One of the most important men who influenced religious liberty in America was William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania. He was born 375 years ago ((1644) in London, the son of a British naval officer. At the age of eleven, young William had a conversion experience that would affect the rest of his life. It led directly to his strong conviction that every person has the God—given right to determine how he will worship and with whom he will fellowship.
William received an excellent education, but he was expelled from Christ Church at Oxford because of his dissenting Christian views. These views were not in conformity with those of the Church of England. His father sent him to France to study abroad and, hopefully, to shake these nonconformist religious convictions. But Penn studied among the Huguenots (Calvinistic Reformers), who were themselves being persecuted in France for their dissident religious views. This relationship with the Huguenots only confirmed young Williams’ nonconformist religious beliefs. He returned to England to study law, but his studies were cut short when the Great Plague broke out in 1665.
Although his legal education had ended, Penn, now a young man, learned to manage lands and people by managing his father’s estate in Ireland. He became friends with the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, and became an apologist for this new Quaker faith. Penn often spent time in prison because of these dissenting religious views. He used his time well and wrote extensively during these times of imprisonment.
Penn’s great love for liberty and his striving after religious freedom were already the driving focus of his life when he began to correspond with Roger Williams, the Baptist founder of Rhode Island colony, which offered freedom of religion. Even though Williams strongly disagreed with Penn’s theology, he thoroughly supported Penn’s right to follow his own conscience. Penn traveled extensively all over England and on the European continent visiting Quakers.
It because clear to Penn that the Quakers, also called Friends, were not only mistreated in England, but also in some colonies of the New World. He found this mistreatment especially troubling in Massachusetts where four Quakers had actually been executed. While the death penalty was later dropped against Quakers in New England, the stories from Boston were quite disturbing, and Penn protested this treatment to the colonial authorities.
By 1680, it became clear to Penn that the political situation in England was becoming intolerable, especially for religious and political dissenters. He decided that a colony in America would be the only solution. While King Charles II disapproved of Penn’s dissenting religious views, the monarchy owed a debt to Penn’s father, Sir William, who had been a friend of the Crown. Therefore, in May 1680, the king presented William Penn with a title to the land we now know as Pennsylvania in repayment of that debt. The king also saw this gift as a way of getting rid of a troublesome political opponent. The documents giving Pennsylvania to William Penn were finalized in 1681. While Penn thought it vain, the king chose to name this land grant “Pennsylvania” (meaning, Penn’s Woods) in honor of Penn’s father.
William Penn began making visionary plans for the new government, proposing liberties that were far ahead of his time, including division of powers and the right to self-government. The cry for religious freedom at that time must be understood in the context of the oppressive Church of England. Settlers to the New World were not seeking freedom from Christianity, but freedom from the tyranny of a coercive state church. Freedom under God, with self-government and the right of every man to think and believe and worship as he saw fit – that was the great vision that drove William Penn to undertake the task of building a new colony.
Penn was very involved in planning the new colony, from laying out the streets in Philadelphia in straight lines forming a grid, to writing the laws that would govern the new colonists. It is very clear that what Penn envisioned for his colony was not freedom from religion, not a complete separation of God from government, but a government based on Biblical principles that respected the religious consciences of all its citizens. He envisioned a place where every man was free, not to live an ungodly life, but to practice his religion in peace, to have the right to rule his own estate, and to participate in making laws and enforcing them. Individual freedom could only work if the people were self-governed and industrious.
In 1682 Penn sailed to his colony with nearly one hundred Quakers to join earlier settlers in the new province of Pennsylvania. Within the first year after they arrived, Penn made a peace treaty with the Indians, bought land from them, included them in juries, and assured them of fair trials. Under the great Treaty of Shackamaxon, the Indians and settlers lived together in peace for about seventy years. Very few colonial leaders took justice for the Indians as seriously, but Penn believed it was his Christian duty.
Bible-believing Christians should honor the memory of William Penn, who left a long-lasting legacy of religious and civil liberties and freedom of conscience, and impacted the religious liberty legacy that American has been known for.
Here’s a link to a documentary video about William Penn – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-31iitsBAh0&t=1128s
The above is an excerpt from One Nation Under God: Ten Things Every Christian Should Know About the Founding of America, by Dr. David Gibbs, Jr. Available at http://www.christianlaw.org/cla/