Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In a letter written August 25, 1681, William Penn (1644–1718) described his new colony to friend and fellow Quaker James Harrison (circa 1628–1687). He hoped that in the development of Pennsylvania “an example may be set up to the nations.” The colony would serve as a “holy experiment,” a place where people of different ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs would find a peaceful home. His settlement on the banks of the Delaware River would be exceptional because it offered liberty of conscience to its inhabitants. Indeed, Pennsylvania would champion religious freedom nearly a century before the American Revolution and the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Penn’s views on religious freedom were forged through his personal experiences in London as a Quaker, or member of the Religious Society of Friends. A religious seeker, in 1661, after less than two years as a student at Oxford, he was expelled for questioning the beliefs of the Anglican Church. Six years later he converted to Quakerism, a sect founded in the late 1640s by George Fox (1624–1691).

Quakers rejected nearly everything about Anglican Christianity. While they affirmed the Bible as a source of divine revelation, they believed God spoke to individuals through what later Friends called the “Inner Light.” Since God spoke directly to human beings, Quakers did not see the need for the rituals, sacraments, or clergy of the Church of England. Their social views were radical for conservative English society. They were pacifists (they would not fight in the king’s army), refused to swear oaths, and opposed the institution of slavery. Penn found himself imprisoned on several occasions for his affiliation with the sect. The persecution he suffered as a member of the Society of Friends shaped his religious vision for Pennsylvania.

An educated gentleman, Penn wrote about the relationship between religion and government. He believed the purpose of government was to preserve civil society by promoting virtue among its members. To him, religion was the best way of keeping a society moral. In his 1679 tract entitled England’s Present Interest Considered, he argued religion was the “cornerstone” of society. It would “bring back ancient virtue” and promote “good living,” “good neighborhood,” and “cordial friendship.” Religion not only led to a sober, honest, trustworthy, and industrious citizenry, but it also contributed to better political leaders and a more “facile” government.

At the same time Penn pleaded for liberty of conscience for Quakers, he also articulated a vision of society that differed drastically from English norms. In England, the morality of society was bound with the Anglican Church. National religion provided the foundation for a stable state. The church, through its local parishes, would teach people how to live religious and virtuous lives while strengthening popular support for the crown. Nonconformity was a threat to civil society. It could be blamed for the bloody civil war of the mid-seventeenth-century and a host of other major and minor disorders. With the restoration of the Stuart line in 1660, a new emphasis on religious conformity, which translated into the persecution of religious sects such as the Quakers, began to spread throughout the country.

Penn published works advocating toleration of Quakers and other dissenting Protestants. His writings bore a central theme: liberty of conscience in matters of religion was not incompatible with a stable and ordered society. He argued that religious uniformity, not religious diversity, contributed to social disorder and blamed England’s past problems on the monarchy’s refusal to enforce religious tolerance.

Yet Penn’s understanding of liberty of conscience was quite limited by twenty-first century standards. Toleration, he believed, only applied to Protestants. The descendants of the Protestant Reformation needed to band together to present a unified front against what many in England believed to be the arbitrary and heretical encroachments of Roman Catholicism. At other times, his understanding of liberty of conscience was rooted in economic considerations. He believed religious freedom promoted industriousness and discipline among the citizens of a nation. In other words, farmers and laborers would not be motivated to contribute to a society in which they could not worship God freely.

Penn planned Pennsylvania with these views on religion and government in mind. His earliest plan of government for the colony, the Fundamental Constitutions of Pennsylvania (1681), proclaimed every individual “that does or shall reside” in Pennsylvania “shall have and enjoy the free possession of his or her faith and exercise of worship toward God, in such a way and manner as every person shall in conscience believe is most acceptable to God.” Penn’s Second Frame of Government, issued in 1682, which served as the first constitution of the Pennsylvania, made a similar claim: “all persons living in this province . . . shall in no way be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion or practice in matters of faith and worship. . . .”

Penn’s “holy experiment” attracted thousands of early settlers who arrived with their own religious and ethnic traditions. Pennsylvania became an exceptionally diverse place. For example, the 1790 census documents that 61 percent of the white population in the United States was English in origin, followed by small percentages of Germans (9 percent), Scottish (8 percent), and Scots-Irish (6 percent). In Pennsylvania, however, only 35 percent of the population was English. Another 33 percent was German, followed by Scots-Irish (11 percent) and Scottish (9 percent). On the eve of the American Revolution, at least sixteen religious groups were represented in Pennsylvania.

Because Penn spent very little time in Pennsylvania — less than four years on two separate visits — the nature of the colony’s religious pluralism was never carefully managed. The social consequences of religious freedom had to be worked out on the ground. As a result, Penn’s legacy of religious freedom is mixed.

Every now and then a commentator or diarist would write something that showed how Penn’s ideas were being applied by the inhabitants of Pennsylvania. For example, J. Hector St. John de Crevecouer (1735–1813), writing in 1782, described the religious life in Pennsylvania and its neighboring colonies: “If they are peaceable subjects and are industrious, what is it to their neighbors how and in what manner they think to address their prayers to the Supreme Being?” Penn would have been pleased.

Yet Pennsylvania was hardly a religious utopia. In the early 1690s, the colony was racked by a religious controversy, the Keithian Schism, which badly divided Penn’s peaceable kingdom. Throughout the early years of settlement, Quakers worried about the growing number of non-Quaker religious groups and sought to maintain political control over the colony in a way that did not always reflect Penn’s vision. During the eighteenth century, the Pennsylvania backcountry suffered through horrible violence driven by religious and ethnic differences between English Quakers and Scots-Irish Presbyterians. Relations between Native Americans and Pennsylvanians got off to a promising start, but they quickly soured due largely to corrupt land deals and the expansion of the European population.

In many ways, the story of Pennsylvania is the story of the tension between Penn’s original vision for the colonies and the attempts — sometimes successful and other times not — to live those ideals in the warp and woof of everyday life in the province.

Some things never change.


John Fea is chair of the history department at Messiah College in Grantham, Cumberland County. He is the author of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (2008) and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction (2011).