Born October 14, 1644, settler William Penn founded the British colony that later became the state of Pennsylvania. At 22, Penn converted from Anglicanism to the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. Their refusal to swear government oaths or bear arms -- along with the belief that all carry an inner divine light -- resulted in persecution in England. Penn wanted to establish a free religious society in North America. He arrived in the colonies in 1677 to establish a settlement of Quakers and died in England in 1718.
Freedom of Religion
Quakers faced persecution in England partly for refusing monarchist loyalty oaths. About 15,000, including Penn, were imprisoned at some point between 1660 and 1685, according to the University of Houston's Digital History website. Frustrated, Penn grew interested in starting a Quaker settlement in North America. What became the British Province of Pennsylvania provided freedom of religion for all who believed in God, though only Christians could vote or assume office. This was viewed as progressive for its time.
Quaker historian Amelia Mott Gummere argued that liberty was understood more broadly in Pennsylvania than elsewhere at the time. Penn wrote a charter of liberties reflecting the persecuted history of the Quakers -- and was intended to prevent what they suffered in England. It included relatively free elections, due process, rights against unlawful imprisonment and church-state separation. Elements of the charter, such as the justification for church-state separation, were later integrated into the U.S. Constitution.
The Issue of Slavery
In the final two decades of Penn's life, Quakerism established itself as the first abolitionist Christian denomination. This does not mean that Penn himself opposed slavery; he was both a slave owner and trader. Enslaved people did not figure into the charter of liberties Penn had developed for whites. He said little about slave ownership as such, but did promote humane treatment. Ultimately, his stance was more measured than it might have been if not for the denomination's growing disapproval of slavery.
Partly because of the pacifism Quakers practiced, Penn pursued a peaceful relationship with Native Americans. At a time when Indian-settler wars were taking place in the Southern colonies, Penn's arbitration of land disputes between Native Americans and settlers was known for its relative even-handedness. He even lobbied with the government for a fairer approach to Native American communities -- and negotiated a peace treaty with the Native Americans of Pennsylvania that prevented war.
- UShistory.org: William Penn
- History Channel: The Quakers
- Encyclopedia of Religion and Society: Quakers
- Digital History: The Middle Colonies - William Penn's Holy Commonwealth
- Biography: William Penn
- The Pennsylvania State University Libraries: Penn, William
- The U.S. Library of Congress: America as a Religious Refuge
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images