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Penn's Holy Experiment

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Penn’s Holy Experiment

        As the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn’s life has been closely analyzed by historians in order to understand the history behind Philadelphia, and how it came to be. In order to understand the how the city came to be known as the City of Brotherly Love, William Penn’s religious beliefs must first be examined. William Penn was raised in London to an aristocratic Anglican family, and converted to Quakerism at a young age. This was during a time of a religious intolerance that spread from Europe over to the New World. Penn did not bring over the idea of religious intolerance, and instead created a city based on acceptance of all people’s beliefs. This essay will explore how different aspects of Penn’s early and later life experiences led to his Holy Experiment of religious freedom.

        William Penn was raised by a well-respected admiral, Sir William Penn, and the daughter of a wealthy Dutch merchant, Margaret Jaspers. The parents raised Penn as an Anglican, but was exposed to the Society of Friends (aka Quakerism) at the age of fifteen. Since a young age, Penn had always strayed from his born faith “Expelled in 1662 from Christ Church College, Oxford, for religious nonconformity” (Murphy 10). This expulsion was only the beginning of Penn being punished for expressing his beliefs. Later in life, Penn set out on business to Ireland for his father at the age of 22, and while there he officially converted to Quakerism. Once converted, Penn brought the Quaker beliefs back to his home town London in hopes of introducing a way of life that did not include religious intolerance. English authorities arrested Penn on several occasions for speaking at Quaker meetings and practicing Quaker beliefs. This prison time lead to several famous writings from Penn about the Society of Friends. 

Being moved by other members of the persecuted religion, Penn decided to preach more and travel to spread Quaker ideas. Together, the Society of Friends challenged the Church of England, facing a violent backlash from the British government. This leads to a long jail sentence for William Penn. Although the relationship between Penn Jr. and Penn Sr. was never a strong one, admiral Penn admired how much his son believed in his faith, and decided to buy his son’s freedom from prison before his death in 1670. The admiral petitions the Duke of York protect his son from the English laws of religious persecution. After the admiral’s death Penn inherited a large sum of money, and a favor from the King and many people of power for his father’s service to the crown. Over a decade later, Penn wrote to the King asking for repayment for the large sum of money that the Admiral had loaned him in the form as land in the New World. The King agrees and signs over ownership of modern day Pennsylvania to Penn in order to satisfy the debt to his father. The next year Penn sailed to his new estate in hopes of building a new type of city. One that had no dark alleyways for mischief to happen, one with green patches of land in all four corners of the city, one the stretched from river to river to avoid mass-population. With these ideas in mind, the city of Philadelphia was born.

The Holy Experiment was created to form a place “wherein Christians of all faiths would live together in bonds of love and peace, rested on two assumptions. First, that holy or pious people would populate Pennsylvania. And, second, that these settlers would put public good above private interest.” (Frost, 5). The experiment could have been thought of in two different senses, either a scientific experiment or as an experience. In the words of Frost, “Clearly Pennsylvania as virgin soil could be seen as a place to try out certain principles-religious liberty, assembly power, economic opportunity-in a test to see what kind of society resulted.” (Frost, 7). The Holy Experiment really could have been an actual experiment used to see if a world really could exist with a government with no influence from religion. While this is a plausible theory, Penn most likely meant holy experiment in the sense of a holy experience, and place people can go and not fear that the government can control what they believe in, one without religious persecution.

        To truly understand where the ideals that went into building Philadelphia, the meaning of Quakerism need to be explored. Quakerism was one of the most persecuted religious faiths during the intolerant time, believers often being “arrested, punished, and, sometimes, executed.” (Lambert 7).  Quakers believe that every individual has a connection to God, and that the connection is not one that can be written in a book, but one that is established through the individual and the Divine. The emphasis of a Quaker’s life is the present, that life should focus on experiencing and following the leading of the Light in their lives. Because of the individual connection each Quaker has to the Divine, and the word of God is written in their heart rather than on paper, Quakerism has a very broad belief system. William Penn was a leader of the English Quaker group and was a large advocate of religious freedom, even spending time in jail for preaching on the streets. He ensured that while building Pennsylvania it would be a place of refuge for all Quakers and other religious minorities.

        After years of being persecuted for expressing his religious beliefs, Penn knew he would bring his personal attitude toward religion to his new home in the New World. While Penn was given the land in the year 1681, he didn’t actually travel to Pennsylvania until late 1862. When Penn received the estate, there was already a population of Europeans in the land that consisted of Swedes, Dutch, some of those people being Quakers. There was also a large Native American population, the Lenni Lenape. Penn wanted to make sure that the relationship between the Europeans and the Lenape would be a strong and happy one, unlike the relationship that had happened between the Lenape when the Swedes and the Dutch had inhabited Pennsylvania. This want for a world where all religions and people were respected lead to Penn’s Treaty, where Penn and the Lenape chiefs came to an understanding. The Philadelphians would not disrupt the Lenape’s way of life, and vice versa. This treaty was representative of the road not taken by the other colonies in the New World. While Penn was making peace, learning the language and traditions of the Lenape, the other colonies were destroying the Native Americans home, and decimating the population itself (The Great Experiment).



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