William Penn – History, Beliefs, Facts, & Achievements

William Penn was an iconic personality of 17th-century colonial America famed for the founding of Philadelphia. The London-born Quaker philosopher and entrepreneur was at the forefront of affairs in the American colonies, as he promoted the ideas of democracy, unity among the colonies and religious tolerance. It was the latter that earned him incredible amount of reverence in both Britain and America.

What jobs did William Penn hold? And what were his major achievements?

Below are answers to the above questions about William Penn, including his family history and the major beliefs that he held.

William Penn: Fast Facts

Date of birth: October 14, 1644

Place of birth: London, England

Died: July 30, 1718; Ruscombe, Berkshire, England

Cause of death: stroke

Aged: 73

Father: Admiral Sir William Penn

Mother: Margaret Jasper

Spouses: Gulielma Maria Springett (1672-1694); Hannah Margaret Callowhill (1696-)

Children: 16, including William Penn Jr., John Penn, Thomas Penn, and Richard Penn Sr.

Education: Chigwell grammar school, Essex, England; University of Oxford; Lincoln’s Inn

Religion: Quakerism

Notable works: Truth Exalted (1668), The Sandy Foundation Shaken (1668), Innocency with Her Open Face (1669), No Cross, No Crown (1669), A Letter to the Free Society of Traders (1683)

The son of Admiral Sir William Penn

William Penn was born on October 14, 1644 to a very wealthy English family of Anglican roots. The exact place of his birth was in Tower Hill, London. He was the son of Admiral Sir William Penn, who came by an incredible amount of wealth and standing in the country for his service to Cromwell during the conquest of Ireland.

Portrait of William Penn’s father, Admiral Sir William Penn, 1621–1670. Painted by Sir Peter Lely,1665–1666

Penn’s father was an influential admiral in the English navy. Admiral Penn helped in the mission of bringing exiled English monarch Charles II back to England. Charles would later heap a lot of praise on Admiral Penn for those efforts

Education and his dissenting religious views at Oxford University

Penn had his formative education in Essex before proceeding to Chigwell School and then later to Christ Church, Oxford University. While at Oxford, he was an active member of debate groups that expressed their dissent to established religious traditions. For those dissenting religious views of his, he often found himself in hot waters. For example, he was slapped with a fine for his support of Oxford theologian and dean of the university John Owen, who had been shown the door due to his dissenting views.

Expulsion from Oxford

At the University of Oxford, William Penn engaged in activities that spoke against Anglicanism. As a result, his stay in the university was short-lived, having been expelled in 1662, just two years after his admission.

Penn’s time in mainland Europe

Trying to limit the damage and hoping to water down his somewhat radical views, William Penn’s family sent him to France to continue his development at a Protestant college. In France, he developed strong bond with Christian humanist Moise Ayraut, who had an influence on Penn. Upon his return to England, he enrolled at Lincoln’s Inn to study law.

William Penn and Thomas Loe

While managing his father’s estates in Ireland, he came to be influenced by Thomas Loe, a preacher from the Society of Friends (the Quakers). The Quakers, one of the religious minorities in Europe, were officially persecuted in England and other places in Europe. Quakers that were caught spreading their beliefs either in word or print were fined severely and sometimes handed prison sentences.

Becoming a Quaker

After listening to a very eloquent speech by a Quaker, William Penn became convinced that non-conformist religion best suited him. He also claimed to have had a divine encounter, stating “the Lord visited me and gave me divine Impression of Himself.” Penn loved the Quaker ideas of not having an intermediary between man and God as well the rejection of swearing an oath of allegiance to either parliament or king.

Promotion of Quakerism

Time spent in Paris did nothing to tone down his dissenting views as he continued to go against established religious traditions.  His support for Quaker views was reinforced by his many interactions with leading Quaker figures of the time, including George Fox, the founder of the Quakers. However due to the very hostile environment back then, many Quakers were subject to discrimination. Penn, along with many Quakers, often found himself slapped with fines or put behind bars simply because he refused swearing an oath of allegiance to either Parliament or the English monarch.

His profession his loyalty for Quakerism and the promotion of the faith certainly did not go down too well with his Anglican father, who had tried without success to convince him to cease his dissenting attitude.

William Penn

William Penn: Fruits of Solitude (1682)

The “Bushell’s Case”

Beginning around the 1660s, William Penn started to establish himself as a huge proponent of Quakerism in England. Not even the numerous times that he went to jail could convince him otherwise of his Quaker views. Portrait: William Penn at 22

On a consistent basis, Penn found himself moving in and out of prison due to his Quaker views. One time a judge broke all judicial procedures and put Penn in jail for spreading non-Anglican pamphlets as well as holding meetings that encouraged dissent towards the Anglican faith. In spite of the judge’s hard-fought and biased efforts, the jury saw through the charge against Pen and his Quaker friend William Mead. Penn and his associate were vindicated by the jury. Not wanting to back down, the judge on the case decided to fine and imprison all the members of the jury. Kind courtesy of the intervention of Lord Chief Justice Sir John Vaughan, members of the jury were set free. The case, which came to be known as the “Bushell’s Case”, established a judicial principle that prohibited judges from leading jury members on to a biased verdict. It thus allowed the jury to be independent.

No Cross, No Crown (1669)

In 1669, while locked behind bars, Penn wrote one of his first critically acclaimed works, No Cross, No Crown. The work, which became very popular among Quakers, contained a number of criticisms against the Anglican faith. In another work of his, which was published in a journal owned by George Fox, Penn called on England to go back to the old ways of Christianity. This mean not taking an oath of allegiance to a monarch.

William Penn affirmed his Quaker views, stating that communion with God did not require an intermediary. The threat of being locked up did not stop him from leveling criticisms after criticism against the established political and religious tradition.

Penn found himself locked behind bars many times, including being imprisoned in the Tower of London, for his views on religious freedoms

Missionary works in Northern Germany and Holland

The 1670s was an extremely productive period for Penn as he produced many works on religious doctrines. He also went on religious missions to Holland and Germany. In those two countries he had the pleasure of meeting with like-minded individuals and entrepreneurs that later collaborated with to establish the Pennsylvania settlement.

Emigration from England

Shunned by his own family and the broader society for expressing his ideas on religious freedoms, William Penn decided to leave England and sail to the New World in America. Penn was attracted by the early European settlers’ tolerance for religious and political diversity.

Around 1677, Penn, along with a number of very successful Quaker businessmen, started making preparations to sail from England to North America. He and his associates planned settling in New Jersey. Even before his departure, he is said to have written up a charter of liberties to preside over the affairs of the new settlement that he intended establishing in North America.

Having been on the receiving end of unjust and biased legal system that snuffed out all forms of religious dissent, Penn made it an utmost importance to guarantee free and fair trials by jury in the charter of liberties that he drafted. He also included other forms of freedom such as the freedom from unlawful imprisonment.

William Penn

A champion of democratic principles and the principle of religious tolerance, William Penn can be considered as one of the early founding fathers of America.

Founding of Pennsylvania in North America

In 1682, William Penn and his fellow Quakers, along with other religious minorities, sailed to North America. The settlement that Penn and his Quaker friends sought to found received some bit of support from King Charles II, the monarch who had been indebted to Penn’s father. Penn therefore received a large area (about 45, 000 acres of land) for his settlement from the King.

The settlement was named by combining Penn’s father’s name with Sylvania, which meant woods. Penn also received political support from King Charles II and his brother, the Duke of York. The latter provided support to Penn by granting him parcels of lands in what is now part of Delaware.

Penn was heavily involved in drawing up plans for the city of Philadelphia. The first Assembly was opened and Penn served as the presiding member of the body.

Separation of powers and the liberal justice system

Penn’s goal for his settlement was to have very strong rule of law, including free and fair local elections. The ideas that Penn espoused proved to be of tremendous influence to our nation when the Constitution of the United States was being drafted in the 1780s. For example, Penn’s belief in the separation of powers ended up being one of the cornerstones upon which America was founded upon.

Penn also warned against the descent of the settlement into one that was ruled by a despotic and harsh ruler whose only goal was to enhance his wealth and power.

Indeed Penn desired to create a kind of utopian society; however, he was also intelligent enough to be aware of the realities. Therefore, he was willing to make a number of compromises when the need arose, provided he did not deviate from the path toward liberal government.

Unlike his home country England, which had more than 180 capital offences, Penn’s settlement made room for just two capital offences – treason and murder.

Appalled by the terrible conditions he saw in many English prisons, Penn vowed to make his prison system as progressive as possible in order to ensure that inmates get rehabilitated in the proper manner. He and his Quaker associates also decriminalized mental illness. Treatment centers were established to offer help to people suffering from mental disabilities.

Regarding education, William Penn devoted a lot of resources into it as he saw education as extremely important if he was going to have a thriving liberal society. Similarly, he promoted artisanship, commerce and science.

William Penn worked extremely hard to prevent the importation from England into his settlement ‘vices’ like gambling, cockfighting, and drunkenness. He put laws in place to curtail many of those activities.

Pennsylvania – A haven for religious minorities

Owing to Pennsylvania’s religious tolerance, a great number of Europeans began trooping into the settlement. Many of those Europeans were often fleeing religious and political persecution, including minorities like the French Protestants (Huguenots), Amish, Mennonites and Quakers.

In the Frame of Government that he drew up in 1682, he guaranteed freedom of worship in Pennsylvania.

William Penn and the Native Americans

The Treaty of Penn with the Indians

As it was common with all European settlements in the Americas, achieving cordial relationship with the natives was crucial in influencing how successful the settlement would become. Penn was fully aware of this, and therefore, he set out to develop friendly ties with the Indian tribes near the settlement.

He also valued the importance learning natives’ language and customs in order to communicate better with them. He took several steps to ensure that the relationship was mutually beneficial, even compensating the Indians for the lands acquired.

Penn and his community of settlers befriended the Natives in the area in order to have mutually beneficial ties. One of such native tribes was the Lenni Lenape Indians. Letter to the Lenape Nation – October 18, 1681

William Penn and King James II

Due to his friendship with King James, William Penn was able to secure the release of number of imprisoned Quakers and other religious dissenters in England. For example he was able to convince the King to release John Locke, the English political philosopher.

He was friends with the Duke of York who ultimately became King James II of England.

After the abdication of King James II, Penn found himself in a bit of a difficult situation as the new monarchs Queen Mary and King William were not so fond of him. He had to walk tight rope least he would have found himself arrested.

Troubles in Pennsylvania

Beginning around 1692, a series of disputes broke out in Pennsylvania. Politicians in England increasingly became suspicious of William Penn; therefore, Penn was removed from his position in Pennsylvania. The colony was then placed under New York. In the Pennsylvania Assembly, a bitter dispute broke out between Penn’s second in command and the Council.

In 1699, he returned to the colony to resolve some of the major disputes. He capitulated to the demands for the Pennsylvania Assembly to manage the affairs of the colony. The lower counties received more autonomy over their affairs. Two years later, in 1701, Penn departed for England to attend to some private business. He put his secretary James Logan in charge of his affairs in the colony.

Later years and death

Financial problems and a series of strokes plagued William Penn in his final years before his passing in 1718.

Forced to return to England in 1701 owing to some financial problems, Penn had a very turbulent later years. His financial adviser Philip Ford had defrauded him, causing him to go bankrupt. He even spent some time in debtors’ jail. His efforts to get back his money through the court proved unsuccessful.

All those problems began to take a huge toll on Penn’s health. In 1712, he suffered a paralytic stroke as he was in the process of negotiating a deal that would see Pennsylvania surrendered to the English monarch.

Paralyzed, William Penn did not have the opportunity to go back to Pennsylvania as he passed away in 1718 in Ruscombe, Berkshire.

Did you knowPenn College, which later became William Penn University, was founded in 1873 in honor of William Penn?

William Penn’s beliefs and notable works

Penn’s proposal to have a federation of European states can be seen as the forerunner of the European Union. Image: Bronze statue of William Penn atop Philadelphia City Hall

William Penn was a big admirer of religious tolerance. This belief of his can be seen in many of his works, particularly in The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience Once More Debated & Defended (1670). In that work, the English Quaker makes a strong case for why societies should be tolerant of religious minorities. He blends theological sources with realistic considerations to make his point. He also gives the example of the Netherlands, where progress was being made to have a society that accepts diversity.

Penn’s dreams of having an English society that protected the rights of religious minorities came to realization following the passage of the Act of Toleration in 1689.

In the early 1690s, he began working on an essay titled  An Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe (1693). In that work he called for the establishment of an international organization to help broker peace in Europe.

Penn also proposed the formation of a federation of American colonies. It is interesting that he had the foresight to make such proposal, considering his proposal came hundred years before the American colonies started banding together to demand their independence. In his plan for the union of the colonies, Penn reasoned that greater collaboration would allow them solve many of the problems colonist faced in America.

Spouses and children

William Penn married his second wife Hannah Margaret Callowhill, a woman he was 27 years older. All in all he had 16 children, eight each from his two wives. Portrait: Hannah Callowhill Penn

William Penn tied the knot with fellow Quaker Gulielma Maria Springett in 1672. The couple had eight children; however, only four survived to adulthood. Following Gulielma’s death in 1694, he married Hannah Margaret Callowhill, with whom he had seven children. Two of those children died in infancy.

More William Penn facts

Below are a few more facts about the English Quaker William Penn:

  • In the seven years that followed his conversion to the Quaker faith, he wrote more than forty books and pamphlets. His first publication, which was a pamphlet titled Truth Exalted, came in 1668. The work attacked a number of doctrines in Roman Catholicism as well as Anglicanism. That same year, Penn published his second work, The Sandy Foundation Shaken. In that work, he criticized Trinitarianism and other Protestant ideas.
  • Many historians claim that his work No Cross, No Crown (1669), which was written while he was in prison, is one of the best works written by an author while locked up. It ranks up there with works such as Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan and Consolation of Philosophy by St. Paul, Boethius.
  • William Penn is said to have lost all his hair as a result of severe smallpox infection he sustained in his childhood.
  • Another very notable work by William Penn is The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience Once More Debated & Defended (1670).
  • Penn buried the hatchet with his father just before his father died in 1670. He then inherited his father’s vast wealth and estates in Ireland and England. With his status now elevated, he came to befriend King Charles II and the duke of York (later James II).

Other Interesting quotes by William Penn

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