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The Ordeal Of William Penn
Long before he founded his Quaker commonwealth in America, he stood up for religious freedom against the awesome power of the Crown—and put the entire English-speaking world in his debt
April 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 3
The Penns lived four years in Ireland. Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, when William was fourteen. “It was the joyfullest funerall that I ever saw,” wrote the essayist and diarist, John Evelyn, “for there was none that Cried, but dogs, which the souldiers hooted away with a barbarous noise, drinking & taking tabacco in the streetes as they went.” The Penns had returned from Ireland by 1660, when Charles Il entered London in triumph, and the boy may have seen “the waves strew’d with flowers, the bells ringing, the streetes hung with tapissry, fountaines running with wine.” Admiral Perm, who had helped in the Restoration, was knighted and made a Navy commissioner, with juicy emoluments in the form of commissions on purchases, which added to his already large landed fortune.
That same year William was sent to Christ Church College at Oxford and entered as a “gentleman commoner.” His experience there was brief. He was shocked by the “Hellish Darkness and Debauchery” of the place, which was happily pro-Royalist. The persecution of the Puritan sects had already begun. His friend Thomas Loe was in jail in Oxford for teaching the Quaker faith; but John Owen, a famous Puritan preacher, dismissed as dean of Christ Church when the Restoration came, was exhorting nonconforming students, Penn among them, in the Puritan tradition. They refused to wear surplices and would not go to chapel. Fui this beginning of nonconformity at (he age of seventeen, Pcnn was finally expelled.
Samuel Pepys professed to he a friend of the Admiral, and though he could write in his diary: “Had Sir \V. Pen, who I lia te with all my heart … and his son, William … to dinner,” the two were boon companions. Pepys found Penn “sociable, able, cunning” and full “uf merry discourse,” fond of gaudy dress and lewd plays. Sir William taught Pepys to take good drafts of sack in the morning to cure headaches caused by too much drinking the night before. \Ve must take Pepys with a generous pinch of salt, but there is enough in this brief description to indicate the gull between the father, with his genial sensuality, and the son, disgusted at the dissipation of Oxford. Apparently about this time there arose a severe misunderstanding between the two. William said that his father had administered him “hitter usage,” whipping, beating, ami turning him out of doors. The Admiral found a letter of Dr. Owen s to his son. Outraged hut pu/xled, he took it to Pepys, who thought that the Puritan preacher had “perverted” the boy, and now perceived what had put Sir William “so long off the hookes.”
The father relented. He loved his son, but could not understand the lad’s devotion to the Quakers, with their plain clothes and twaddle about the inner light. The Admiral was no mystic and knew he could do very much for his son if the boy would only let him. Forgiving him then, and changing his tactics, he sent William oil to France with some persons of quality, among them Robert Spencer, later the Earl of Sunder land, who became William’s lifelong friend. It was the summer of 1662; Penn was eighteen.
Penn wrote later that a man attacked him for not returning a salute and that he had disarmed his attacker but had not killed him. Instead of boasting, Penn philosophized, a bit solemnly, as was characteristic of his youth: “I ask any man of understanding or conscience if the whole ceremony were worth the life of a man, considering the dignity of the nature, and the importance of the life of man, both with respect to God, his Creator, himself, and the benefit of civil society?”
At the Académie Protestante de Saumur, Penn became a friend of the famous theologian and metaphysician Moïse Amyraut, the president of the college; lodged at his house; and imbibed his unflinching philosophy of toleration and religious liberty, learning in his classes to reject predestination and glory in personal liberty and to practice charity as well as piety.
Back in London in 1664 young Penn had become, according to Mrs. Pepys, “a most modish person, grown … a fine gentleman,” with his athletic build and candid eyes. He studied law for a short time at Lincoln’s Inn, and his curriculum included readings of Dryden and of Beaumont and Fletcher.
For a second time war was declared against Holland, and William joined his father for a few weeks on the Royal Charles . The Admiral, who had been made Great Captain Commander, sent his son as a personal messenger to the King, hoping that this would be the beginning of a brilliant career based on royal favor. From Harwich the boy wrote his father, whom he cherished: “I … firmly believe that if God has called you out to battle, He will cover your head in that smoky day … Your concerns are most dear to me. It’s hard, meantime, to lose both a father and a friend.” He had not yet made the choice between the kind of future his father wished for him and the way of life his instincts were reaching for, the way of the Quakers. He was moved by their persecutions and tortures—they would not meet in secret—and he saw dissenters in stocks, pelted and jeered at by the crowds.