Changemaker: William Penn

One of America’s earliest Founders was inspired by the Bible’s message of brotherly love

The Changemakers Series is designed to inform and inspire you with stories of ordinary people who dedicated their lives to spreading God’s Word around the world. Today, meet William Penn, whose ideals of religious liberty and brotherly love influenced the founding of the United States.

Before 1776, before the Declaration of Independence and famous American Founders like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, there was William Penn.

While this 17th century Englishman didn’t become an honorary United States citizen until 1984 (266 years after his death), his role in founding the future state of Pennsylvania on ideals like religious freedom and brotherly love helped shape our nation. Today, explore Penn’s life and discover why he is among the Changemakers featured in our Faith and Liberty Bible.

A Religious Dissenter in England

William Penn was born in England in 1644. His father, Admiral Sir William Penn, was a famous naval hero and a close friend of King Charles II.

While the younger Penn was born into an Anglican family, he had doubts about the English government’s state-mandated worship in the Church of England. The more he studied religion and read Scripture, the more he became convinced that religious freedom was necessary for society—and religion itself—to prosper. Penn also believed that religious freedom was also good for the health of the soul. Faith that was coerced, Penn believed, was no true faith at all. Instead, people should be free to think, believe, and practice their faith without government intervention.

Penn joined the Society of Friends—also called Quakers—at the age of 22 and soon became an outspoken critic of the English government’s policies on religion. A deep thinker and prolific writer, he wrote a series of provocative essays on freedom of conscience and pamphlets that supported the Quaker cause. His dissenting opinion soon led to multiple arrests, trials, and time spent in prison, where he kept writing.

During one of his imprisonments in the Tower of London, Penn wrote No Cross, No Crown. This lengthy discourse is considered one of his most influential pieces. He focused on Christ-like love and self-denial, which became a major theme in his own life as he considered the Bible’s call to brotherly love. In 1670, Penn wrote another treatise from Newgate Prison. In The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience, he laid out his ideals for religious freedom, drawn from twelve Bible passages—including the “Golden Rule” from Matthew 7:12:

Lastly, we shall subjoin one passage more, and then no more of this particular; Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them. [Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31] Now upon the whole we seriously ask, whether any should be imposed upon, or restrained, in matters of faith and worship? Whether such practices become the Gospel, or are suitable to Christ’s meek precepts and suffering doctrine? And lastly, whether those, who are herein guilty, do to us, as they would be done unto by others.

Throughout his time in prison, Penn continued to consider how brotherly love and religious freedom could work together to create a better society. Then, in 1681, he got a chance to introduce his ideas into the real world.

An Early Visionary in America

Although Penn had caused a good deal of trouble in England, King Charles II still valued his friendship with Penn’s late father, Admiral Sir William Penn. The crown also owed Penn’s father a good deal of money.

In 1681, Penn proposed a solution that would clear the debt and give him a chance to see if his idea of a society founded on religious freedom could work. He asked King Charles for a tract of land in the American colonies. The king agreed and made Penn the sole “Proprietor” of a new colony to be named after his father: “Pennsylvania.”

Penn launched his “holy experiment” by drafting a Frame of Government for his new colony. This document, which functioned like an early constitution, was issued in 1682. It outlined the biblical values of love, respect, and freedom that would govern the new community. It also ensured that citizens and non-citizens would receive the same right to live and worship in freedom. To Penn, the creation of Pennsylvania echoed the earliest days in the Garden of Eden, when human beings worshiped God freely:

When the great and wise God had made the world, of all his creatures, it pleased him to choose man his deputy to rule it: and to fit him for so great a charge and trust he did not only qualify him with skill and power, but with integrity to use them justly. This native goodness was equally his honor and his happiness, and while he stood here, all went well; there was no need of coercive or compulsive means; the precept of divine love and truth, in his bosom, was the guide and keeper of his innocency.

Pennsylvania’s foundation of religious freedom and uniquely democratic government system began to attract immigrants, including religious dissenters, and people fleeing persecution from across Europe. Before long, the colony was home to Quakers, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, Brethren, Mennonites, Catholics, Jews, and others. Many lived in the capital city, which Penn designed and named “Philadelphia” after his favorite value of brotherly love.

During his time in the colony, Penn set a bold example for his fellow colonists by forming strong bonds with the native Lenni-Lenape tribe in the area. In a 1681 letter, Penn wrote of his desire for friendship with the Lenape people: “I have great love and regard toward you, and I desire to win and gain your friendship by a kind, just, and peaceable life.” The Lenape were protected under the colony’s government, and Penn insisted that they be treated as equals. He ensured that the tribe be paid fairly for their land and made a treaty that helped preserve peace in the colony for many years.

Over time, Pennsylvania grew to become a place with unparalleled religious and ethnic diversity among the American colonies.

An Inspiration for Future Founders

Ultimately, Penn didn’t spend much time in Pennsylvania, but his carefully laid foundation of religious freedom and brotherly love created a unique opportunity for people to live, worship, and flourish in America. While his “holy experiment” was a success in many ways, it wasn’t profitable for Penn. He struggled with debt for years, and when he died in 1718, Penn had nothing left of his fortune.

Penn’s family retained ownership of Pennsylvania until the American Revolution, when the former colony became part of the United States of America. American Founders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were impressed and inspired by Penn’s model of religious freedom in Pennsylvania. The United States Constitution would echo Penn’s Frame of Government, ensuring that religious freedom would continue in the new nation.

Through his thoughtful reflection on Scripture and application of biblical values in religious, government, and social contexts, Penn helped plant the seed of the nation we know today. He echoed 1 Corinthians 13:13 as he reflected on his vision for a society guided by God’s love: “Love is above all; and when it prevails in us all, we shall all be lovely, and in love with God and one with another.”

As we look back on the life of William Penn and other Changemakers who have guided our history, we thank God for the people who champion the Bible cause around the world. Today, ask yourself how you can share the transformative message of God’s Word with the people in your life and become a Changemaker for our own time!

Blog Sources

Brief History of William Penn.

The Faith and Liberty Bible. American Bible Society. 2021.

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Elisabeth Trefsgar
Elisabeth Trefsgar

Elisabeth Trefsgar is a content specialist for American Bible Society. She has made a home in New Jersey and Sofia, Bulgaria, and is always on the lookout for the next adventure. She is passionate about seeing communities around the world flourish through the power of God's Word and the efforts of the local church. When she isn't writing, you can find her reading good stories, photographing local sights, and spending time with friends.

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