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. His mother privately supported him.[1]

In 1668 he began as a Quaker minister and produced the first of 58 publications. Controversy and persecution followed. 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.[2]

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

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, agreeing to clear a debt owed by the royal government to his father.1 He drew up the prospectus for colonists and the Frame of Government, and set out in 1682.[3] 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.

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 made him very influential in reducing persecution at this time, but also made him an object of hatred to James's opponents. 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.[4]

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. He had meanwhile been deprived of the Governorship of Pennsylvania. In order to get it back he gave some sort of undertaking that the colony would provide either men or money towards the war against France (though the Pennsylvania Assembly was not so compliant and obstructed such demands for a time).[5] 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.

Penn returned from America 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. 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.[6]


Penn was a copious writer. Many of his works arose from controversy and are ephemeral. 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.[7]

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. Braithwaite, W C. The Second Period of Quakerism. Cambridge University Press. 2nd edition prepared by H J Cadbury 1961, pp 66-73
  3. Graham chs 12 - 13
  4. Braithwaite chs v - vi and p 667
  5. Graham ch XVIII
  6. Graham ch XXIII
  7. Story, T. Journal, 1747. Entry for 1714