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Article Info:
published: 3/31/13
updated: 2/27/14

William Penn

Who was William Penn?

william penn
William Penn

"Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but, for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it." ~ William Penn

William Penn, who lives in the 17th century, was a Quaker by faith and and Englishman turned American by citizenship. He was an influential Christian and American perhaps most known for his "Holy Experiment" in regards to the state of Pennsylvania.

Birth date: October 14, 1644

Birth location: London, England

Spouses: Guliema Maria Springett, Hannah Margaret Callowhill

Children: seven with Springett, eight with Callowhill

Death date: July 30, 1718

Death location: Berkshire, England

A brief biography

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William Penn was born October 14, 1644 in London, England. His father, William Sr., was an Admiral in the Navy during the time of the English Civil War (1642-1651).

As a child, Penn was educated at Christ Church, Oxford and studied literature. The school had Puritan influences some of which Penn would adopt; yet others he would come to oppose. After his family moved to Ireland when Penn was a teenager, he met a Quaker missionary named Thomas Loe, who shared the Inner Light doctrine with him.

In 1660 Penn enrolled in Oxford, where he considered a career in medicine. When Penn sided with the recently-fired university dean over a free-speech issue, his father pulled him out of school. Penn was later expelled by the school when he refused to obey their rules.

His father was unhappy and eventually sent his son to Paris at the age of 18. Two years later, older and more mature, Penn returned to England and decided to follow his father to sea. His father soon became ill and Penn's familial responsibilities increased.

At this time, English society persecuted Quakers, some believing they were responsible for the plague and their meetings were called illegal.

Quaker Encounters

Penn happened to encounter Thomas Loe once again as he started attending Quaker meetings, for which he was arrested. At the age of 22, he declared himself a Quaker. Because his father feared Penn would fail in challenging the English crown, he was once again told to leave home. Penn soon befriended George Fox. The pair traveled together, and later Penn wrote the preface for Fox's, Journal. After a period of intense persecution in Europe, Penn developed another vision for Quakers. Penn suggested that Quakers emigrate to America.

In 1677 Penn and others purchased West Jersey and in 1682, East Jersey. The English king then gave Penn a charter, which included 45,000 square miles of land, including the area that the king would name "Pennsylvania," after William Jr.'s father. Penn soon parceled out 300,000 acres to mostly wealthy English Quakers.

Penn called Pennsylvania the "Holy Experiment."

Penn spent the following years in land disputes, traveling to England, and trying to help his children. Penn's financial advisor stole thousands of dollars from him, and at age 62, Penn was put in debtors prison. His sentence was soon reduced to house arrest. Quakers assisted him with the finances he needed and Penn was freed. In 1712 Penn had a stroke and a second one a few months later took his memory. He lived for six more years before dying in 1718 in Berkshire, a county in south east England.

Penn's works

  • True Spiritual Liberty (1681)
  • Some Fruits of Solitude In Reflections And Maxims (1682)
  • Frame Of Government Of Pennsylvania (1682) From the Avalon Project, Yale Law School.
  • Letter to his wife, Gulielma (1682)
  • A Key (1692)
  • Primitive Christianity Revived (1696)
  • Preface to George Fox's Journal (1694)
  • An Essay towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe by the Establishment of a European Dyet, Parliament or Estates (1693)
  • William Penn & Richard Claridge; Posthumous publication, anonymous editor (1817). Extracts from The Writings of William Penn & Richard Claridge, on the Death and Sufferings of Our Lord Jesus Christ. London: William and Samuel Graves.
  • Dunn, Mary Maples, Dunn, Richard S., Bronner, Edwin, and Fraser, David. The papers of William Penn, 5 volumes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981-87.

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Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010

Michael Walsh (Ed.). Dictionary of Christian Biography.. The Liturgical Press. 2001.

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