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William Penn and Religious Freedom

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.

Signing the Peace of Westphalia

Signing the Peace of Westphalia

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.

Even after the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1638, ending the war and recognizing the rights of Lutherans and Catholics alike, Anabaptists were left out.  They were still heretics who had to seek refuge.

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.

13 thoughts on “William Penn and Religious Freedom

  1. That is a story worth thinking about. The Amish have been very successful in the US, long since having outgrown Pennsylvania. I think the largest Amish concentration is now in Holms County, Indiana. Their interactions with mainstream people and governments is interesting. They generally are, it seems to me, very authoritarian. Not a good culture to be in for deviants and dissenters.

    • They are authoritarian by nature, and yet in some ways they live a very natural and open life. It’s kind of a parallel universe in many ways. I very much love and respect my “cousins”, as I’ve come to know them, but there are a few things that very much bother me – almost all dealing with gender relations.

  2. Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book, “Mayflower”, gives a sincere account of the original pilgrims and their deeply intimate relationship with the Wampanoag people. He also supplies a detailed report on King Philip’s War fifty years later. It would seem that the original settlers practiced tolerance and mutual acceptance; but the later Puritans were a horror story. Thank you for the clarification about William Penn and the Anabaptists. I like “Pennsylvania Deutch”; the farmsteads and large “family style” meals. It harkens back to something simple and beautiful. The Stratford RR displays and the exhibits in Lititz make for a relaxed experience. So don’t be too critical of tourists there. I am currently reading “Doubt” by Jennifer Michael Hecht. Wow! It’s a wonderful achievement. It offers a very human description of freethought through the centuries. You’d probably like it.

    • Excellent rec, thank you! There is a LOT to say about the development of religious thought in the English Colonies – things adapted and changed very much as different groups came to seek relief. That includes the Catholics of Maryland, which I’d love to know more about.
      Lancaster County, my “native Homeland”, is a very special place and it’s hard to describe in just a few words, especially given my feelings for it.

  3. Pingback: Big Ideas Fall Apart | Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

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