Refugee Legacies: William Penn

Quaker, Activist, Religious Libertarian

Not everyone knows the story of William Penn, but growing up in Pennsylvania, we took a long, deep look at the legacy he imparted, including the very first guarantee of religious liberty in these United States. Perhaps it appealed so strongly to me because Pennsylvania was never a place of religious liberty for me and my family – not in my school district! – and Penn’s dream painted a picture of what I wished my home state were.

William Penn, the second of his name, was a British Admiral’s son, kicked out of Oxford University for participating in protests over the firing of a professor he admired. Later, he twice dropped out of law school. Young Penn came to admire the Quakers he saw, a new branch of Protestant Christianity that spoke of a divine inner light in all people, and who were arrested by police and demonized by Anglicans and Puritans for their acts of charity and mercy during the London plague of 1665.

After becoming a Quaker at 22, William was repeatedly jailed for his theological writings opposing Catholic, Anglican and Puritan practices alike.

English law being primarily case law dependent on precedents established by the courts, Penn also deliberately provoked the legal establishment by staging public activities meant to test the limits of the law, such as the 1664 Conventicle Act that restricted freedom of assembly. He was frequently arrested and often on trial. In one case, the entire jury was imprisoned alongside young William because they refused to find him guilty, a precedent for the jury nullification and habeas corpus practices that exist in British and American law to this day.

My prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot: 
for I owe my conscience to no mortal man.


Then his father died, leaving the younger William a rich man, including a gargantuan debt the crown owed the Penn estate. He also continued to be thorn in the

side of the government. King Charles II had reached the end of his tether. According to the story we were told in school, the king was a great admirer of the late Admiral William Penn, increasing his annoyance at the civil disobedience of the son. He summoned young William to his court at Whitehall, asking, “What will it take to make you stop?”

“If you will allow me to take my Quaker compatriots to the New World to establish a colony there, where we can be free to govern ourselves and practice our religion according to our own convictions, then we will be a thorn in your side no more.”

So the king chartered to William Penn a massive tract of land, larger than any already existing colony in the New World. “And you will call it Penn’s Woods — Pennsylvania in your honor.”

“Your Majesty, I am a Quaker. I cannot allow you to name anything after me.”

Here I imagine King Charles rolling his eyes at William, over-full of vim and vigor. “Fine. You’ll name it after your father, then.”

I’ve always imagined William rolling his eyes and scoffing in return, though of course even he was unlikely to behave in such a way in front of his king. In any case, he acquiesced and took himself to the New World.

Penn then embarked on a massive international marketing campaign. First, he had to convince other Quakers to come to his colony. Although small communities of Quakers had come to the New World already, they were persecuted even worse by the Puritans of Massachusetts and the Catholics of Maryland than by the king back home. It would take a lot of money and persuasion to convince the rest of England’s Quakers to leave everything they knew and set out for Penn’s Woods.

He started by drafting a charter of liberties for his colony that guaranteed free and fair trial by jury, freedom of religion, freedom from unjust imprisonment, and free elections — in short, all the human rights he felt denied in England. Almost a century later, Thomas Jefferson would use the Pennsylvania charter as a one of several sources for the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

And here’s my favorite part. Penn wanted a homeland for his Quakers, but he cast a far wider net. In part, it was practical. The Catholics in the Maryland Colony on their southern border were viciously intolerant of Quakers, so Penn wrote to the Lutherans being persecuted in Germany, the Mennonites being persecuted in the Low Country and the Alsace, and the Amish being hunted from horseback in Switzerland. “Come settle the southern border of Pennsylvania,” he said, “where the Catholics will tolerate you better than they can tolerate us, and we’ll guarantee you all the freedoms and rights we have given ourselves.”

They didn’t call themselves refugees. That word wouldn’t even come into the English language for another hundred years. Nevertheless, they came to this continent seeking refuge from state persecution. They came for the right to practice their religious convictions without interference. They came to establish a deliberately pluralistic, free society, with liberty and justice for all.

Penn was not a perfect man. Penn’s Quakers and the German immigrants he invited may have spoken out against slavery, but they tolerated it in their colony. He tried to do right by the indigenous people, paying what he believed a fair price to the Lenape people for their land and assuring that they would retain the right to hunt, fish and gather on it. Nevertheless, native Pennsylvanians lost their ancestral lands. Penn was a man of his time, but he was a progressive for his time, too, and a humanitarian, and his story inspired me.

Is Pennsylvania, also known as Pennsyltucky, all that William Penn dreamed of? It wasn’t a religious safe zone for me and my family, that’s for sure. It’s whiter than any other place I’ve lived. It’s a place where Confederate flags flew from cars in my high school parking lot, the Ku Klux Klan is resurgent, and my high school civics teacher told us, “Regardless of your political opinions, when you are old enough to register to vote, register as a Republican. It’s the only way your vote will mean anything in this county.”

It’s also a place where, not too many years ago, my alma mater‘s student body made national news for rebelling against the principal who dead-named and misgendered a trans student on the ballot for Prom court. I think William Penn, were he a product of the twentieth century instead of his own, would have supported such a cause.

I’m certain he would be fighting today for Syrians, the Sudanese, Iraqis, Somalis, Yemenis, Libyans, Iranians … for refugees from across the world to be settled in Penn’s Woods, with all the rights and liberties thereof.

Next: Refugees I’ve Known

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