William Penn (Quaker)

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William Penn (1644-1718), the son of Sir William Penn, was a prominent English Quaker, prolific writer, and the founder of Pennsylvania.


William Penn was born 14 October 1644, the son of William Penn, at that time a captain in the parliamentary navy, and Margaret Penn, who was half-Irish, half-Dutch. His father, who rose to the rank of Vice-Admiral, was given an estate in Munster, and William was brought up partly in Essex and partly in Ireland. In 1660 he went up to Christ Church College, Oxford. There he was fined for nonconformity, and, in 1662, expelled. His father then sent him on a continental tour and afterwards to study law at Lincoln's Inn, before arranging him to have a government post at Kinsale, where he could live on Sir William's new estate at Shangarry. While in Ireland he again met the Quaker preacher Thomas Loe, whom he had encountered twice before (once as a child) and he started to attend Quaker meetings. This led to a temporary break with his father, who recalled him to London.[1]

In 1668 he began as a Quaker minister and produced the first of many publications. He soon proved himself an able controversialist, defending Quakers against the attacks made on them, but also making out a more general case for liberty of conscence.[2] He was not immune to the persecution which Quakers suffered at the time. The legal proceedings in which Penn became involved indirectly produced one of the major developments of English law. In 1670 he and William Mead were charged with riot for speaking in the street, Gracechurch Street Meeting House (in London) having been closed under the Second Conventicle Act. The jury refused to convict and were fined. The judges of the Court of Common Pleas held that a jury could not be punished for its verdict.[3]

Shortly after this his father died and he became financially independent. In 1672 he married Gulielma Springett, and in 1676 they set up house in Sussex.

Charles II had issued a Declaration of Indulgence, which eased conditions for the Quakers. When parliament forced Charles to withdraw this in 1674 the consequent renewal of persecution brought Penn back into contact with James Duke of York who had been his father's patron. Despite Penn sticking to his refusal to yield the customary expressions of honour, they became friends. He also became involved in settling the affairs of the colony of West New Jersey, where numerous Quakers settled, and in 1681 obtained a charter for a colony to be called Pennsylvania, in an area where there had already been European settlement. This was said to be to clear a debt owed by the royal government to his father.1 Penn's motives appear to have been twofold, firstly to set up "an example to the nations", and secondly to restore his finances, which had suffered from his extravagance. In the second he had little success.[4] He received his charter in the spring of 1681, but did not set out himself until the autumn of 1682, having drawn up the prospectus for colonists and the Frame of Government.[5] The foundation of the colony was accompanied by a treaty of friendship with the Native Americans. He returned to England in 1684, partly to resolve a boundary dispute with Lord Baltimore, but Pennsylvania's problems pursued him there, and he was continually engaged in much correspondence, which, due to the slowness of communication, was often out of touch with developments. It is, incidentally, clear from this correspondence, that Penn, in common with other American Quakers, owned slaves and showed no qualms about it.[6]

On return, having to attend the royal court to conduct his dispute, he also took up the cause of persecuted nonconformists. Charles II died in 1685, and the Duke of York came to the throne as James VII (of Scotland) and II (of England). Penn's friendship with James and his support for James's attempts to enlist Dissenters in the tolerationist cause may have made him very influential in reducing persecution, but also made him an object of hatred to James's opponents.[7] After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, he was arrested three times on suspicion of plotting against William and Mary. On a fourth charge, for which there was apparently some evidence in the form of letters, he went into hiding and may have gone to France.[8]

Penn was cleared by King William at the end of 1693 and emerged from hiding, though some Quakers thought that he was not so fully vindicated that he did not need to issue a statement of self-justification, which he never did.[9] He had meanwhile been deprived of the Governorship of Pennsylvania. In order to get it back he gave meet its militia obligations in the war against France (though the Pennsylvania Assembly was not so compliant and obstructed such demands for a time).[10] Penn promised the Assembly he would return to the colony, but did not do so until 1699, engaging in active ministry in England and Ireland. After the death of his first wife he married Hannah Callowhill, with whom he had a second family, and from that time, when not in America, based himself mainly in Bristol.

Penn's 1699 return to America was brief, as he was obliged to go back to England in 1701 to help contest a bill which would have deprived the colonial proprietary governments of their rights, and stayed in England for the rest of his life, much harassed by money problems for years after his return. In 1708 he was even briefly imprisoned for debt, but was not disowned by Friends, probably because he continued to contest the amount owed. To escape from this, he needed the help of many others, notably his father-in-law. He attempted to resolve some of his difficulties by selling his proprietorship of Pennsylvania back to the Crown.[11] At the end of 1712 he suffered the third of what may have been a series of strokes, leaving him in an "innocent"2 state. He died in 1718 in Bristol.[12]


Penn was a copious writer. Many of his works arose from controversy and are ephemeral, though an early (1670) work, The great case of liberty of conscience, very popular at the time, was aimed above immediate disputes.[13] He wrote well, but perhaps too fluently, with the result that he is quite often quoted3 but not much read. The main works for which he is remembered are: No Cross No Crown, an early work later revised and extended (1682); the Preface to the Journal of George Fox, later expanded and issued separately as A brief account of the rise and progress .. of the Quakers; and Some fruits of solitude, written while he was in hiding, issued in 1693; . This last contains one of the best known of the quotations from his writings:

The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers.


1. The colony was named for his father, Sir William Penn.

2. Term used by Thomas Story.[14]

3. Quaker Faith and Practice, the book of Christian discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, contains 22 excerpts from Penn's writings.


  1. Graham, J W. William Penn: Founder of Pennsylvania. The Swarthmore Press. 1917 chs 1 - 2
  2. Murphy, Andrew R. William Penn: A life. Oxford University Press. 2019. chs 4 & %
  3. Braithwaite, W C. The Second Period of Quakerism. Cambridge University Press. 2nd edition prepared by H J Cadbury 1961, pp 66-73
  4. Murphy, ch 7 et seq
  5. Graham chs 12 - 13;
  6. Murphy, pp 184-5 and index
  7. Murphy, chs 9 & 10
  8. Braithwaite chs v - vi and p 667
  9. Graham ch XVIII
  10. Murphy
  11. Murphy, Prologue & chs 13 to 15.
  12. Graham ch XXIII
  13. Murphy, ch 4
  14. Story, T. Journal, 1747. Entry for 1714