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William Penn

After the election, it’s time to remind us all what it means to be an American.  This story, first run in 2010, is very important to me personally – and to our nation.  I hope you enjoy it as we all look ahead to a great American holiday.

It naturally comes up in my family just before Thanksgiving every year.  The Puritans’ deliverance to America is billed as a search for religious freedom, something which is a core value of our nation. It’s good that we celebrate such a thing, but do the Puritans really deserve credit for it?  The short answer is no, they do not, because they were seeking to establish their own theocracy – and across the ocean where no one would bother them seemed like the perfect place.

Religious tolerance as a founding principle of America came from a different source – William Penn, the “absolute proprietor” of Pennsylvania.  The reason that he doesn’t get the credit he deserves is murky at best, but may have its origins in a prejudice that most of us wouldn’t even understand today.  I think it’s time to correct that.

William Penn is an important figure in my family for many reasons.  I am, at heart, an ethnic Pennsylvanian, which is to say that as far as I can go back into the mists of time my “people” lived there.  On my mother’s side the story is one of the great moments in American history.

The year was 1680.  The Anabaptists, people we call Amish and Mennonites, were crammed into the Netherlands because this was the only place that would take them.  The Thirty Years War had been over for 42 years, but for this group the devastation would not end.  That war saw their land trampled by armies moving back and forth across what is now Northwestern Germany, leaving the entire area nearly depopulated in a fierce religious war between Catholic and Lutheran forces.  When it was over the warring parties agreed to respect each other, but left no space for religious dissidents who weren’t of either side.

The Anabaptists, so named because they do not believe in infant baptism but instead reserved it for adults, are literal Bible readers.  They take the word of Jesus seriously and are strictly pacifists. They also refuse to swear allegiance to any nation because they believe that nothing should stand between them and God.

The roving armies of both sides who conscripted soldiers at will came to regard the Anabaptists as nothing but troublemakers.  Many leaders were burned at the stake as heretics.  They fled to the Netherlands even though it meant abandoning their simple farming based on following Jesus’ teachings as an example.  Exile life in the cities was hard, but at least they were not being slaughtered for their beliefs.

In 1680 that all changed when a man arrived to speak to them.  He was William Penn, and was looking for settlers to join his utopian vision of a land where people could be free to live and worship as he saw fit. Laying out the vision of Pennsylvania to the Anabaptists was only one stop on a grand tour of Europe made by Penn as he scoured the continent looking for the downtrodden and marginalized.  But their desperation led them to consider the offer more completely than nearly any other group.

One night the elders got together and voted on the proposal to leave the Netherlands and head out to America.  Penn’s offer was approved, and they all packed up and left.  Every single one of them.  There is not an Anabaptist left in Europe.

Today, the Amish are a symbol of Pennsylvania – or at least the part of it centered around Lancaster County.  People flock from the cities of the East Coast to gawk at the buggies and hats and … to be honest, I never understood what the attraction is.  To me, these are my relatives.   My grandfather left the faith and joined the army in World War I for reasons I never understood, and I have second cousins who are Amish.

That’s another long story I’ll have to tell sometime.  I’ve been saving it for the memoir.

The real question, however, is that with all the attention focused on the simple life, why is the amazing story of their arrival almost never told?  Why doesn’t Penn get the credit he deserves for our founding principle of religious freedom?

I think it comes down to the simple fact that, as pacifists, the Quakers had a tough time during our Revolution.  Their opposition to war made them appear suspicious at best – and perhaps even Loyalist.  They were largely removed from political power in the wake of our Revolution and their contributions diminished.

Today, very few people regard Quakers as trouble at all, even if pacifism is still not particularly popular.  Yet we still rarely give William Penn and his grand recruitment of the downtrodden of Europe its proper place in our history.  It was a great moment that defined us like no other.  This Thanksgiving I hope that you can spend some time contemplating deliverance to a land of freedom – and the tremendous effort it took to make it possible.

10 thoughts on “William Penn

  1. We should never take religious freedom for granted nor forget what it means! I never heard this story before. Thank you!

    • Exactly. Separation of Church and State is at the heart of our oldest and greatest traditions. It defined at least part of this nation from its very start!

    • As I said, it appears that the process of wresting power from the Quakers diminished their standing in history. I don’t understand why we haven’t revisited this, however, as it has much more resonance than the Puritan story.

  2. I think the U.S. has been more about the fight for racial equality.

    For example, On March 6, 1857, the Dred Scott case decision was announced by the Supreme Court. The case declared that no African American whether free or slave couild claim US citizenship. It also held that Congress couild not prohibit slavery in the US territories.

    African Americans were brouight to America in the 17th century from West Africa and what is now Angola. Ever since Americans have asked the question: what is equality?

    The sixties were a type of revolution in the US. We looked at ourselves and saw we did not live up to our ideals. For example, Earl Warren court through various decisions applied the bill of rights to the states. In the early sixties, the South was still a one-party system. The one party system existed to oppress African Americans.

  3. My understanding is that the Quakers lost control of Pennsylvania before the revolution, because the frontier types wanted the Indians driven out or killed more quickly than the Quakers felt comfortable with…

    • That also makes sense. I have read that the old guard was gone after the Revolution, but the process could have started much earlier. I wish we had easy footnoting, especially for off-line sources. Then again, I’d have to find where I got the notion I posted. Thanks!

  4. Pingback: Thanksgiving Deliverence | Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

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