What might you do if you found yourself with almost 50,000 square miles of seemingly virgin land in a place you have never seen, far from home? In 1681, when William Penn – entrepreneur, scholar, religious mystic, Enlightenment intellectual – acquired Pennsylvania, he had a ready answer.
Primed with forward-looking ideas about equality and shared community resources from Thomas More’s Utopia, and inspired by the Quaker vision of George Fox and Thomas Loe, Penn was convinced that he could construct a “Holy Experiment” with a well-planned settlement and a rational government. He aimed for a social contract that would bind and respect all residents, based not on coercion but on the principle of “what love can do.”Read More
By the time he was 22, Penn understood coercion. He had been exiled from Oxford University for boycotting Anglican services and for taunting fellow students who acceded to Oxford’s religious practices. Returning home, the young Penn – new to Quakerism – was beaten by his father, Admiral William Penn, who sent his son traveling in hopes that he would mature into a more reasonable adult.
But the admiral did not succeed in dampening his son’s religious fervor. Instead, two stints in prison (as a result of unconventional behaviors stemming from his religious zeal) gave the young man time to read, and to contemplate, consolidate, and write down his Quaker ideas.
A man of his times, Penn saw his identity as a member of the British upper classes. He had servants, and he owned slaves. But Penn’s religious faith led him to want to do good in the world.
Practicing What He Preached
He wanted to put into practice his conviction that in an unsullied environment, “that of God in each person” would emerge triumphant. In No Cross, No Crown, written in prison, he had concluded that some suffering (the cross) was a necessary part of reward or salvation (the crown). No Cross, No Crown was also a play on words, suggesting that one aspect of an unsullied environment would be a principled refusal to knuckle under to the false authority of the established church or to the king.
But Quakers were accustomed to persecution for eschewing “worldly” conventions, and Penn had no illusions that it would be easy to create that perfect environment. Hence, in devising his New World utopia, Penn spent many months recruiting men of conscience to populate his new province. He also drafted a “Frame of Government” to provide the scaffolding for community, and secured approval from other Quakers who read the document.
A businessman as well as a man of deep religious faith, Penn also wanted a return on his investment. He dreamed of a “great towne” – a bustling commercial center that would command a place of respect in the Atlantic World. On the other hand, however, Penn wanted a bucolic “greene countrie towne” befitting an English country gentleman. So he hired surveyor Thomas Holme to lay out a grid to accomplish these contradictory goals. Parks would serve for neighborhood gathering places, and a central marketplace would help to cement a community and an economy based upon morality, integrity, and mutual compassion among citizens.
The “Frame of Government,” based upon England’s Magna Carta, also affirmed Enlightenment ideas of equal justice for all who would consent to live within the laws. From this premise flowed the idea of toleration and fair treatment for people of diverse religions and cultures – a principle that extended to offering contractual relationships for acquiring land from the local Indians.
A Worry About Catholic Allegiance
But in these aspects also the wily businessman merged principle with expedience. At first he was leery that Catholics’ allegiance to the pope might compromise their loyalty to local law. But he eventually concluded that religious persecution interfered with the smooth operation of commerce and property, and therefore Catholic residents should be allowed to pursue their religion and community life, as long as they abided by the civil laws.
Penn’s colony early welcomed Jews, as well as Anglicans, Mennonites, and the Lutherans who established “old Swede’s” Church by the end of the seventeenth century. That atmosphere of religious openness also paved the way for the world’s first African American Christian denomination – the African Methodist Episcopal Church – and for myriad religious groups who reflected the city’s continuing diversity.
Through three centuries of growth and change, Philadelphia has retained much of Penn’s vision, and has returned repeatedly to his ideas of community and tolerance. Four of the five community parks remain in Center City as important markers of neighborhood unity. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the city government reaffirmed Penn’s vision by purchasing country estates to create Fairmount Park – a resource used and valued by various residents.
Philadelphia is still known as a “City of Neighborhoods,” but the tensions that were evident in its founding continue. The public city parks have often been sites of contention over who has the “rights” to define their use. And just as Penn was suspicious of Catholics, anxieties among diverse religions – Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and more recently Muslims – have peppered the city’s political, geographic, and economic life, even as some residents continue to celebrate the traditions of diversity and tolerance.
In 2010, after nearly a decade of negotiation among these diverse people, Philadelphians unveiled a memorial to the city’s years as the nation’s capital (1790-1800). This historic site, the President’s House, takes a hard and honest look at the place of slavery in the development of the nation’s early history. Nearby, a new National Museum of American Jewish History also opened its doors. These are but a few of countless examples of the enduring influence of the “Holy Experiment” that invite Philadelphia residents to turn “diversity” into “community.
William Penn worked to build his province on two levels—with practical plans for land use and governance, and with prayer for Divine Guidance. His 1684 prayer for his “great towne” captures much of his mood:
“And Thou Philadelphia the virgin settlement of this province named before thou wert born, what care, what service, what travail have there been to bring thee forth and preserve thee from such as would abuse and defile thee. O that thou mayest be kept from the evil that would overwhelm thee, that faithful to the God of thy mercies in the life of righteousness, thou mayest be preserved to the end. My soul prays to God for thee that thou mayest stand in the day of trial, that thy children may be blest of the Lord and thy people saved by His power.”
Emma Lapsansky-Werner is Professor of History Emeritus at Haverford College, where she was Curator of the Quaker Collection.
Topics: Religion and Faith Communities
Convents—communities of women devoted to religious life—in the Greater Philadelphia area played a significant role in the education of youth and in social services for communities from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first century. Although some regional Catholic convents moved or closed during this time, the Philadelphia area remained strong in Catholic identity because of ⇒ Read More
Upon receiving his grant for Pennsylvania in March 1681, William Penn (1644-1718) immediately set about attracting investors and settlers. To pay expenses and realize a profit from his enterprise, Penn had to sell land. The “First Purchasers” who responded to his promotional tracts provided essential economic support for Penn’s “Holy Experiment.” Penn sought to attract ⇒ Read More
The Free Society of Traders, a joint-stock company founded by a small group of English Quakers in 1681, was organized with the intention of directing and dominating the economic life of colonial Pennsylvania. But, from the beginning, controversy about the Society’s existence revealed fundamental political divisions within William Penn’s “Holy Experiment,” and opposition led to ⇒ Read More
With the exception of Greater Boston, the Philadelphia region has more independent colleges and universities than any other metropolitan area of the United States. These numbers stem in large part from the variety of religious communities in the region, all of whom wanted to enjoy the prestige of having an institution of higher learning. Originally, ⇒ Read More
European settlement of the region on both sides of the Delaware River dates to the early seventeenth century. The population grew rapidly after 1682, when Pennsylvania’s policy of religious tolerance and its reputation as the “best poor man’s country” attracted people from all walks of life. By the time of the American Revolution, Philadelphia was ⇒ Read More
Despite eras of suspicion and the relocation of many its members to the West during the nineteenth century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the LDS Church or Mormon Church) not only persisted in the Philadelphia region but also grew and spread, especially in the early twenty-first century. Strong evidence ⇒ Read More
Established in the crucible of the American revolutionary era, Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church is recognized as the genesis of black religious organizing spirit. The church is mother church of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, formed in 1816. Located at Sixth and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood, the church sits on the ⇒ Read More
Popes use their visits to encourage faith, emphasize their priorities, and fulfill their role as pastors. The places visited use these trips to highlight their successes, history, and culture on an international stage. Prior to the visit of Pope Francis (b. 1936) to Philadelphia on September 26 and 27, 2015, only one other pope had ⇒ Read More
In March of 1681, King Charles II of England (1630-85) granted William Penn (1644-1718), gentleman and Quaker, the charter for a proprietary colony on the North American continent. Although both English colonial policy and the organization of the Society of Friends, known as Quakers, were works in progress between the years 1682 and 1701, in ⇒ Read More
The Charter of Privileges, effective October 28, 1701, and sometimes known as the Charter of Liberties, functioned as Pennsylvania’s constitution until the American Revolution. It replaced several attempts since the colony’s 1681 establishment to create a viable frame of government. Among the more permissive of colonial constitutions in British North America, the document guaranteed religious ⇒ Read More
William Penn (1644-1718), the founder and proprietor of Pennsylvania, had high hopes for Philadelphia. He wanted the city to become the economic and moral hub and showpiece of the nearly 50,000 square miles that he had been granted as Pennsylvania (Penn’s Woods). Penn outlined his radical notion when he advertised the city for settlement in ⇒ Read More
Much as New England was shaped by its Puritan heritage, the history of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley intertwined heavily with the Religious Society of Friends. Philadelphia gained one of its nicknames, “The Quaker City,” from its founding and settlement by the Friends, colloquially known as Quakers, a historically Christian religious sect that emerged during ⇒ Read More
Parochial schools in the Philadelphia region share a common Catholic mission and similar patterns of growth and development. For more than three centuries they have responded to the changing characteristics of the region’s Catholic population. Several of these developments, such as schools for specific ethnic groups, occurred in Philadelphia, Camden, N.J., and Wilmington, Del., within ⇒ Read More
Parishes stand at the center of Roman Catholic religious life. Since the arrival of Catholicism in the Philadelphia region in the early eighteenth century, parishes have shaped Catholics’ sense of communal identity by functioning as both the administrative unit of a diocese and the primary site of Catholic worship. Developing into expansive complexes that often ⇒ Read More
Pennsylvania’s Scots Irish, a hybrid people of Scots and Irish ancestry, were the most numerically predominant group within an Irish diaspora migration that brought between 250,000 and 500,000 Irish immigrants (most of them Protestants from Ulster and predominately Presbyterians) to America between 1700 and 1820. Philadelphia was one of their principal destinations. As the prototypical ⇒ Read More