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The Quaker Ideal of Religious Tolerance
Digital History ID 86

Author:   William Penn


The Quakers had remarkable success in attracting a number of socially prominent individuals to their cause. Among these, none was more important than William Penn (1644-1718). The son of an English naval officer and a friend of James II, Penn became a Quaker at the age of 22. He was imprisoned several times for writing and preaching about Quakerism, including an eight-month confinement in the Tower of London.

In 1680, Penn asked Charles II of England to repay an $80,000 debt owed to Penn's father with wilderness land in America. The next year, he was granted a charter. Penn viewed his new colony as a "Holy Experiment," which would provide colonists religious liberty and cheap land. He made a treaty of friendship with Indians shortly after he arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682, paying them for most of the land that King Charles had given him.

Compared to many other colonies, Pennsylvania, from the outset, was a remarkable success. It experienced no major Indian wars. Strong West Indian demand for grain generated prosperity and made Philadelphia a major port. Nevertheless, the colony did not live up to Penn's dream of a "peaceable kingdom." In 1685 he pleaded with the colonial legislature: "For the love of God, me, and the poor country, be not so governmentish; so noisy and open in your disaffection."

In this essay, written seven years before founding Pennsylvania, Penn offers arguments in favor of religious tolerance.


Certain it is, that there are few Kingdoms in the World more Divided within themselves [by religion than England]....

Your Endeavours for a [religious] Uniformity have been many; Your Acts not a few to Enforce it, but they Consequence, whether you intended it or not, through the Barbarous Practices of those that have had their Execution, hath been the Spoiling of several Thousands of the free inhabitants of this Kingdom of their Unforfeited Rights. Persons have been flung into Jails, Gates and Trunks broke open, Goods destroyed, till a stool hath not been left to sit down on, Flocks of Cattle driven, whole Barns full of Corn seized, Parents left with out Children, Children without their Parents, both without subsistence....

Finding then by Sad Experience, and a long Tract of Time, That the very Remedies applied to cure Dissension increase it; and that the more Vigorously a Uniformity is coercively prosecuted, the Wider Breaches grown, the more Inflamed Persons are, and fixt in their Resolutions to stand by their Principles; which, besides all other Inconveniences to those that give them Trouble, their very Sufferings beget that Compassion in the Multitude...and makes a Preparation for not a few Proselytes....

The Question. What is most Fit, Easie and Safe at this Juncture of Affairs to be done, for Composing, at least Quieting Differences; for Allaying the Heat of Contrary Interests, and making them Subservient to the Interest of the Government, and Consistent with the Prosperity of the Kingdom?

The Answer.

I. An Inviolable and Impartial Maintenance of English Rights.

II. Our Superiours governing themselves upon a Balance, as near as may be, towards the several Religious Interests.

III. A sincere Promotion of General and Practical Religion....

I shall not at this time make it my Business to manifest the Inconsistency that there is between the Christian Religion, and a forced Uniformity; not only because it hath been so often and excellently done by Men of Wit, Learning and Conscience, and that I have elsewhere largely deliver'd my Sense about it; but because Every free and impartial Temper hath of a long time observ'd, that such Barbarous Attempts were so far from being indulged, that they were most severely prohibited by Christ himself....

Instead of Peace, Love and good Neighborhood, behold Animosity and contest! One Neighbour watcheth another...; this divides them, their Families and Acquaintance....

Nor is this Severity only Injurious to the Affairs of England, but the whole Protestant World: For besides that it calls the Sincerity of their Proceedings against the Papists into Question, it furnisheth them with this sort of unanswerable Interrogatory: "The Protestants exclaim against us for Persecutor, and are they now the very men themselves?..."

But there are...objections that some make against what I have urged, not unfit to be consider'd. The first is this: If the Liberty desired be granted, what know we but Dissenters may employ their Meetings to insinuate against the Government, inflame the People into a Dislike of their Superiours, and thereby prepare them for Mischief....Answer....What Dissenter can be so destitute of Reason and Love to common Safety, as to expose himself and Family; by plotting against a Government that is kind to him, and gives him the Liberty he desire....<

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: William Penn, "England's present interests discovered....," 1675

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