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The Middle Colonies: William Penn’s Holy Commonwealth Previous Next
Digital History ID 3588


The social upheaval ignited by the seventeenth-century English Civil War spawned many radical, millennarian religious groups, including the Diggers, who rejected private property; and the Ranters, who claimed to worship God through drinking, smoking, and fornicating. Only one of the radical religious groups that emerged during the tumultuous years of the 1640s and 1650s has survived until now: the Society of Friends or the Quakers.

Today, the Quakers are often associated with austerity and self-discipline, but in the sect's early days, members behaved in very rebellious ways. Some marched into churches, where they denounced ministers as dumb dogs and hirelings. They also refused to doff their hats before magistrates or to swear oaths. They opposed war and gave women the right to speak at public meetings, holding that both sexes were equal in their ability to expound God's teachings.

The Quakers rejected the orthodox Calvinist belief in predestination. Instead, the Quakers insisted that salvation was available to all. It came, however, not through an institutional church, but from within, by following the "inner light" of God's spirit. It was because Friends seemed to shake when they felt religious enthusiasm that they became known as Quakers.

In England as well as in a number of American colonies the Quakers faced violent persecution. Some 15,000 Quakers were jailed in England between 1660 and 1685. In 1660, Edward Burrough catalogued the maltreatment of Quakers in New England: 64 Quakers had been imprisoned; two Quakers lashed 139 times, leaving one "beat like into a jelly"; another branded with the letter H, for heretic, after being whipped with 39 stripes; and three Quakers had been executed.

Even in New York, which tolerated a wide variety of religious persuasions, the Quakers faced hostility. After arriving in Long Island in 1657, some Quakers were fined, jailed, and banished by the Dutch, who (like Puritan New Englanders) were outraged by Quaker women proselytizing.

Over time, the Quakers found successful ways to channel their moral idealism and religious enthusiasm. The sect established weekly and monthly meetings which imposed structure and discipline on members, and beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, directed their energies against a wide variety of social evils, including slavery. By the early nineteenth century, Quakers were engaged in moral reform movements in numbers wildly disproportionate to the sect's size. As many as a third of all early nineteenth century feminists and antislavery activists were Quakers.

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."

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