William Penn and His ‘Holy Experiment’

How Penn Applied Quakerism in Pennsylvania

William Penn
Circa 1690, William Penn (1644 - 1718), English Quaker, founder of Pennsylvania. Getty Images

William Penn (1644-1718), one of the most famous early Quakers, put his religious beliefs into practice in the American colony he founded, resulting in unrivaled peace and prosperity.

Fast Facts: William Penn

  • Known for: Minister, Missionary, Governor of Pennsylvania
  • Born: October 14, 1644 in London, England
  • Died: July 30, 1718 in Ruscombe, England
  • Education: Chigwell School, Essex, England; University of Oxford; Protestant Academy, Saumur, France
  • Published Works: The Sandy Foundation Shaken; No Cross, No Crown
  • Key Accomplishments: Incorporating Quaker ethics into his colony of Pennsylvania, Penn created a peaceful and prosperous territory that people flocked to. He set an example of what Christianity in action could do. His principles of freedom later influenced the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Spouse: Gulielma Maria Springett (died 1694); Hannah Callowhill
  • Famous quote: "Right is right, even if everyone is against it, and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it."

The son of a British admiral, William Penn was a friend of George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. When Penn converted to Quakerism, he experienced the same relentless persecution in England as Fox.

After being imprisoned for his Quaker beliefs, Penn realized the Anglican church had too strong a hold in England and would not tolerate the Friends' Church there. The government owed Penn's family £16,000 in back wages for William's late father, so William Penn struck a deal with the King.

Penn got a charter for a colony in America, in exchange for canceling the debt. The King came up with the name "Pennsylvania," meaning "Forests of Penn," to honor the Admiral. Penn would be the administrator, and at the start of every year, he was to pay the King two beaver pelts and a fifth of any gold and silver mined within the colony.

Pennsylvania Guarantees Fair Government

In keeping with the Golden Rule, William Penn assured the right of private property, freedom from restrictions on business, a free press, and trial by jury. Such liberty was unheard of in the American colonies controlled by the Puritans. In those areas, any political dissent was a crime.

Even though he came from an upper-class family, William Penn had seen the exploitation of the poor in England and would have no part of it. Despite Penn's generous and considerate treatment of Pennsylvania's citizens, the legislature still complained about his powers as governor, amending the constitution several times to spell out his restrictions.

Peace and Equality

Peace, one of the foremost Quaker values, became law in Pennsylvania. There was no military draft since Quakers rejected war. Even more radical was Penn's treatment of Native Americans.

Instead of stealing land from the Indians, as the Puritans did, William Penn treated them as equals and negotiated purchases from them at fair prices. He respected the Susquehannock, Shawnee, and Leni-Lenape nations so much that he learned their languages. He entered their lands unarmed and unescorted, and they admired his courage.

To ensure his rule of equality, Penn established a model trial system for disputes between Indians and settlers. Each side was allowed the same number of men on the jury. Because of William Penn's fair dealings, Pennsylvania was one of the few colonies that did not have Indian uprisings.

Another Quaker value, equality, found its way into Penn's Holy Experiment. He treated women on the same level as men, revolutionary in the 17th century. He encouraged them to get an education and to speak out as men did.

Ironically, Quaker beliefs on equality did not cover African-Americans. Penn owned slaves, as did other Quakers. Quakers were one of the earliest religious groups to protest against slavery, in 1758, but that was 40 years after Penn died.

Religious Tolerance

Perhaps the most radical move William Penn made was complete religious tolerance in Pennsylvania. He remembered too well the court battles and prison sentences he had served in England. In Quaker fashion, Penn saw no threat from other religious groups. He believed each person had to seek God in his or her own way.

While the other American colonies each had an official church, Pennsylvania did not. Penn even offered free land to some of the groups. However, only Christians were allowed to vote and hold political office.

Word quickly got back to Europe. Pennsylvania was soon flooded with immigrants, including English, Irish, Germans, Catholics, and Jews, as well as a wide variety of persecuted Protestant denominations.

Persecuted in England-Again

With a change in the British monarchy, William Penn's fortunes were reversed when he returned to England. Arrested for treason, his estate seized, he became a fugitive for four years, hiding in London's slums. Eventually, his name was restored, but his troubles were far from over.

His unscrupulous business partner, a Quaker named Philip Ford, tricked Penn into signing a deed that transferred Pennsylvania to Ford. When Ford died, his wife had Penn thrown into debtor's prison.

Penn suffered two strokes in 1712 and died in 1718. Pennsylvania, his legacy, became one of the most populated and prosperous of the colonies. Even though William Penn lost £30,000 in the process, he considered his Holy Experiment in Quaker rule a success.


  • "Brief History of William Penn," ushistory.org; http://www.ushistory.org/penn/bio.htm
  • "William Penn biography," biography.com; https://www.biography.com/people/william-penn-9436869
  • "William Penn and American History," pennsburymanor.org; http://www.pennsburymanor.org/history/william-penn-and-american-history/
  • "William Penn and His 'Holy Experiment' in Religious Tolerance, the Colony of Pennsylvania," American Heritage Education Foundation; thefounding.net; https://thefounding.net/william-penn-holy-experiment-religious-tolerance-colony-pennsylvania/
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Zavada, Jack. "William Penn and His ‘Holy Experiment’." Learn Religions, Sep. 15, 2021, learnreligions.com/william-penn-and-his-holy-experiment-701369. Zavada, Jack. (2021, September 15). William Penn and His ‘Holy Experiment’. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/william-penn-and-his-holy-experiment-701369 Zavada, Jack. "William Penn and His ‘Holy Experiment’." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/william-penn-and-his-holy-experiment-701369 (accessed March 20, 2023).