the first Article of this Charter Relateing to Liberty of Conscience and every part and Clause therein according to the True Intent and meaneing thereof shall be kept and remaine without any Alteration Inviolably for ever…

Revolutionary for its time, Penn’s Charter is considered by some to be the American Magna Charta of religious liberty. Indeed biographer Harry Emerson Wildes wrote of Penn:

William Penn’s ideas were far in advance of his time.  His chief concern was for freedom, particularly the right-indeed the duty-of each individual to think for himself, especially to worship God as each thought best.  Unfortunately, he campaigned for religious tolerance in an era when conformity was accounted virtue.  He demanded equality in an era of aristocracy, justice in a period when fair-mindedness could be accounted heresy, if not treason.

Penn stood firm for what he regarded as the fundamental and historic rights of Englishmen: the rights of life, liberty, and property; the right to government by popular consent; the right to trial by independent juries. These rights, stemming from ancient custom and guaranteed by such solemn compacts as the Magna Charta, were not to be infringed upon by any overlord, regardless of his rank or power….Convinced that all men, of whatever race or color, were the children of God, he pleaded for equality of treatment.

Penn’s radical dream was that Philadelphia would be a city where brothers would truly love one another His prayer for Philadelphia, the city of “Brotherly love” says:

And thou Philadelphia the virgin settlement of this province named before thou wert born, what care, what service, and what travail have there been to bring thee forth and preserve thee from such as would abuse and defile thee! O that thou mayest be kept from the evil  that would overwhelm thee, that faithful to the God of thy mercies in the life of righteousness, thou mayest be preserved to the end!  My soul prays to God for thee that thou mayest stand in the day of trial,  that thy children may be blest of the Lord and thy people saved by His power.

Penn’s city was to be a city where liberties entirely unknown elsewhere in the world would be legislated and practiced.  Hence Penn’s Charter set a new standard for religious liberty that profoundly impacted America’s history and still provides an example for the world today.

*William Penn (Harry Emerson Wildes, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc, New Your, p. 2-3).

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