In modern American mythology, Pennsylvania represents a distinctive part of the American tradition. If New England provided the sense of destiny and mission, and Virginia contributed unfettered capitalism and individualism, Pennsylvania offered liberty, tolerance and diversity. With this central role, Pennsylvania has contributed mightily to the development of both colonial and modern American society since its founding in 1682. To understand what factors played such major roles in shaping Pennsylvania, one must begin by examining the founder of the colony, William Penn. Quakers Son of a prominent admiral in the British navy, William Penn grew up in a prosperous, elite family. The stability and harmony of his childhood was not replicated in the broader context of the English nation during this period, as the English Civil War (1641–1649) and the resulting Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell caused deep divisions within English society. Catholics and proponents of a high church were driven into hiding or exile, while Protestant dissenters from the Church of England, such as Puritans and Quakers, multiplied in number and political power at the end of Cromwell’s reign. With the collapse of the Protectorate in 1661 and the Restoration of King Charles II in the same year, civil war and military strife ceased, but the devastation of property, lives, and society was to be felt in the years to come, well unto the Glorious Revolution of 1689.
Quakers were among the most notorious Protestant dissenters during this period. Denying traditional religious authority, Quakers instead followed the authority of the “inner light” that is, they believed that the Holy Spirit is present and works in the minds of living believers as it did in Jerusalem during the life of Jesus. Preaching a doctrine of tolerance, humility, simplicity, and love, Quaker evangelists were present throughout England, arguing for freedom of religion and tolerance for all Protestant believers. The British civil authorities and Church of England responded harshly to such pleas, jailing large numbers of Quakers for refusing to attend Anglican services. Nearly 10,000 Quakers languished in jail during the 1660s, yet this effort to quash the Quaker faith failed as its membership rose throughout England. Preachers like George Fox persisted in spreading Quaker doctrine despite the threat of imprisonment and freely offered their words to all who would listen.
In 1660, William Penn, a student at Oxford University, accepted Quaker teachings and refused to attend Anglican services at college. This action infuriated Penn’s father, who promptly sent his son on a grand tour of Europe to get radicalism out of his system. This effort failed, and, by 1667, William was jailed for publicly supporting the Quaker cause. Over the next decade, Penn was repeatedly harassed for his efforts to promote religious liberty in Great Britain. By the 1670s, however, Penn’s fortunes changed. In an effort to gain broader political support, King Charles II pushed for religious tolerance and started to cultivate Penn’s favor. While this alliance can be explained as the result of politics, the king owed William’s now-deceased father a fortune, as the senior Penn had given him loans to support his lavish lifestyle. When the king offered grants of land in cancellation of his debts, he found the right man in William Penn, as the latter sought a site in North America where Quakers could settle and enjoy religious freedom. In 1681, Charles II granted Penn control over the lands from Maryland to New York an area soon named Pennsylvania in the proprietor’s honor. True to his Quaker principles, Penn established a constitution for his new colony that provided for religious liberty. He also actively promoted his new holdings to those in England and throughout Europe who sought a safe haven from the war-torn continent and marauding armies as well as a refuge from the religious intolerance that had been widespread since the early days of the Reformation.