Penn’s Religious Tolerance Stands Test Of Time
William Penn, the Quaker founder and proprietor of Pennsylvania, died 300 years ago, in 1718. Foremost among Penn’s plans for Pennsylvania was to conduct a “holy experiment,” a wish to establish a society that was godly, virtuous and exemplary. While Penn was concerned about creating a haven in Pennsylvania for the much-persecuted Quakers, he also was committed to religious tolerance in general. “Great man” theories of history are unfashionable, especially if the great man was a white male. But there can be no credible doubt that the commitment to religious tolerance that characterized colonial Pennsylvania traced directly to Penn’s vision, example and determination. In fact, Pennsylvania enacted more laws about religious tolerance than any other British-American colony, before and after Penn’s death. Delaware, which Penn also owned and which constituted the “lower counties” of Pennsylvania until it became an independent state in 1776, enacted religiously tolerant laws even when Penn permitted it to govern itself with a separate assembly after 1704. No less a figure than Thomas Jefferson — the author of one of the most celebrated religious tolerance laws in American history, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1786 — described Penn as “the greatest lawgiver the world has produced, the first in either ancient or modern times who has laid the foundation of government in the pure and unadulterated principles of peace of reason and right.” Some scholars have denied that Penn founded a successful colony. A prominent historian concludes in a recent book about Penn’s political thought that his legacy was “mixed.” On the credit side of the ledger, this historian praises Penn for an unwavering commitment to liberty of conscience even when his own personal fortunes changed markedly over the years. On the debit side, he claims that although Pennsylvania became a “mecca for American, scientific, economic and political life,” it probably did so despite Penn, not because of him, because Penn was an “absentee landlord” who regularly was at odds with the colonists. Clearly, this historian fails to appreciate how strongly the law in Pennsylvania reflected the animating principle of religious tolerance and how central a role Penn’s constitutional commitment to the animating principle of his “country” played in shaping the law. Historians who have focused directly on religious liberty in Pennsylvania tend to offer a more positive assessment of Penn’s legacy. They also tend to fail to credit the law itself as much of a source of Pennsylvania’s success … and of Penn’s. One historian stresses that because Penn was largely an absentee proprietor and was dead before the end of the second decade of the 18th century, it was Pennsylvanians themselves who had to translate his ideals into day-to-day, tolerant human relationships. But the people of Pennsylvania translated Penn’s ideals into law and were willing to do so because of their shared commitment to Pennsylvania’s animating principle of religious tolerance. Indeed, a 2018 commemorative collection about the history of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court includes an essay by a Pennsylvania law professor chronicling that court’s religious liberty decisions that concludes that “When the modern [Pennsylvania] Supreme Court is inevitably asked to consider an independent and more robust interpretation of the right of conscience under Article I, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, it will be confronted with a choice between two historic visions — the ‘Holy Experiment’ conducted by William Penn, founder of the colony, and the philosophy of judicial restraint and deference to the legislature vigorously fronted by Chief Justice (John) Gibson.” The smart money is on William Penn.