Quakers and Constitutional Freedom

Author Melinda Penner Published on 08/21/2014

You remember William Penn from history class. He was granted the colony of Pennsylvania by the king in payment for debts owed his father. Penn was a Quaker who converted to Christianity in his early 20s. Penn adhered to the biblical values of human equality and intrinsic value and dignity. These later influenced the governmental framework he proposed for Pennsylvania.

Because of his dissent from the Church of England, Penn was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his outspoken religious beliefs. Penn was close friends with George Fox, who founded Quakerism. By rejecting the church’s authority over congregations, “Fox not only extended the Protestant Reformation more radically, but he helped extend the most important principle of modern political history—the rights of the individual—upon which modern democracies were later founded. Penn traveled frequently with Fox, through Europe and England. He also wrote a comprehensive, detailed explanation of Quakerism along with a testimony to the character of George Fox, in his introduction to the autobiographical Journal of George Fox. In effect, Penn became the first theologian, theorist, and legal defender of Quakerism, providing its written doctrine and helping to establish its public standing.”

Penn’s father banished him from his household for his religious beliefs. On his deathbed, Penn’s father expressed his respect for his son’s religious convictions and courage. He entreated the Duke of York, the future King of England, to protect his son.

Penn and other Quakers purchased land in America that became New Jersey. He encouraged a mass migration of Quakers to escape persecution and pursue practicing their religious freedom in peace. The King later granted Pennsylvania to Penn. “On March 4, 1681, the King signed the charter and the following day Penn jubilantly wrote, ‘It is a clear and just thing, and my God who has given it me through many difficulties, will, I believe, bless and make it the seed of a nation.’”

Penn proposed a framework for the government of his colony that included some landmark features that influenced the U.S. Constitution a century later. He limited his own power under the legal framework. And he provided for amendments to allow the constitution to be changed over time. Other rights that were unique at the time:

  • the assembly could bring a request of impeachment of the governor before the council for its trial
  • unconstitutional laws should be invalidated, although it did not specifically grant courts the power to declare their unconstitutionality
  • capital punishment to be applied to a strictly limited scope of criminal offenses only, including murder and treason
  • freedom of worship in the colony was to be absolute

Penn vowed that he would not oppress the native population or the immigrants of Pennsylvania for his own benefit. He later attracted other persecuted religious groups from Europe to immigrate making Pennsylvania a place of religious toleration.

Penn insisted that the Quaker schools be open to everyone, so the colony had a high literacy rate. Philadelphia became a center for science and medicine. The Quakers improved treatment of the mentally ill. Prisons were places of reform where the inmates were treated better than was common at the time.

On November 28, 1984, President Reason on an Act of Congress declared William Penn to be an honorary citizen of the United States. He had favored unifying the American colonies.