William Penn: History, Facts & Biography

Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Meet William Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania Colony and a leader in the Quaker religion. Discover how the young man from a prestigious family became an important figure in the New World.

Who was William Penn?

William Penn was the founder of the Pennsylvania Colony and the leader of the Quaker religious community. Before all that, he was born into a wealthy English family in 1644. His father was the Lord Admiral, or the leader of the English navy. Penn was educated at Oxford and Cambridge, the most prestigious universities in the country. Penn's family intended for him to go into the diplomatic services; however, while at Cambridge his life took a drastically different turn.

Portrait of William Penn as a young man
Portrait of William Penn as a young man

William Penn, Quaker Activist

The Quakers were a religious minority founded by George Fox. They believed that all human beings were possessed of an 'inner light' that allowed them to communicate directly with God. The Quakers were pacifists, they refused to participate in any conflict or war, and they refused to swear any oaths of allegiance to the king or the government of England. The Quakers were also one of the only religious groups of the period that allowed women to be full participants in religious services. Their controversial religious practices made the Quakers very unpopular with the British government.

At the age of 22, young William Penn joined the Quakers' religious movement and quickly became a leading figure in the religion. Penn and his fellow believers were arrested regularly, and Penn spent a significant period of time in prison for his religious beliefs. As a result of their religious persecution, Penn and other Quaker leaders began to propose a move to one of the new colonies opening up in the New World.

Moving to the Colony

Finally, in 1677, Penn and his Quaker allies acquired a land grant from King Charles II in payment for a debt he owed to Penn's father. The Quakers were granted a colonial province out of what was once a part of the New Jersey colony. Although William Penn stayed in England for the first few years of the Quaker colony, the settlers named their new home Pennsylvania, which is Latin for 'Penn's Woods.'

Portrait of William Penn
Portrait of William Penn

Government in Penn's Colony

Thousands of Quakers from Ireland, Wales, and England poured into the colony. Penn also advertised his colony to non-Quakers who moved in significant numbers to Pennsylvania. Large numbers of non-Quaker Germans and Scandinavians moved into the area as well. The ethnic and religious divisions in the colony also produced political divisions.

William Penn granted the colony a Charter of Liberties, a document establishing a unicameral, or one house, legislature. William Penn maintained the power to veto the legislature. Although the government was controlled by the Quakers for several years after the colony was established, Penn still came into frequent conflict with the government.

William Penn

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