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Morton: William Penn preached religious tolerance

On this day (Oct. 14) in 1644, Quaker founder of Pennsylvania William Penn was born in London into the politically well-connected family of Admiral Sir William Penn and Margaret Jasper.

Tragically, at age 3, Penn came down with smallpox, which prompted his parents to move out of smoke-ridden London to the Essex countryside. There, Penn was educated at the renowned Chigwell grammar school, where he was subjected to “strict, humorless and somber” teachers, who taught the impressionable young Penn the Puritan traits of hard work and serious demeanor.

Although Penn later opposed Anglicanism on religious grounds, he had absorbed at Chigwell School many of the Anglican/Puritan concepts and ideals, which partly explains why as an adult he was known for his seriousness and lack of humor. Later, while living on his father’s Irish estate, the studious Penn was educated by private tutors who taught him the traditional, classical curriculum needed to get into one of the two English universities.

Also during his four years in Ireland, Penn first became acquainted with the nonconformist Quaker sect, which had been founded by George Fox. In 1660, the 16-year-old Penn entered Christ Church College, Oxford, where he quickly ran afoul of the strict Anglican formalism of the university. In 1662, he was fined and expelled for refusing to attend chapel.

Determined to thwart his son’s growing pro-Quaker “religiosity,” Penn’s father sent his 18-year-old son on a two-year (1662-1664) “grand tour” of Europe. While in Europe, he became a spokesman for the Society of Friends, publishing numerous pamphlets that extolled the virtues of Quaker theology.

Summoned by his father back to England, Penn studied law for a year at Lincoln’s Inn. In 1665, Penn formally joined the Society of Friends and quickly became a leading Quaker missionary and author.

Penn wrote 42 books, the most famous being “No Cross, No Crown” (1669) in which he explained the Quaker philosophy of humility, pacifism and the “Inner Light.” Imprisoned four times for preaching “illegal” non-Anglican theology and for the advocacy of “heretical” democratic political beliefs, Penn, in 1667, convinced that he could not change the religious and political climate in England, turned westward to America, where he hoped to be able to establish a Quaker religiously and politically tolerant “Holy Experiment.”

As a close friend of English King Charles II, Penn, in 1681, persuaded the monarch to grant him a charter to an enormous grant of land (more than 45,000 square miles) north of the colony of Maryland, which became Pennsylvania (“Penn’s Woods”). Although Penn only spent four years in America (1682-1684 and 1699-1701), he was able to establish his “Holy Experiment,” granting it in 1682 a Frame of Government, which along with his 1701 Charter of Liberties made Pennsylvania the most religiously and politically tolerant colony in America.

Almost alone among colonial proprietors and governors, Penn established friendly relations with the Native Americans of his new world domain by preaching that Indians, like all people, had the “Inner Light” (“spark of the divine”) and, therefore, should be respected and tolerated.

Penn’s private life was one of privilege and luxury. He first married Gulielma Maria Springett (1644-1694), with whom he had eight children. Two years after her death, he married (at age 52) Hannah Margaret Callowhill (1671-1726), with whom he had eight more children.

In 1712, Penn suffered a severe stroke that rendered him unable to speak or take care of himself. Six years later (1718), Penn died penniless.

Although the Penn family retained ownership of the colony of Pennsylvania until the American Revolution, Penn’s sons, Thomas and John, renounced their father’s faith and restricted religious freedom, especially for Catholics and Quakers in the “Holy Experiment.”

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at

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