Faithful Heroes: William Penn

William Penn is best remembered as the founder of Philadelphia, but he was a deeply religious man. He wrote numerous works on Christianity, was imprisoned in the Tower of London several times for his faith and his book No Cross, No Crown {1669} has become a Christian classic.

He was born on October 14, 1645 in London, England. His father, Sir William Penn, was an English nobleman, founder of Pennsylvania and early Quaker.

He was educated by private tutors and later attended Christ Church in Oxford.

young William Penn

While in Ireland, he began to attend Quaker meetings, and was soon arrested for his attendance. He publicly declared himself a member of the Quakers and was jailed. His father’s standing allowed him to be freed and his conversion was viewed as a possible affront by his father. His father ordered his son out of the home and he went to live with nearby Quaker families. The Quakers refused to swear an oath of loyalty to the King. He became close with George Fox, the founder of the Quakers.

He traveled to both Ireland and Germany over the coming years for both family and Quaker missionary business. These roots led to heavy German settlements being established in Pennsylvania.

He wrote several pamphlets and was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1668. He endured heavy prosecution over the years and one of his trials even led to the end of a judge ruling over the jury.

His dying father wrote to the King and Duke of York {future James II} asking protection for his son, which was promised

William Penn

With his father’s death he inherited a large fortune. He married Gulielma Springett in April 1672. The couple would have three sons and five daughters together.

With conditions deteriorating, he appealed to the King and Duke, proposing a mass emigration of English Quakers to North American. However, the New England Puritans were as hostile to the Quakers and the English were.

The King eventually granted a generous charter to Penn as the “soler proprietor of a huge tract of land west of New Jersey and north of Maryland and gained sovereign rule of the territory with all rights and privileges.” These lands were owned by the Duke of York and he retained what is now New York.

One of the houses Penn lived in in Pennsylvania

Penn originally called the area “New Wales” and then “Sylvaia” before King Charles II changed the name to “Pennsylvania” to honor the elder Penn.

Penn proclaimed he would “neither exploit the natives or the immigrants”. He began to set up a legal framework for an ethical society. His laws were a radical departure from those found in Europe.

In 1684, he returned to England to see family and resolve several disputes, including a border dispute. His lack of attention to administrative details led to numerous issues including his business manager embezzling from his estates.

In 1696 his wife died and two years later he married Hannah Margaret Callowhill, who was half his age. The couple would add eight children to their family over the next twelve years.

Penn on top of Philadelphia City Hall

Penn and his family returned to Philadelphia in December 1699 where he received a hearty welcome. Both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania had grown rapidly during his absence.

He began to tighten laws, which had caused a fractiousness in his absence and adopted many Puritan beliefs and ways. He also began to write of the idea of making a federation of all the English colonies in America.

His family lived at Pennsbury Manor and kept a home in Philadelphia.

His wife did not enjoy life as governor’s wife. In 1701, with new threats to his charter he returned to England with is family. The money he put into the new territory and loaned to others failed to provide for his family. Upon returning to England, he discovered his financial adviser had cheated him and his oldest son led a dissolute and neglectful life.

Penn ended up in debtor’s prison which was eventually reduced to house arrest. Eventually the Quakers arranged payment for back rents and Penn was released.

Two strokes in 1712 left him unable to speak or care for himself and slowly losing his memory. He died penniless on July 30, 1718 in Berkshire, England at the age of 73.

After his death many of his legal and political innovations took root in Pennsylvania. The colony continued to thrive and became one of the “most populous colonial cities in the British Empire”. His family retained ownership of the colony until the American Revolution.

William Penn’s son, Thomas, became a bitter opponent of Benjamin Franklin in the push for “greater democracy” in the years leading up to the American Revolution.

One of the greatest theories adopted was by Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers. These men took his idea “all Persons are equal under God” in forming the new federal government after the American Revolution.

William Penn wrote over a thousand papers in his life about religion, human nature and morality.

A bronze statue of William Penn was installed in 1894 and stands atop Philadelphia’s City Hall.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.