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William Penn, Quakers, and the Founding of Pennsylvania


My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over sixty books.

William Penn at age 22 in 1666. Oil on canvas, eighteenth-century copy of a seventeenth-century portrait, possibly by Sir Peter Lely.

William Penn at age 22 in 1666. Oil on canvas, eighteenth-century copy of a seventeenth-century portrait, possibly by Sir Peter Lely.

Finding Religious Refuge

Much like the Puritans who came to America seeking religious freedom in Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, the wealthy William Penn sought to establish a colony for those of the Quaker faith to peacefully worship. The practicing members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, were persecuted in seventeenth-century England, forcing many to seek refuge in colonial America. Unlike Massachusetts Bay, where religious diversity was not tolerated, Penn welcomed people from a variety of faiths and nations of Europe to live and prosper in the colony of Pennsylvania. The story of the colonization of Pennsylvania is much the story of William Penn’s attempt to fulfill his “Holy Experiment” in an uncharted land.

William Penn—The Early Years

William Penn, the son of Captain William Penn, later Admiral Sir William Penn, and Margaret Jasper, grew up in Winstead, Essex, England. He was born in 1644 during a period in which the Puritan faith was gaining hold in England. William Jr. enjoyed a college education at Oxford until he was kicked out for religious nonconformity. Admiral Penn was disappointed with his son’s expulsion from college and sent him to France hoping he would come to his senses, learning to live and work as an upper class gentleman. The young Penn spent a year and a half at the French Protestant University of Saumur in Anjou and, after a short visit to Italy, he returned to England at the start of the Dutch War in 1665. According to an acquaintance, he returned imbued with “something of learning…but a great deal, if not too much, of the vanity of the French garb and affected manner of speech and gait.” He would continue his education in law, though he would not receive a degree.

Still searching for his place in the world, on a trip to Ireland to manage his father’s estate, he heard the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light preached by Thomas Loe of Oxford and was converted to the faith. Joining the Society of Friends, or Quakers as their detractors called them, was a bold move for the young Penn. Since members of the Society of Friends were outside the law, Penn was soon in trouble with the authorities and was sent to prison. Released from prison, he was harshly summoned back to England by his father. He soon became an avowed and active Friend, which alienated him from many in the circle of the wealthy and powerful. Members of this radical Protestant sect had few friends in high places in seventeenth century England.

The Society of Friends or Quakers

The Quaker religion was promoted by an itinerant preacher named George Fox in England during the 1650s. The poor shoemaker turned preacher experienced despair “so that I had nothing outward to help me…[but] then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.’ ” Fox believed that if ordinary men and women would look for it, they would discover they possessed an “Inner Light.” His message resonated with the poor and suffering, for with the Lord’s personal assistance, spiritual perfection was within their grasp. This new faith didn’t believe in original sin and disregarded the dogma of eternal predestination, believing everyone could be saved. The Spirit’s Inner Light allowed a believer to preach and prophesy, an activity termed “bearing witness to the truth.” Quakers had no need for trained ministers as the Inner Light would guide them to a valid interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.

In their daily lives the Friends put their religious faith to work; practicing humility, dressing plainly, refusing to honor worldly positions or accomplishments, and refusing to doff their hats, bow, or curtsey. Their lack of apparent respect for those in authority put them at odds with the magistrates, landing many of them in jail. The Quakers denied the sacraments of the church, had no formal rites or rituals, had no priests, nor paid any tithes. Their beliefs put them in opposition with English authorities, which prohibited assembly of five or more persons for a worship service that was not Anglican. As a result of being deemed subversive to both ecclesiastical and civil authorities, between 1661 and 1685 almost fifteen thousand Quakers were imprisoned in England. Quakerism spread to the British Colonies in America causing dissension and reprisal in Puritan Massachusetts.

William Penn stood out in the group of Quakers because he was a wealthy gentleman among the common laborers and artisans. His annual income put him at the top of the gentry class, which afforded a grand house in Sussex, expensive clothes, three coaches, and a staff of eight servants. Even though he was a young man of great wealth and position, he turned his attention to spreading the Quaker faith.

Penn Promotes the Quaker Faith

Once his father learned that William had joined the Society of Friends, he threatened to disinherit him. The two reconciled on Sir William’s deathbed three years later. Young Penn immediately took up the Quaker cause, writing numerous pamphlets explaining and justifying the Quaker faith. In 1668, he wrote Truth Exalted. In it, he upheld the simplicity of the Quaker message against the ritualism and dogmatism of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. His writing caught the attention of the Church of England and civil authorities, leading to imprisonment in the Tower of London for eight months, primarily for his anti-trinitarian doctrine. He was informed that he would be released if he would recant his beliefs. To this he replied: “My prison shall be my grave before I budge a jot, for I owe my conscience to no mortal man.” While incarcerated in the Tower of London he wrote one of his better-known books titled No Cross, No Crown. In his book he condemned the worldliness of Restoration England with its pride, avarice, and luxury. He challenged his fellow Englishmen to take up the cross of self-denial and embrace social justice for all. After release from prison he continued to write and speak out for religious freedom and acceptance of the Quaker faith.

To spread the gospel of the Friends and seek more converts, Penn sponsored missionary trips throughout England, the Netherlands, Belgium, and northern Germany. In 1677, he made a second journey through the Rhine Valley in the company of three of the most prominent Quakers, George Fox, Robert Barclay, and George Keith. His missionary trips throughout Europe would later bear fruit as thousands from the regions would later come to Pennsylvania.


Upon his father’s death in 1670, young Penn inherited his father’s estates in England and Ireland, but also his standing at court, which allowed him to develop a personal relationship with King Charles II and his younger brother James, the Duke of York. In 1672 he married Gulielma Maria Springett, the daughter of Sir William Springett, a lawyer and knight who died while fighting on Oliver Cromwell's side during the English Civil War. To add to his wealth, Gulielma was from a wealthy family, bringing £10,000 (over $1.4M in today’s dollars) to the marriage. Together they had eight children, only four of whom survived to adulthood.

Map of East Jersey, West Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, circa 1715.

Map of East Jersey, West Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, circa 1715.

New Jersey

The first connection between Penn and America was in his dealing with New Jersey. In 1675 Penn was appointed a trustee for the bankrupt Edward Byllynge (or Billinge), one of the two Quaker proprietors of the colony of West Jersey. To govern the colony of West Jersey, the trustees wrote the document called Concessions and Agreements, which spelled out liberal and democratic principles of government. The 1677 document, signed by Penn and others, mostly Quakers, established West Jersey’s organization and civil liberties. The document was profound as it set the stage for many of the principles of the American democracy that would emerge a century later. The charter guaranteed the colonists the rights to petition and trial by jury. It provided against imprisonment for debt, made no provision for capital punishment for theft, and it granted religious freedom of worship, stating, “no men, nor number of men upon Earth, hath power or authority to rule over men’s consciences in religious matter.” Penn and his friends wrote of the Concessions and Agreements: “We lay a foundation for after ages to understand their liberty as men and Christians, that they may not be brought in bondage but by their own consent; for we put the power in the people.”

Penn Receives a Generous Land Grant From the King

To relieve the suffering and persecution of his fellow Quakers in England, Penn devised a scheme he called the “Holy Experiment,” in which he planned to establish a Quaker colony in America. Penn successfully petitioned King Charles II for a grant of land north of Maryland in lieu of payment for a £16,000 debt owed to his father for back pay and a loan. The cash strapped king was more than happy to pay off the debt with wilderness land in America; as a side benefit, Penn was planning on moving thousands of dissident Quakers to America. The king granted him proprietor of land from 40 to 43 degrees north latitude and 5 degrees longitude, west of the Delaware River, which encompassed parts of present-day Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. This vast track of land made William Penn the largest private landowner in the world. In return for the land grant, Penn agreed to give the king two beaver skins annually and one-fifth of any gold and silver from the colony. To establish the colony in 1681, he sent his cousin, William Markham, to act as his deputy until he could travel to America.

Painting "The Birth of Pennsylvania", 1680, by Jean Ferris. The painting depicts William Penn, holding paper, standing and facing King Charles II, in the King's breakfast chamber at Whitehall.

Painting "The Birth of Pennsylvania", 1680, by Jean Ferris. The painting depicts William Penn, holding paper, standing and facing King Charles II, in the King's breakfast chamber at Whitehall.

The Charter for Pennsylvania

Now that William Penn was the proprietor of Pennsylvania, or “Penn’s Woods,” he set about establishing a government for the colony. He drew up a Frame of Government, which was designed, as he said, “to leave myself and successors no power of doing mischief, so that the will of one man may not hinder the odd of a whole country.” The Charter of 1681, which was like other charters for proprietary colonies, provided that the colonists be tenants, paying quitrents. The constitution organized the government into three parts: a governor, a Provincial Council, and a bicameral legislature, elected by the people, in which the upper house drafted legislation and the lower house voted to approve or reject. Penn's first Frame of Government, however, only lasted a year before it had to be revised to give more power to the Assembly. In 1683, Penn reluctantly wrote a second Frame of Government, better known as the Charter of Liberties, which granted more power to the Assembly. The struggle for a more democratic form of government in Pennsylvania would continue for decades.

Laws within the colony were to be made with the consent of the freemen, with Penn given the authority to veto legislation he didn’t approve of, appoint officials, and issue pardons. The Crown did place certain restrictions on the charter: the Navigation Acts first enacted in 1651 had to be obeyed, the Privy Council retained the right to disallow the colony’s laws, laws must be in-line with English law, the Crown retained the right to hear cases from the colony’s court, and taxes could be imposed on the colony by an act of Parliament.

In Penn’s laws for the new colony, “the first fundamental” was religious liberty. Freedom of worship was not a given in America; for instance, a group of Quakers were hanged in the Massachusetts Bay colony when the Puritan leaders ordered them to leave the colony and they refused. Penn’s version of religious liberty was more inclusive, but it did limit public office only to those who professed faith in Jesus Christ, which excluded Jews and Muslims. The laws also guaranteed free elections, trial by jury, and a humane penial code. Like the New England Puritans, the law attempted to outlaw acts they deemed immoral, such as gambling, cockfighting, drunkenness, and swearing profane oaths.

Promoting the New Colony

To entice settlers to leave their homeland and journey thousands of miles across the ocean to an unsettled wilderness, Penn energetically promoted the colony. He published advertisements in several languages and traveled to Rhineland and Holland to recruit new colonists. He offered the land on very reasonable terms: a hundred acres could be purchased for £5 with a quitrent of one shilling per hundred acres, or free homesteads were offered with a higher quitrent of one penny for each acre. New settlers who took servants along with them would get headright land of 50 acres for each servant. The servants themselves would get 50 acres when their period of indentured servitude was fulfilled. His land grant terms were very generous and soon attracted large numbers of settlers.

Relationship With Indians

When Penn received the land grant from the king, the area was lightly populated with Dutch, Swedes, and natives of the Lenni Lenape tribe, called the Delaware tribe by the English. Penn sent men to the colony in advance to assure the Indians of his peaceful intentions, and once he arrived, he established a treaty with the Indians and paid them for their land. Pennsylvania enjoyed a prolonged peace with the Indians, avoiding the native wars that had devastated Virginia, New England, and New Netherland. Penn cultivated a good relationship with the Indians, assuring them, “I am very sensible of unkindness and injustice that hath been too much exercised toward you.” Promising them, “I desire to enjoy [this land] with your love and consent, that we may always live together as neighbors and friends.” Penn’s word was good, and he put measures in place to protect the Indians from the ravages of rum and the greed of the white settlers.

A painting which depicts William Penn, in 1682, standing on shore greeted by a large group of men and women, including Native Americans.

A painting which depicts William Penn, in 1682, standing on shore greeted by a large group of men and women, including Native Americans.

Penn in Pennsylvania

In the fall of 1682 Penn sailed for Pennsylvania aboard the Welcome. He arrived in the late fall and was greeted by the local inhabitants with a piece of turf, a twig, and some river water to symbolize his authority over the new land. He would spend nearly two years in America overseeing the launch of his “Holy Experiment.” To secure an unimpeded sea entrance into his colony, he arranged with the Duke of York to annex the eastern part of the peninsula between Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay, which is much of present-day Delaware. Through a series of deeds and leases the Lower Counties were transferred from the Duke of York to William Penn. In December 1682, the three Lower Counties were formally annexed to the Province of Pennsylvania.

Growth of Pennsylvania

Penn was successful in bringing a variety of people to populate Pennsylvania. Most of the new Pennsylvanians came as freemen with their families, with one third of the early settlers bringing indentured servants with them. Most of the emigrants were Quakers, primarily from England, Ireland, and Wales. The religious tolerance of the colony attracted English Anglicans, German Pietists, and Dutch Calvinists. Most settled in the rural townships to farm the land. The artisans and merchants tended to cluster in the rapidly growing city of Philadelphia. During the eighteenth century, Philadelphia’s merchant class became the wealthiest in the colonies, like New England’s upper crust. The number that came rivaled the massive immigration into New England during the 1630s and 1640s.

One of the problems Penn faced with his new colony was the definition of the exact boundaries with the other colonies. The typical land grants from the king were notoriously vague, especially considering the charters were written by bureaucrats in England who had never set foot in America, and nearly all the land in America had not been surveyed. One of the more acrimonious boundary disputes was with Maryland to the south. In 1632 Charles I granted Lord Baltimore land that is now Maryland; however, the land grant of Pennsylvania issued by Charles II to Penn overlapped with that of Lord Baltimore’s land grant, thus the issue. The conflicting grants created a disputed area between the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers. When Penn and Baltimore finally met, the meeting produced little but hard feelings. To resolve the dispute, Penn had to return to England to settle the matter in court. In August 1684 he sailed for England, less than two years into his first visit to his colony. Though Penn had a partial victory in the dispute at court, it would not be until the establishment of the Mason-Dixon line in 1767 that the boundary was formally established.

The Pennsylvania Colony (Colonial America)

George Maris: One Quaker’s Story

The story of George Maris and his wife Alice along with their six children who immigrated to Pennsylvania from England is rather typical of the new citizens of the colony. As a practicing Quaker in the county of Worcester, England, George ran afoul of the law for having religious meetings in his home. For this he was fined £20 (around $3,000 in today’s dollars). Afterwards “he was taken by an assize process and sent to prison on the 23d of the month called July, 1670, and continued there above eight months, but never know for what cause he was so long imprisoned.” After prison Mr. Maris was persecuted further and felt he had no other alternative but to emigrate to William Penn’s colony of Pennsylvania. Next Maris took his petition to leave England to the Monthly Meeting of the Friends to seek guidance. In the March 1683 meeting, fourteen of the members drafted a letter of introduction and reference to Friends in Pennsylvania. In the letter they wrote, “To Friends in Pennsylvania – Dear Friends:…and this may certify to all Friends and others whom it may concern, that we have this further to say for our dear friend, George Maris, that we have had good knowledge of his life and conversion, and we have known it to be such that hath adorned the gospel of Christ; and hath been a good example in his place…” With the blessing of their fellow Friends, the Maris family set sail for a new home across a perilous sea.

After the Maris family arrived in America, they purchased 400 acres of land in Chester County on Darby Creek from William Penn. The present location of the land is near Springfield, Pennsylvania, and according to Maris family legend, the name of the town of Springfield came from the spring on the Maris farm. At the 1883 Maris family bicentennial reunion on the original homesite of George Maris that he called “Home House,” one of the distant relatives described the plot of land as it appeared 200 years after George and Alice Maris lived there: “The grove, about four acres in extend, is composed of fine old lords of the forest, and is situated a little distance to the rear of the farm. From it the near surroundings gracefully slope toward Darby Creek on the eastern side, and the entire absence of undergrowth makes it a beautiful spot indeed, just such a one as conforms to desires and tastes of those who delight in spending a summer’s day in the woods.”

Rather than pay Penn all at once for the land, the Maris’s paid a monthly quitrent. The contract read, “…paying therefore to me [Penn] my heirs and successors at or upon the first day of the month in every year at the town of Chester on silver English shilling for every hundred acres or value thereof in coin currency…” So, on May 30, 1684, the date on the deed, George Maris became a citizen of Chester County, Pennsylvania.

George and Alice Maris’s “Home House,” which was rebuilt in 1723 by their grandson.

George and Alice Maris’s “Home House,” which was rebuilt in 1723 by their grandson.

George Maris the Politician

After beginning to clear the land for farming and a house, George Maris and six other men were commissioned as Justices of the Peace, to hold the Courts of Chester for the County of Chester. For the next six years starting in 1684, Maris would attend every one of the Court sessions. In addition to duties as Justice of the Peace, he was chosen as a member of the Assembly and annually elected until 1693. The sessions of the Assembly during the eight years Maris served were short, occupying an average of nine days each. The sessions began at seven o’clock in the morning and continued until noon, with a two-hour break, then an afternoon session. For every day he served in the Assembly he was paid six shillings. For one year in 1695, he was a member of Governor William Markham’s Provisional Council. Much of the time the Council meetings revolved around the controversy over sending troops for the defense of New York. During the late 1680s and throughout much of the 1690s, the northern colonies were drawn into what became known as King William’s War between France and England. The British Crown had requested that Pennsylvania provide militia to fight the French along the New York and Canadian border. Unlike the other New England colonies who had an established militia, Pennsylvania did not have a standing militia because it was a pacifist Quaker colony. It was into this controversy of providing troops for battle with the French that the Governor’s Council and George Maris were thrown.

As well as being active in the colony’s legislative Assembly, George Maris was also an active minister in the Chester Monthly Meeting of Friends. He was, in addition, a member of the Yearly Meeting of Ministers, which met at Burlington and Philadelphia in the early days, but afterwards only in Philadelphia. George Maris was chosen by the Yearly Meeting to deliver a censure message to George Keith, one of the original founders of the Society of Friends, who had broken away to form a faction of the Friends. Keith had left the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to form a short-lived group called the Christian Quakers in the colonies, thus causing a schism within the Society of Friends.

1932 Three Cent U.S. Postage stamp commemorating William Penn.

1932 Three Cent U.S. Postage stamp commemorating William Penn.

Penn’s Final Visit to Pennsylvania

Matters in England would prevent Penn from returning to his American colony until 1699. During Penn’s absence from Pennsylvania, the growing colony suffered many stresses; most notably, the colony was removed from Penn’s control and annexed by New York. Penn did not receive back the control of the colony until 1694. During his absence, the Assembly quarreled constantly with the Council, and both with Penn’s deputy governors. Upon his return he was able to settle many of the difficulties; however, he was forced to accept a new constitution, the Charter of Privileges, and to authorize the lower counties to set up an independent government. Within two years he had to return to England to defend his colony against a proposal in the Parliament to annex all proprietary colonies to the Crown. In late 1701 he again said farewell to his providence, this time not to return.

Though William Penn was undoubtedly the prime mover in the establishment of a colony in Pennsylvania, it was countless sturdy and daring settlers like George and Alice Maris who turned the “Holy Experiment” into a prosperous British colony that accepted people of all faiths and backgrounds.


  • Breen, T.H. and Timothy Hall. Colonial America in an Atlantic World. Pearson Longman. 2004.
  • Geiter, Mark K. William Penn. Pearson Education Limited. 2000.
  • Maris, George L. and Annie M. Maris. The Maris Family in the United States. A Record of Descendants of George and Alice Maris. 1683-1885. F.S. Hickman, Printer and Publisher, West Chester, Pennsylvania. 1885. The book is available at: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015025889505
  • Soderlund, Jean R. (Editor). William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania: A Documentary History. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1983.
  • Tolles, Frederick B. “Penn, William” Encyclopedia Americana. Volume 21, pp. 512-515. Americana Corporation. 1968.
  • West, Doug. The Formation of the 13 Colonies in America: A Short History. C&D Publications. 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Doug West


fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on October 02, 2020:

I will check this out. Thanks for the tip.

Doug West (author) from Missouri on September 29, 2020:


You might take a look at the Maris genealogy referenced in the article. You and my wife may have common ancestor. There is a link to the book in the Reference section of the article.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on September 29, 2020:

Wow! Doug, when I was so heavily into genealogy, on the maternal side, the name Dirk Keiser, first settlers Germantown, Pa, then west to Ohio. Then paternal side Irish famine immigrants to Ohio. So interesting. It seems we both love history.

Doug West (author) from Missouri on September 29, 2020:


That is interesting. Your relatives probably knew my wife's. In the article I reference George Maris, this my wife's great...great maternal grandfather. They only lived about 20 miles from each other!

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on September 29, 2020:

Doug, what a great historical piece. I have a special connection to the Quaker settlement in Germantown, Pa. My maternal side of the family were first settlers there in 1660. Thanks for the article.

Doug West (author) from Missouri on September 29, 2020:


Thanks for the comment. I has been a long time since I have been to Pennsylvania, I would like to go back.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on September 29, 2020:

I love going to Pennsylvania and enjoyed knowing more about its history and the first settlers in the area. It is these people, full of courage and determination, which made Pennsylvania what it is today.

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