When the two prisoners walked into the courtroom on September 3, 1670, the bailiff snatched the hats from their heads. The Lord Mayor of London, Sir Samuel Starling, who presided over the trial, ordered the court’s officer to replace the hats, then fined the two gentlemen for failing to uncover their heads in his court.
William Penn and William Mead stood charged with violation of the Conventicle Act, which prohibited all worship gatherings except those of the Church of England. They were in fact guilty. The pair had intentionally held a Quaker worship outside the locked doors of the Gracechurch Street Meeting House in London. The Quakers intended to prove that their meetings were politically harmless and thus gain immunity from the law. When the constables came to arrest Penn and Mead, the two went peacefully. However, as they were being led away, an altercation broke out among the onlookers, and the charge was elevated to conspiracy to incite a riot. This was a serious offense that demanded trial by jury.
As the trial progressed, Sir Samuel allowed only prosecution witnesses to testify and refused the prisoners any opportunity to cross-examine them. Penn argued logically and passionately against the legality of the Conventicle Act, and this, combined with the blatant prejudice of the judge, prompted the jury to return a verdict of not guilty for Mead. They found Penn guilty only of preaching in the street. Sir Samuel rejected their verdict and told the jury to go back and deliberate again. They did and returned with the same decision. Again the judge told them to reconsider. The jury returned and announced that they had indeed changed their verdict — this time they declared both men innocent of all charges. The enraged judge berated the jury and shouted, ‘Gentlemen, you shall not be dismissed till we have a verdict the court will accept and you shall be locked up without meat, drink, fire and tobacco….’
‘You are Englishmen; mind your privilege, give not away your right,’ exhorted Penn.
‘Nor will we ever do it,’ returned the jury foreman Edward Bushell. The jury stuck to their decision despite being confined overnight without food, drink or heat. The irate Sir Samuel fined each juror for contempt of court. The jury refused to pay their fines, and Sir Samuel ordered them all into Newgate prison.
Penn and Mead also refused to pay their fines, and they, too, went to jail. However, Penn’s father, Admiral William Penn, lay dying and posted the money for both men. The admiral died less than a week later.
This was not Penn’s first imprisonment for his Quaker beliefs, which were still in their infancy in 1670. The Society of Friends began little more than two decades earlier with George Fox, who had had no intentions of founding a new sect. As a youth, Fox saw clergy and many of his contemporaries give way to alcohol and tobacco, showing little sign of self-control or integrity. For his part, Fox merely wished to experience God in a true, untainted way, so he sought the advice of learned clergy. But he came away unsatisfied. After much soul-searching, Fox experienced an epiphany, which he described in his journal:
But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those esteemed the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition'; and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give Him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the preeminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus when God doth work, who shall [hinder]it? And this I knew experimentally.
What developed from this was a belief that God inhabited all people and communicated with the individual who acknowledged his presence and submitted to his will. Given that, everyone was equal in God’s eyes, so members of the Society of Friends (as Fox’s followers came to be called because they greeted everyone as ‘friend’) refused to recognize social superiors. They did not bow or curtsey; they did not remove their hats before their betters — even the king; nor did they use formal language. Instead they took to exclusively using the informal ‘thee’ and ‘thou.’
George Fox began preaching his gentle philosophy in 1648. Two years later, Fox and his followers acquired a new name after he was arrested for blasphemy and stood before a judge, whom Fox exhorted to ‘tremble at the word of the Lord.’ The judge derisively dubbed the group ‘Quakers,’ and the name stuck. Nevertheless, Fox continued preaching and his simple eloquence won many converts. He spoke of living without extravagance and of nonviolence, and he encouraged his followers not to bear arms. Fox also spoke against the incongruity of taking an oath, which acknowledged the presumption that honesty necessitated a prescribed guarantee. Quakers advocated absolute truth in everyday life.
All of this was considered radical thought, especially the manner of Quaker services, or ‘meetings.’ These were silent affairs during which any individual, even a woman, who was moved by the Spirit could speak. Moreover, the sect saw no need for ordained clergy, church ceremonies, sacraments or a formal church building. Yet perhaps their most damning aspect in the eyes of other Christians was the Society of Friends’ refusal to pay the mandatory tithe to support the clergy of the Anglican Church. Persecution and imprisonment followed.
Parliament wanted to be rid of Catholics and all nonconformist groups that had sprung up in the religious turmoil of 17th-century Europe. The new sects challenged authority and were filling the courts and prisons, making nuisances of themselves. Therefore, Parliament passed legislation, collectively known as the Clarendon Code, which included the Conventicle Act and the Five Mile Act, which prohibited any nonconformist preacher from coming within five miles of any town. Quakers constantly ran afoul of those strictures.
Then came the Test Act of 1673, which required public officials to affiliate with the Church of England and to swear allegiance to the king. Friends were frequently arrested on trivial charges and made to demonstrate their loyalty by swearing allegiance to the crown. Their refusal was interpreted as disloyalty and an indication of papist leanings, and the jails filled with Fox’s followers. Approximately 1,000 Friends had been imprisoned by 1657. Fox, too, saw the inside of a jail many times during his life. Other Quakers withstood beatings and torture for their beliefs, and in 1675 the sect began the Meeting for Sufferings to keep record of their persecutions.
As a son of an admiral and a friend of the royal family, William Penn suffered far less hardship than his fellow Quakers. Born on October 14, 1644, Penn joined the Society of Friends in 1667, and by September of that year he was in prison. Young Penn quickly dispatched a letter to a local nobleman and was released. Thereafter he traveled the countryside preaching, writing pamphlets and working to liberate Quakers from prison, as well as spending time in jail himself. During one seven-month stint in the Tower of London, Penn drafted his first version of No Cross, No Crown, one of his most notable works, in which he argues against worldliness and advocates virtuous simplicity.
Penn grew in prominence in the Society and in time even stood as a substitute for George Fox when needed, as in the fall of 1671 when Fox went to the American colonies to help organize the meeting structure there. Individual Quakers had been emigrating to the colonies since the 1650s. Full-scale migration came in 1675 when the first full shipload of Quakers arrived and settled in West Jersey. Within six years approximately 1,400 members of the Society had emigrated there.
Penn had served as a trustee of the West Jersey endeavor and his participation fed the idea of creating a colony of religious freedom. He envisioned a haven from persecution and a place where Quakers could live in harmony, ‘love and brotherly kindness,’ as an example for all Christians. Indeed, ‘there may be room there,’ he wrote, ‘though not here, for such a holy experiment.’
The government owed Penn’s father money. In lieu of payment, on June 1, 1680, Penn formally petitioned King Charles II for a land grant west of the Delaware River between New York and Maryland. The king granted the request in 1681 with the stipulation that the new province be named in honor of Admiral Penn. Thus, the Quaker became the proprietor of Pennsylvania, an area of some 600,000 square miles (larger than the present commonwealth of Pennsylvania).
As soon as everything was settled, Penn began advertising for the sale of land tracts and sent his cousin William Markham to the colony to act as deputy governor. He instructed Markham to form a preliminary government that granted the right to vote to virtually all free inhabitants. Penn later drafted laws that promised public trials where ‘justice shall be neither sold, denied, nor delayed.’ Verdicts would be delivered without harassment. All court proceedings would be conducted in English, instead of Latin, and ‘in ordinary and plain character, that they may be understood.’ Bail would be allowed in all but capital cases.
Mindful of his own experience with English jails, Penn wanted also to ensure the humane treatment of prisoners. To that end, he scrapped the traditional practice of charging detainees fees for food, heat and lodging in favor of a system that incorporated rehabilitation. Perhaps most noteworthy, unlike the New England colonies, the new province assured religious tolerance, although only Christians (including Catholics) could vote or hold office.
Penn’s laws also regulated marriage and outlawed a long list of items that included’swearing, cursing, lying, profane talking, drunkenness, drinking of healths, obscene words…[and]mayhems….’ Stage performances, May Day dances, cards, dice and anything else that might ‘excite the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness, and irreligion’ were banned.
Markham was also charged with finding a location for a town that would be called Philadelphia, meaning the ‘city of brotherly love,’ after the ancient city that is praised for its faithfulness in the New Testament book of Revelation. Penn dreamed of a ‘great town’ built in a grid formation, unlike the sprawling, congested cities of Europe, which had grown up without planning and where fires could wreak havoc. He later gave instructions for laying out the town, calling for ‘every house [to]be placed, if the person pleases, in the middle of its plot…so there may be ground on each side for gardens or orchards or fields, that it may be a green country town, which will never be burnt and always be wholesome.’
Large numbers of emigrants began pouring into the province. The year 1682 saw 23 ships bring some 2,000 colonists to settle in Pennsylvania. Ninety more ships followed during the next three years, and by 1715 approximately 23,000 emigrants had relocated there. Most were either Quakers or Quaker sympathizers. By 1750 the Society of Friends was the third largest denomination in Britain’s American colonies.
As for the native inhabitants of the territory, Quakers enjoyed a far different relationship with the Indians than did most other colonists. They saw Native Americans as children of God no different from themselves, and Penn endeavored to deal honestly and fairly with them, trying to give them a fair price for the land. In a letter dated October 18, 1681, Penn wrote to an Indian leader, saying: ‘I am very sensible of the unkindness and injustice that has been too much exercised towards you by [colonists]…which I hear has been matter of trouble to you and caused great grudgings and animosities, sometimes leading to the shedding of blood, which has made the great God angry. But I am not such a man, as is well known in my country. I have great love and regard toward you, and I desire to win and gain your love and friendship by a kind, just, and peaceable life….’
Unlike Indian nations to the north and south, the Lenni Lenape that Penn dealt with also desired peace and responded positively to the Quakers. Altogether the relationship was an unparalleled success, but it wouldn’t last as settlers pushed farther west.
Penn’s savvy with the local Indians did not always carry over to his dealings with the colonists, however. He seemed incapable of selecting suitable representatives to govern the colony, and a series of incompetent choices created friction with the province’s inhabitants and threatened Penn’s credibility and authority there. Furthermore, his stand on nonviolence, while valued by the Lenni Lenape, didn’t sit well with New York’s governor, who expected aid against Indian attacks. Penn’s woes included frequent financial straits and a boundary dispute with Lord Baltimore to the south.
Nor were troubles confined to the New World. Political anglers in London looked to consolidate crown authority, and on more than one occasion Penn came dangerously close to losing his colony. This became an even greater concern with the 1685 death of Charles II and the subsequent bloodless revolution that saw the removal of Charles’ son, the Catholic King James II, just three years later. James’ very Protestant daughter and Dutch son-in-law, Mary and William, ascended the throne, but they were not fans of Penn. Because of his friendship with James, Penn was arrested late in 1688, and again in 1691, and charged with conspiring to commit treason. He was quickly released on both occasions, but trouble in London and in Pennsylvania continued to plague him until a stroke in 1712 crippled his mind. Death followed six years later.
Despite the difficulties, Penn’s is a success story. George Fox’s philosophy and William Penn’s determined vision proved a powerful combination that had lasting effects. As Penn wrote to the Pennsylvania colonists in 1681: ‘You shall be governed by laws of your own making, and live a free and, if you will, a sober and industrious people. I shall not usurp the right of any, or oppress his person.’ The Quaker promised, ‘Whatever sober and free men can reasonably desire for the security and improvement of their own happiness I shall heartily comply with….’
Penn offered the dream of a harmonious, peaceful and self-governing alternative to the raucous Cavaliers to the south and the repressive, puritanical society to the north. All the colonists had to do was live it. And they did — for eight decades, Quaker society dominated the Delaware Valley. The reality fell short of the dream, but the culture of burgeoning freedom and pluralism made a lasting impression. Many of Penn’s ideals live on in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
As Brooks Adams wrote of Quakers in The Emancipation of Massachusetts, ‘We owe to their heroic devotion the most priceless of our treasures, our perfect liberty of thought and speech.’