|The Peaceable Kingdom (Edward Hicks, c. 1834) exemplifies Quaker ideals.|
William Penn, Pennsylvania’s founder, was an English Quaker who received the charter to Pennsylvania as the result of a debt owed to his father, Admiral Sir William Penn. The younger Penn, who grew up in English high society, began attending Friends meetings while living on a family estate in Cork, Ireland, and publicly joined the Society of Friends at the age of twenty-two. This soon got him arrested multiple times, as King Charles had placed stringent restrictions against religious groups other than the Anglican church. The Crown especially hated the Quakers, who believed all people (whether royalty or commoner) were created equal.
Despite persecutions, imprisonments, and being disowned by his family, William Penn’s Quaker faith burgeoned, getting him exiled from English society. He eventually ended up in Newgate Prison, and his dying father, who had gained respect for his son’s religious convictions, made peace with him and paid the fine to have him released. Sir Admiral Penn, knowing his son would face even worse persecution after his death, set the conditions for the founding of Pennsylvania. After the admiral’s death, young William Penn proposed to the Crown a partial solution to England’s religious strife: a mass emigration of English Quakers to America. To Penn’s surprise, the king granted him a large charter, giving him a large tract of land west of New Jersey and north of Maryland.
William Penn, a strong believer in religious tolerance and a man all too familiar with religious persecution, set forth to make his land (first called New Wales, then Sylvania, and finally Pennsylvania) a “Holy Experiment”—a haven for persecuted religious minorities. Within fifty years, the commonwealth had a quickly growing city (Philadelphia) and was home to people of several religious backgrounds.
The Society of Friends
Quakers began worshiping (silently, of course) at Upland in 1675. After Penn received his charter, Quakers emigrated in large numbers from England, Ireland, and Wales. They settled primarily in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, and controlled Pennsylvania’s government until 1756, when their pacifism became unpopular with nonpacifistic Pennsylvanians during the French and Indian War. While Quaker dominance gradually diminished as people of other religious backgrounds made Pennsylvania their home, many Friends Meetings still exist today, often worshiping in the same meetinghouses used three hundred years ago.
The Pennsylvania Germans
Most Pennsylvania Germans belonged to the Lutheran and Reformed churches, but Pennsylvania also drew several smaller groups, primarily the Mennonites, Amish, Dunkers (German Baptist Brethren), Schwenkfelders, and Moravians. A small group of Mennonites and Quakers arrived in Pennsylvania in 1683 and settled Germantown (now part of Philadelphia), and by the 1730s, more Mennonites and the first Amish immigrants had arrived in Pennsylvania. The Schwenkfelders started arriving in 1731, and the Moravians in 1741. These smaller groups, all believers in nonresistance and baptism upon confession of faith in Christ, settled north and west of Philadelphia to farm the land. The Moravians soon became known for their mission work among the Native American tribes.
The Church of England
William Penn’s religious tolerance was so great that he allowed those who belonged to the Church of England, the same group that had persecuted him in England, to come to Pennsylvania. The Anglicans held services in Philadelphia as early as 1695, eventually building Christ Church, still one of Philadelphia’s most notable churches. With the addition of its spire in 1754, Christ Church became the tallest building in North America.
The Catholic Church
The first Catholic congregation was organized in 1720 in Philadelphia, and they built their first chapel in 1733. Pennsylvania had the second largest Catholic population during Colonial times, but their numbers were hardly large. Even in 1757, of Pennsylvania’s 200,000 residents, fewer than 1,400 were recorded as Catholic. This number is substantially higher today, with 28% of Pennsylvanians now characterizing themselves as Catholic.
The Presbyterian Church
The Scotch brought Presbyterianism to Pennsylvania, with the first congregation organized in 1698 in Philadelphia. Scotch-Irish immigration from 1710 till 1775 ushered in around 200,000 people to the Colonies, with most coming to Pennsylvania before spreading west and south. Presbyterians now make up approximately 4% of Pennsylvania’s population.
The Methodist Church
Methodists arrived in Philadelphia later in the colonial period. Their first church, St. George's Church, was built in 1769 and is the oldest Methodist building in America. Methodists now make up around 5% of Pennsylvania’s population.
The Jewish Community
Colonial Pennsylvania had a significant Jewish population. The first Jewish Philadelphian recorded was Jonas Aaron, in 1703, but sources show that Jews were in the area before then. Mikveh Israel, founded by Spanish and Portuguese Jews, was established in the city in 1740.
Nowadays, American states include a myriad of different religions. During Colonial times, however, Pennsylvania stood out. While other colonies restricted members of certain religious groups, William Penn opened Pennsylvania to all who worshiped God. Through this, he helped change the trajectory of an entire country.