William Penn and religious toleration

BBC Radio Bristol, 18 February 2015


I got involved in Quakers partly because of my interest in their history and I don’t think I’m the only person to find the Religious Society of Friends this way. So occasionally I use Thought for the Day as a platform to give some of the historical background to our faith.

Good morning everyone

Early on Saturday evening I turned on my car radio hoping to hear the sports results. Instead I heard about the terrorist shootings in Denmark – particularly poignant as I was just leaving one of the oldest Quaker Meeting Houses in the world. One that attracts a steady stream of visitors, particularly from the United States, because the grave of William Penn – the founder of Pennsylvania and a pioneer of religious toleration – lies in its burial ground.

Jordans Meeting House in Buckinghamshire was built in 1688. The first year that Quakers were allowed to worship together freely. A few years earlier, Charles II had given land in America to William Penn to settle a debt owed to his late father, Admiral Penn, who is buried in St Mary Redcliffe church. William saw his inheritance as a chance for his ‘Holy Experiment’ – a state based on Quaker principles.

From the beginning religious freedom would be absolute – in stark contrast to the Old World that the colonists would leave behind them. All were to be free to lead their lives as their conscience dictated. Although the basic principles were Quaker, Penn was convinced that his own sect should not dominate others. As well as Quakers, Pennsylvania attracted religious refugees from right across Europe. Not just Christian minorities – such as Huguenots, Amish, Catholics and Lutherans – but also Jews.

In line with his pacifism, Penn refused to fortify his capital, Philadelphia. Instead he made peace with the local Indian tribes in a treaty which gave them a fair deal and which the Pennsylvanians stuck to for many years.

Jordans is a quiet and peaceful place. Hearing about killings linked to religion when I turned on my radio was a rude re-entry to the outside world. A sad reminder that Penn’s experiment in toleration still offers lessons. I really hope that we shall soon start to learn them.

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