Monday, December 1, 2008

William Penn and Quaker Beliefs

Founder of Pennsylviania Creates a Religious Society of Friends

© Roger Saunders

Quaker values shook the foundation of tyranny with freedom of the press and trial by jury even though they did not support the military cause in the American Revolution.

George Fox

The Quaker sect was formed after George Fox (1624-91) spent many years looking for religious comfort and knowledge from countless Anglican Priests. His autobiography confirms that he found little of either. The basis for his system of belief was rooted in I John 2:27 in the Bible, *“You have received the Holy Spirit, and He lives within you, so you don’t need anyone to teach you what is true”. His frustration with established spiritual authority led him to develop a new religious outlook that focused on an individuals "inner light".

"No Cross, No Crown"

William Penn (1644-1718), the founder of Pennsylvania, was a “rebel” from his youth. Although he had a deep interest in religion, he was expelled from Oxford for resisting compulsory chapel attendance. His parents sent him to the l'Académie Protestante in France where he was inculcated with the value of religious tolerance. He came back to England and enrolled in the Lincoln’s Inn Law School where he developed a deep respect for civil liberty and became its gifted defender. He determined that Quaker beliefs best mirrored his own religious philosophy. This landed him in prison several times. Once, when ordered to recant his dissenting beliefs while locked up in the Tower of London, he gave this reply. “My prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot; for I owe my conscience to no mortal man.” His seminal pamphlet “No Cross, No Crown” which promoted religious freedom was written during this stay.

Conventicle Act of Parliament

In 1664, Parliament, with the encouragement of King Charles II, passed the “Conventicle Act”. This law stated that "any exercise of religion in other manner than is allowed by the liturgy or practice of the Church of England" with "five persons or more assembled together" was punishable by up to 3 months in prison or a fine of 5 pounds. William Penn decided to challenge the act by holding a public Quaker meeting in August of 1670. He and his fellow worshippers were arrested and put on trial. No indictment was handed down because of concern that the Conventicle Act could be overturned. Penn took on his own defense and successfully argued that Common Law would not allow a guilty verdict for a crime for which there was no formal charge. His impassioned plea, recorded at his trial, presaged many that would be heard one hundred years later.

“If these ancient and fundamental laws, which relate to liberty and property, and which are not limited to particular persuasions in matters of religion, must not be indispensably maintained and observed, who then can say that he has a right to the coat on his back? Certainly our liberties are to be openly invaded, our wives to be ravished, our children slaved, our families ruined, and our estates led away in triumph by every sturdy beggar and malicious informer.” - William Penn

American Landing

In 1682 the ship Welcome arrived at the piece of land between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers that would become Philadelphia, the capitol city of a new haven for religious liberty. When William Penn stepped ashore he established a new government based on Quaker beliefs. He established a constitution that allowed for peaceful change through an amendment process. It also secured private property, free enterprise, freedom of the press, trial by jury and religious toleration. Pennsylvania became, like the nation it foreshadowed, the resting place for dissenters from all over Europe. The Quaker financed Liberty Bell first rang with the engraved mission of the American Revolution 25 years before it began. “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land”.


George Fox An Autobiography, edited by Rufus Jones, 1776, Friends United Press

William Penn: An Historical Biography Founded on Family and State Papers by Hepworth Dixon, 2004, Kessinger Publishing Company

*New Living Translation, 2004, Charitable Trust

**Published with permission of the Author


Jonathan Rowe said...

Great post. I plan on a lot of time in the future studying the ins and outs of the Quakers. From an historical perspective I think they more than any other Christian sect have been so "right" and "ahead" of the learning curve on so many pressing issues.

I'm actually thinking about joining the Quakers. Maybe as a PA (Phila. area) resident for over 30 years I have a bias towards them.

Roger Saunders said...

My Grandmothers Family were Quakers. Jacob Jackson (GGGG Grandfather) was an elder in the New Garden Monthly Meeting in Guilford, NC and helped tend the wounded there after when requested by "The Fightiung Quaker", General Nathaniel Greene, after "The Battle of Guilford Courthouse" in the American Revolution.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Roger, I grew up literally within 2 miles of Billy Penn's pad, Penn Manor.

What I only ran across recently was that Penn got a charter for Pennsylvania only because the king owed Billy's father a lot of money for financing a war. Because the Crown had no available cash, that settled the debt.

Thank God for money, or the lack of it...

Roger Saunders said...

Yes, Tom, that is an absolutely incontrovertible fact!

Pennsylvania's founders father, Admiral Sir William Penn (whose ship actually delivered King Charles II to England at the restoration of the crown) had put up quite a bit of his own money to finance the Royal Navy. The King owed him 16,000 English pounds! Not a bad price for the future State of Pennsylvania!