In 1666 Admiral Penn sent William to Ireland to manage the family estates. There he crossed paths again with Thomas Loe and, after hearing him preach, decided to join the Quakers (the Society of Friends), a sect of religious radicals who were reviled by respectable society and subject to official persecution.
After joining the sect, Penn would eventually be imprisoned four times for publicly stating his beliefs in word and print. He published 42 books and pamphlets in the seven years immediately following his conversion. In his first publication, the pamphlet Truth Exalted (1668), he upheld Quaker doctrines while attacking in turn those of the Roman Catholics, the Anglicans, and the Dissenting churches. It was followed by The Sandy Foundation Shaken (1668), in which he boldly questioned the Trinity and other Protestant doctrines. Though Penn subsequently qualified his anti-Trinitarianism in Innocency with Her Open Face (1669), he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he wrote his most famous book, No Cross, No Crown(1669). In this work he expounded the Quaker-Puritan morality with eloquence, learning, and flashes of humour, condemning the worldliness and luxury of Restoration England and extolling both Puritan conceptions of ascetic self-denial and Quaker ideals of social reform. No Cross, No Crown stands alongside the letters of St. Paul, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as one of the world’s finest examples of prison literature. Penn was released from the Tower in 1669.
It was as a protagonist of religious toleration that Penn would earn his prominent place in English history. In 1670 he wrote The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience Once More Debated & Defended, which was the most systematic and thorough exposition of the theory of toleration produced in Restoration England. Though Penn based his arguments on theological and scriptural grounds, he did not overlook rational and pragmatic considerations; he pointed out, for example, that the contemporary prosperity of Holland was based on “her Indulgence in matters of Faith and Worship.”That same year Penn also had an unexpected opportunity to strike another blow for freedom of conscience and for the traditional rights of all Englishmen. On August 14, 1670, the Quaker meetinghouse in Gracechurch Street, London, having been padlocked by the authorities, he preached in the street to several hundred persons. After the meetings, he and William Mead were arrested and imprisoned on a trumped-up charge of inciting a riot. At his trial in the Old Bailey, Penn calmly and skillfully exposed the illegality of the proceedings against him. The jury, under the leadership of Edward Bushell, refused to bring in a verdict of guilty despite threats and abusive treatment. For their refusal the jurymen were fined and imprisoned, but they were vindicated when Sir John Vaughan, the lord chief justice, enunciated the principle that a judge “may try to open the eyes of the jurors, but not to lead them by the nose.” The trial, which is also known as the “Bushell’s Case,” stands as a landmark in English legal history, having established beyond question the independence of the jury. A firsthand account of the trial, which was a vivid courtroom drama, was published in The People’s Ancient and Just Liberties Asserted (1670). Admiral Penn died in 1670, having finally become reconciled to his son’s Quakerism.
Young Penn inherited his father’s estates in England and Ireland and became, like his father, a frequenter of the court, where he enjoyed the friendship of King Charles II and his brother, the duke of York (later James II). In 1672 Penn married Gulielma Springett, a Quaker by whom he had eight children, four of whom died in infancy. In the 1670s Penn was tirelessly active as a Quaker minister and polemicist, producing no fewer than 40 controversial tracts on religious doctrines and practice. In 1671 and 1677 he undertook preaching missions to Holland and northern Germany, where the contacts he established would later help him in peopling Pennsylvania with thousands of Dutch and German emigrants. The later years of the decade were also occupied with political activities. In 1679 Penn supported the Parliamentary candidacy of the radical republican Algernon Sidney, going on the hustings twice—at Guildford and later at Bramber—for his friend. During these years he wrote a number of pamphlets on behalf of the radical Whigs, including England’s Great Interest in the Choice of this New Parliament (1679), which is noteworthy as one of the first clear statements of party doctrine ever laid before the English electorate.
Penn had meanwhile become involved in American colonization as a trustee for Edward Byllynge, one of the two Quaker proprietors of West New Jersey. In 1681 Penn and 11 other Quakers bought the proprietary rights to East New Jersey from the widow of Sir John Carteret. In that same year, discouraged by the turn of political events in England, where Charles II was ruling without Parliament and prospects for religious freedom seemed dark, Penn sought and received a vast province on the west bank of the Delaware River, which was named Pennsylvania after his father (to whom Charles II had owed a large debt canceled by this grant). A few months later the duke of York granted him the three “lower counties” (later Delaware). In Pennsylvania Penn hoped to provide a refuge for Quakers and other persecuted people and to build an ideal Christian commonwealth. “There may be room there, though not here” he wrote to a friend in America, “for such a holy experiment.”
As proprietor, Penn seized the opportunity to create a government that would embody his Quaker-Whig ideas. In 1682 he drew up a Frame of Government for the colony that would, he said, leave himself and his successors “no power of doing mischief, that the will of one man may not hinder the good of a whole country.” Freedom of worship in the colony was to be absolute, and all the traditional rights of Englishmen were carefully safeguarded. The actual machinery of government outlined in the Frame proved in some respects to be clumsy and unworkable, but Penn wisely included in the Frame an amending clause—the first in any written constitution—so that it could be altered as necessity required.
Penn himself sailed in the Welcome for Pennsylvania late in 1682, leaving his family behind, and found his experiment already well under way. The city of Philadelphia was already laid out on a grid pattern according to his instructions, and settlers were pouring in to take up the fertile lands lying around it. Presiding over the first Assembly, Penn saw the government of the “lower counties” united with that of Pennsylvania and the Frame of Government incorporated in the Great Law of the province. In a series of treaties based on mutual trust, he established good relations with the Delaware Indians. He also held an unsuccessful conference with Lord Baltimore, the proprietor of the neighbouring province of Maryland, to negotiate a boundary between it and Pennsylvania. When this effort proved unsuccessful, Penn was obliged in 1684 to return to England to defend his interests against Baltimore.
Before his return, he published A Letter to the Free Society of Traders (1683), which contained his fullest description of Pennsylvania and included a valuable account of the Delaware based on firsthand observation. With the accession of his friend the duke of York as James II in 1685, Penn found himself in a position of great influence at court, whereby he was able to have hundreds of Quakers, as well as political prisoners such as John Locke, released from prison. Penn welcomed James’s Declaration of Indulgence (1687) but received some criticsm for doing so, since the declaration provided religious toleration at the royal pleasure rather than as a matter of fundamental right. But the Act of Toleration (1689), passed after James’s abdication, finally established the principle for which Penn had laboured so long and faithfully.
Penn’s close relations with James brought him under a cloud when William and Mary came to the throne, and for a time he was forced to live virtually in hiding to avoid arrest. He used this period of forced retirement to write more books. Among them were An Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe (1693), in which he proposed an international organization to prevent wars by arbitrating disputes, and A Brief Account of the Rise and Progress of the People Called Quakers (1694), which was the earliest serious effort to set down the history of the Quaker movement. Penn also drafted (1696) the first plan for a future union of the American colonies, a document that presaged the U.S. Constitution.
In 1696, his first wife having died in 1694, Penn married Hannah Callowhill, by whom he had seven children, five of whom lived to adulthood. Meanwhile, affairs had been going badly in Pennsylvania. For about two years (1692–94), while Penn was under suspicion, the government of the colony had been taken from him and given to that of New York. Afterwards, Pennsylvania’s Assembly quarreled constantly with its Council and with Penn’s deputy governors. The “lower counties” were unhappy at being unequally yoked with the larger province of Pennsylvania. Relations with the home government were strained by the Quakers’ conscientious refusal to provide military defense. In 1699 Penn, his wife, and his secretary, James Logan, returned to the province. He settled many of the outstanding difficulties, though he was compelled to grant the Pennsylvania Assembly preeminence in 1701 in a revised constitution known as the Charter of Privileges. He also allowed the lower counties to form their own independent government.
After less than two years Penn’s affairs in England demanded his presence, and he left the province in 1701, never to see it again. He confided his Pennsylvania interests to the capable hands of James Logan, who upheld them loyally for the next half century.Penn’s final years were unhappy. His eldest son, William, Jr., turned out a scapegrace. Penn’s own poor judgment in choosing his subordinates (except for the faithful Logan) recoiled upon him: his deputy governors proved incompetent or untrustworthy, and his steward, Philip Ford, cheated him on such a staggering scale that Penn was forced to spend nine months in a debtors’ prison. In 1712, discouraged at the outcome of his “holy experiment,” Penn began negotiations to surrender Pennsylvania to the English crown. A paralytic stroke, which seriously impaired his memory and dulled his once-keen intellect, prevented the consummation of these negotiations. Penn lingered on, virtually helpless, until 1718, his wife undertaking to manage his proprietary affairs. Penn’s collected works were published in 1726.