William Penn is best known as the English-born Quaker who founded Pennsylvania. What is less well known is that Penn was also a key figure in the histories of Delaware and New Jersey. Born in 1644, Penn grew up in a time of great religious and political strife in England. The state religion changed five times during his lifetime. Penn’s father was an officer in the Royal Navy who rose from the rank of Lieutenant to General of The Sea by the time Penn was seven. Penn’s mother was a Dutch Protestant who raised Penn in the Puritan faith. When Penn was 12 years old he had a vision that God was in the room with him and he afterward said that a seal had been placed upon him, calling him to a holy life.
During his time at Oxford, Penn found himself drawn to a new movement within the Puritan faith. This Religious Society of Friends spoke of an “inner light”- the same light that Penn had seen in his vision. Penn soon joined these Friends or Quakers as they were called and began to preach. Because Quaker teachings were contrary to the established state religion, Quakers were often persecuted- their meetings broken up and their members jailed. Penn himself spent time in the infamous Tower of London for his teachings and writings.
By the 1670s Penn came to realize that he and others like him would never have freedom of conscience in England. Indeed, Penn traveled throughout Europe and found that people everywhere were being persecuted for their religious beliefs. He longed for a place where people would be free to worship as they choose. The death of his father and the subsequent inheritance of a debt owed by the king gave him the opportunity to create just such a place. In 1681 King Charles I granted William Penn the Provence of Pennsylvania. Penn immediately began to make plans for a capital city upon the Delaware River. Philadelphia would be his “holy experiment”; a place where people could worship based on the dictates of conscience, not on the religion of the king.
William Penn was, at points, a soldier, courtier, philosopher, preacher, and entrepreneur. The colony he created out of the green Pennsylvania wilderness was unique in many of the liberties we take for granted today. Religious tolerance, freedom from unjust imprisonment, and the right to trial by jury all were granted in Penn’s Charter of Privileges. It is in part because of these freedoms that William Penn’s “green country towne” was chosen as the place where, a century later, the Founding Fathers would meet to debate the issues that would lead to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.