Let's revisit William Penn's 'holy experiment' in politics

Let's revisit William Penn's 'holy experiment' in politics
© Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Today is the birthday of a real estate tycoon and famous American politician. I’m not referring to a contemporary figure, but to the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, who is in so many ways dissimilar to today’s politicians and their vitriolic discourse. Consider Penn’s maxim on speech, “If thou thinkest twice, before thou speakest once, thou wilt speak twice the better of it” — a welcomed perspective in our age of Twitterspeak.

Born 375 years ago, Penn was the son of an English admiral, Sir William Penn. Although baptized in the Church of England, Penn’s interest in the Bible led him to become a Quaker. The Society of Friends (Quakers) was a nonconforming sect championing social ethics rooted in the biblical ideal of love. Because of his family’s notoriety and political connections, Penn became the Friends’ high-profile public advocate for the freedom to believe and practice faith without state restrictions and interference.

Penn’s ideals about religious liberty and the collective rights of freedom of speech, press, assembly and petition landed him in jail on several occasions. If anyone had reason to be angry and vitriolic, it was Penn. Yet, his vision for a society of love and liberty prevailed and animated his reform efforts in England. Eventually Penn looked to America as the place to demonstrate his “holy experiment” in politics. With his family’s wealth and favor of the British Royals, Penn obtained a charter from King Charles II for a land grant in 1681.

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The King’s charter made Penn the owner and proprietor of nearly 50,000 square miles. It was his to develop, manage and govern with the stipulations that the new colony be named for Penn’s father, the admiral, and that the Province’s laws be consistent with English law. Penn, however, was additionally concerned that native inhabitants be justly treated and fairly compensated for the land he was to develop. His view was that, “The Indians and English must live in love, as long as the sun gave light.” 

In less than a decade after New England’s horrific King Philip’s War, which decimated the Native American population in that region, Penn demonstrated the possibility for a different path in Native American relations — love and friendship. His famed Treaty of Shackamaxon has since become legend, an event beautifully depicted by American artists Benjamin West and Edward Hicks.

Penn named his capital “Philadelphia” from the Bible. The city’s name is a contraction of two New Testament Greek words meaning “brotherly love.” Love was to be the compelling ethic binding people together in their common life. Penn conceived of Pennsylvania as a commonwealth, a society existing from and committed to the good of all. Love, not self-interest (enlightened or otherwise), was the foundation for flourishing community and civic life.

The ethic of love distinguishes Penn’s social vision as communitarian rather than libertarian. In Penn’s view, the source of love was God. He frequented quoted St. John, “He that lives in love lives in God.” People, he reasoned, needed the personal freedom to be convinced of this truth. Faith in God could not be coerced but must be understood and willfully embraced. Therefore, the fundament of Penn’s constitution for Pennsylvania, his Charter of Privileges, was religious liberty — the freedom to believe and practice one’s faith without disturbance. Penn believed that political liberty, and even economic prosperity, were predicated upon religious liberty. If all were free to believe, they might find love, the love of God that binds humanity together and seeks the mutual beneficence of one another. Liberty, for Penn, was instrumental to a just and prosperous society.

As a corollary to its religious liberty, Pennsylvania soon became a successful political experiment in religious pluralism and toleration. At the time, the Province was arguably the most liberal and democratic society in the world welcoming European immigrants of multiple ethnicities and religions by the boatloads. German Quakers, Anabaptists, Lutherans and Reformed flocked to Pennsylvania, and so did English Baptists, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, Dutch Mennonites and Reformed, Irish Catholics, as well as Sephardic Jews. The Anglicans came, too; those of England’s church-state establishment who oppressed other sects enjoyed freedom in Pennsylvania.

Is brotherly love a compelling value today? Is Penn’s vision still relevant for American society? Has his holy experiment been validated? Penn believed, “Love is above all; and when it prevails in us all, we shall all be lovely, and in love with God and one another.” He also acknowledged that love was “the hardest lesson” of his faith, and yet maintained “for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it.” Perhaps, in the words of Penn, we must continue to “try what love will do.”

Alan R. Crippen II is chief of exhibits at the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center opening on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall in late 2020.