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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 Great Plague had struck London. Lincoln’s Inn, where Penn was again reading law, was deserted. Out of a population of half a million, nearly seventy thousand people died. Along the city’s half-empty streets walked men to collect the corpses, crying, “Bring out your dead, bring out your dead!” Dr. Amyraut had said that man’s responsibility to his brother was the ultimate morality, and Quakers worked to save the sick and helped carry out those who had died. Suffering increases nonconformity, and as unrest grew in the year of the Great Plague, the authorities took steps to suppress it. As usual, these had the opposite effect. The Quaker Act three years before had made it unlawful for five or more Quakers to assemble “under pretense of worship.” The same year the Act of Uniformity required clergymen to follow exactly the established Prayer Book. And now the Five Mile Act forbade any nonconformist preacher to come within five miles of a corporate town. This suppression caused Catholics, Quakers, and Independents to protest by active disobedience.
Sir William meanwhile was triumphant over the Dutch at the battle of Lowestoft, and in September, 1665, brought home a host of prizes. It was his last battle, and his health began to fail. He sent his son to Ireland to settle the estates which the King had given him. Serving under the Earl of Arran, young Penn helped restore order, and was praised for his works. In Cork he went to hear Thomas Loe speak at a Quaker meeting, was singularly affected, and realized then that his decision had been made: “It was at this time that the Lord visited me with a certain sound and testimony of His eternal word.” He knew himself to be a “seeker,” and began regularly to go to meetings of the Friends. But he still loved a good fight.
At one of the meetings a soldier came in to break up the group. Penn took him by the neck and started to throw him downstairs, but more soldiers came and arrested the Quakers. When the mayor saw Penn among them, he ordered him released, but Penn insisted he be treated like the others. He always practiced what he preached. Then he acted as lawyer for his fellow prisoners. On what charge had they been arrested, he asked? By way of answer they were all sent to jail. Penn protested to the Earl of Orrery and was released. His father, who had evidently heard of William’s association with the Quakers, wrote him to come to see him in England without delay—“unless for necessary rest or refreshment” on the road. William returned with a fellow Quaker, Josiah Coale, who had been persecuted “and dragged bareheaded under the spouts in time of rain,” and took him to visit his father, a gesture hardly calculated to effect a reconciliation. After Coale withdrew, his father burst out—did he have to use thee and thou ? William must use you in speaking to older people or persons of high rank. But William, fortified by his brief taste of martyrdom, refused. Quakers, he said, recognized no rank. His father suggested that he uncover before the King, the Duke of York, and his father; but William, though he loved his father, would not. Exasperated, Sir William ordered his son from the house, saying he would dispose of his estates to those that pleased him better.
After this it was natural that William should throw himself without reserve into the Quaker cause, living with them, going to their meetings, protesting the increasing arrests, and writing religious tracts. He had not yet found his way of writing. Truth Exalted (1668), his first tract, was verbose and filled with the current exhortations. Another shaft, groaning under the title of The Guide Mistaken and Temporizing Rebuked , shortly followed. For writing The Sandy Foundation Shaken , in which he attacked the Trinity, Penn was arrested by the Privy Council on December 12, 1668, charged with failure to obtain a publishing license from the Bishop of London, and, as mentioned above, committed to the Tower for safe custody. John Evelyn was shocked and noted that “one of Sir William Pen’s sons had published a blasphemous book against the Deity of our blessed Lord.” But Pepys, who got his wife to read him Penn’s book, found it “so well writ as, I think, it is too good for him ever to have writ it,” and “a serious sort of book, and not fit for every body to read.”
The warrant was issued by the Privy Council to Sir John Robinson, the Lord Lieutenant of the Tower, who would be Penn’s prosecutor in the notorious trial two years later. The Bishop of London sent word to Penn that he could recant in Covent Garden at an appropriate time before the “Fair” of all the city or else be kept in prison for the rest of his life. Penn would not budge a jot; he said he owed his conscience to no mortal man; he had no need to fear; he valued not such threats. The King sent his chaplain, the Bishop of Worcester, to see him; the prospective life prisoner told Worcester that the Tower was the worst argument in the world to convince him. He also explained to the Bishop that he had not meant to deny the divinity of Christ, and agreed to write another pamphlet, clarifying his views. Innocency With Her Open Face, Presented by Way of Apology for the Book Entitled, The Sandy Foundation Shaken , was the result. In it Penn expounded his belief in Jesus Christ, despite his attack on the Trinity.