William Penn and His ‘Holy Experiment’

How William Penn Applied Quakerism in Pennsylvania

William Penn
Circa 1690, William Penn (1644 - 1718), English Quaker, founder of Pennsylvania. Getty Images

William Penn (1644-1718), one of the most famous early Quakers, put his religious beliefs into practice in the American colony he founded, resulting in unrivaled peace and prosperity.

The son of a British admiral, William Penn was a friend of George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. When Penn converted to Quakerism, he experienced the same relentless persecution in England as Fox.

After being imprisoned for his Quaker beliefs, Penn realized the Anglican church had too strong a hold in England and would not tolerate the Friends' Church there. The government owed Penn's family £16,000 in back wages for William's late father, so William Penn struck a deal with the King.

Penn got a charter for a colony in America, in exchange for canceling the debt. The King came up with the name "Pennsylvania," meaning "Forests of Penn," to honor the Admiral. Penn would be administrator, and at the start of every year, he was to pay the King two beaver pelts and a fifth of any gold and silver mined within the colony.

Pennsylvania Guarantees Fair Government

In keeping with the Golden Rule, William Penn assured the right of private property, freedom from restrictions on business, a free press, and trial by jury. Such liberty was unheard of in the American colonies controlled by Puritans. In those areas, any political dissent was a crime.

Even though he came from an upper-class family, William Penn had seen the exploitation of the poor in England and would have no part of it. Despite Penn's generous and considerate treatment of Pennsylvania's citizens, the legislature still complained about his powers as governor, amending the constitution several times to spell out his restrictions.

William Penn Fosters Peace

Peace, one of the foremost Quaker values, became law in Pennsylvania. There was no military draft since Quakers rejected war. Even more radical was Penn's treatment of Native Americans.

Instead of stealing land from the Indians, as the Puritans did, William Penn treated them as equals and negotiated purchases from them at fair prices. He respected the Susquehannock, Shawnee, and Leni-Lenape nations so much that he learned their languages. He entered their lands unarmed and unescorted, and they admired his courage.

Because of William Penn's fair dealings, Pennsylvania was one of the few colonies that did not have Indian uprisings.

William Penn and Equality

Another Quaker value, equality, found its way into Penn's Holy Experiment. He treated women on the same level as men, revolutionary in the 17th century. He encouraged them to get an education and to speak out as men did.

Ironically, Quaker beliefs on equality did not cover African-Americans. Penn owned slaves, as did other Quakers. Quakers were one of the earliest religious groups to protest against slavery, in 1758, but that was 40 years after Penn died.

William Penn Ensures Religious Tolerance

Perhaps the most radical move William Penn made was complete religious tolerance in Pennsylvania.

He remembered too well the court battles and prison sentences he had served in England. In Quaker fashion, Penn saw no threat from other religious groups.

Word quickly got back to Europe. Pennsylvania was soon flooded with immigrants, including English, Irish, Germans, Catholics, and Jews, as well as a wide variety of persecuted Protestant denominations.

Persecuted in England-Again

With a change in the British monarchy, William Penn's fortunes were reversed when he returned to England. Arrested for treason, his estate seized, he became a fugitive for four years, hiding in London's slums. Eventually, his name was restored, but his troubles were far from over.

His unscrupulous business partner, a Quaker named Philip Ford, tricked Penn into signing a deed that transferred Pennsylvania to Ford. When Ford died, his wife had Penn thrown into debtor's prison.

Penn suffered two strokes in 1712 and died in 1718. Pennsylvania, his legacy, became one of the most populated and prosperous of the colonies. Even though William Penn lost £30,000 in the process, he considered his Holy Experiment in Quaker rule a success.

(Information in this article is compiled and summarized from Quaker.org and NotableBiographies.com)