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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
What could one do with a man like that? If you clapped him in the Tower he had time for his scandalous (and highly popular) attacks on the thurch, which were smuggled out of prison and sold everywhere—yet there was no doubt that he was a devout believer. If you let him out, at least he was more occupied with meetings and preachments, which were easier (perhaps) to handle. Besides, his father was a friend of the King, although the Admiral had recently been impeached and tried for embezzling prize goods (he was not convicted); and the King still owed the Admiral some sixteen thousand pounds.
Whatever the reason, William Penn was discharged from the Tower on July 28, 1669.
Three weeks after his release his father, still hoping he could get the young man away from this crusading which got one nowhere, sent him to Ireland to transact some business affairs; perhaps the trip would divert his mind from such unbecoming missionary zeal. But even while attending to his father’s business in such improbable places as Imokilly and Shanagarry, Penn spent a good part of his year in Ireland engaged in strenuous efforts to relieve the persecution of Irish Quakers. Having achieved much success in both ventures, he returned to London in August, 1670. The famous “tryal” was but a few days off.
During that year the persecution of both Quakers and Catholics was renewed. Laws were amended to provide more speedy remedies against these “dangerous practices of seditious sectaries,” and particularly the assemblies. In order to test the law, George Fox, the founder of the Quakers and a dedicated expert in rousing popular emotion, went to the Friends Meeting House in Gracechurch Street, where he expected the storm was most likely to begin. A large crowd had gathered to see what would happen to the Quakers. A file of musketeers appeared. Fox and two others were dragged away, and someone shouted: “Have a care of him, he is a princely man!” Public opinion was turning against the excesses of the government. Moved by Fox’s eloquence, the mayor, Sir Samuel Starling, the same official who would soon try to convict Penn under like circumstances, dismissed the charge. Later George Whitehead returned to the same spot, where some Friends were listening to a Catholic priest. After the sermon Whitehead preached peace and love, was committed to prison, and fined twenty pounds. The meeting place of the Quakers was boarded up and many of them sent to jail. Like Mahatma Gandhi, like Martin Luther King, like all men who will not fight but also will not yield, these quiet Quakers were a dangerous lot, particularly when they had leaders like Fox and Penn.
Penn’s next opportunity to be tested and proven worthy of his God came on August 14. He was preaching outdoors in Gracechurch Street before the closed meetinghouse, with Friend William Mead acting as a kind of assistant. A crowd of a few hundred people had assembled, expecting trouble, but there had been no violence, certainly none until the sheriff and soldiers arrived. The speaker was arrested under a writ signed by the Lord Mayor, directing the sheriff to receive under his custody the body of William Penn, taken for preaching seditiously and causing a tumult of the people. Instead of being brought to the foul depths of Newgate, Penn, being a gentleman, was lodged at the Black Dog at Newgate Market, where one could buy comfort. The next day he wrote his father that he had told the Mayor he could bear harsh expressions about himself but not about his father; the Mayor had said that the Admiral had starved his seamen. “Be not displeased or grieved,” the son continued. “What if this be designed of the Lord for an exercise of our patience?” Reading this, his father may have reflected how much and how often his own patience had been exercised by his son. “I am very well,” the letter ended, “and have no trouble upon my spirits, besides my absence from thee.” His heart seemed always to be light under adversity.
Two weeks later, on September i, 1670, the trial against William Penn, gentleman, and William Mead, linen draper, began. The indictment was read. It charged the defendants and other unknown persons with assembling and congregating together to the “disturbance of the peace of the said Lord the King”; and recited that the defendant Penn by abetment with Mead did preach and speak, by reason whereof there followed “a great Concourse and Tumult of People,” which remained and continued a long time in contempt of the King and his law “to the great disturbance of his Peace; to the great Terror and Disturbance of many of his Liege People and Subjects, to the ill Example of all others …”
“What say you, William Penn and William Mead, are you guilty or … not guilty?”
Penn demanded a copy of the indictment—how could he remember it verbatim?
The Recorder, presiding, answered that he must first plead.