Street Corner Society

Skip to site-wide links.

Historical texts  >  Primitive Christianity Revived, William Penn  >  Brown's Brief Memoir of Penn  >  Chapter 4

A Brief Memoir of Penn.

By James M. Brown.

(Included with his 1857 reprint edition of Primitive Christianity Revived, By William Penn.)


"Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivereth him out of them all."—Psalm xxxiv. 19.

ON Friday, the 6th day of the 12th month following, (February,) 1685, King Charles the Second died, and was succeeded by his brother, the Duke of York, by the name of King James the Second, who being a professed papist, his accession to the crown filled the people with just apprehensions and fears lest he should establish his own religion by the destruction of others; and had William Penn at that time fomented the general uneasiness by encouraging multitudes then upon the wing, he might, as he himself said, have put many thousands of people into his province and £2000 into his pockets. His not doing it, is sufficient proof that it was not wealth or fame that first brought him to America.

Because James the Second, who was a Catholic, esteemed him highly, treating him with marked respect and attention, his enemies fabricated the charge of papist against him, notwithstanding he had been so bold against that persuasion. He, however, soon silenced them and continued his labours of love-preaching, travelling, and writing. Among his writings was a persuasion to moderation toward dissenting Christians, in prudence and conscience, which he humbly submitted to the king and his great council, in which he confutes the several plans for persecution, and confirms his own argument for toleration, by the testimony of eminent authors and the examples of flourishing kingdoms and states, and shows the dismal effects of the contrary. A treatise well worthy the reader's serious perusal.

On the 14th of March, 1685-6, came forth the king's proclamation for a general pardon, and instructions being given to the judges of assizes in their several circuits to extend the benefit of it to the Quakers; about thirteen hundred of that persuasion, many of whom had been imprisoned for years, were set at liberty. On the 4th of April, 1687, the king issued a declaration for liberty of conscience, suspending the execution of all penal laws in ecclesiastical matters.

This was followed by an address of thanks to the king from the annual Assembly of Friends held in London, who deputed William Penn and others to present it. On the 27th of April, 1688, King James renewed his declaration for liberty of conscience, with an order of council for the reading of it in churches, against which seven bishops petitioning were committed to the Tower. On the 5th of November, 1688, William, Prince of Orange, landed at Torbay, in Devonshire, to the great joy of the English nation. James the Second withdrew to France, and on the 13th of February, 1688-9, William and his spouse, Mary, King James's daughter, were proclaimed King and Queen of England, &c. Of this change the enemies of William Penn took advantage, charging him with disaffection to the present government, and had him arrested on the 10th of December, 1688. Nothing was proved against him, yet his strong assurances failed to convince the council that he loved his country and the Protestant religion above his life, and they obliged him to give sureties for his appearance the first day of the next term, which he did, and then was continued on the same security to Easter term following, on the last day of which, nothing having been laid to his charge, he was cleared in open court.

In the year 1690 he was again brought before the lords of the council, upon an accusation of holding correspondence with the late King James, and they requiring sureties for his appearance, he appealed to King William himself, who after a conference of near two hours inclined to acquit him; but to please some of the council he was held upon bail for a while, and in Trinity term the same year again discharged.

He was attacked a third time, and his name inserted in a proclamation, dated July 18th, wherein he, with divers lords and others, to the number of eighteen, were charged with adhering to the enemies of the king; but proof failing respecting him, he was again cleared by order of the king's bench court at Westminster, on the last day of Michaelmas term, 1690.

Being now at liberty, he proposed visiting Pennsylvania the second time, and published printed proposals for another settlement there. He had so far prepared for his transportation that an order for the convoy was granted him by the secretary of state, when his voyage was prevented by a fresh accusation against him, backed by the oath of one William Fuller,—a WRETCH, afterward by Parliament declared a CHEAT and IMPOSTOR,—and a warrant was thereupon granted for his apprehension, which he narrowly escaped at his return from G. Fox's burial, on the 16th of January, 1691. He prudently retired for a few years, during which time he applied himself to writing, and on the 30th of the 3d month, (May,) 1691, addressed the following epistle to the yearly meeting in London:—


My unchangeable love salutes you; and though I am absent from you, yet I feel the sweet and lowly life of your heavenly fellowship, by which I am with you and a partaker amongst you, whom I have loved above my chiefest joy. Receive no evil surmisings, neither suffer hard thoughts, through the insinuations of any, to enter your minds against me, your afflicted but not forsaken friend and brother. My enemies are yours, and in the ground mine for your sakes, and that God seeth in secret, and will one day reward openly. My privacy is not because men have sworn truly, but falsely against me. For wicked men have laid in wait for me, and false witnesses have laid to my charge things that I knew not, who have never sought myself, but the good of all, through great exercises, and have done some good, and would have done more, and hurt no man, but always desired that truth and righteousness, mercy and peace, might take place amongst us. Feel me near you, and lay me near you, dear and beloved brethren, and leave me not; neither forsake, but wrestle with Him that is able to prevail against the cruel desires of some, that we may yet meet in the congregations of his people, as in days past, to our mutual comfort. The everlasting God of his chosen in all generations be in the midst of you, and crown your most solemn assemblies with his blessed presence, that his tender, meek, lowly, and heavenly love and life may flow among you, and that he would please to make it a seasoning and fruitful opportunity for you, that, edified and comforted, you may return home to his glorious high praise, who is worthy forever! To whom I commit you, desiring to be remembered of you before him, in the nearest and freshest accesses, who cannot forget you in the nearest relation.

Your faithful friend and brother,


By the interposition of friends, he was granted an audience with the king and council, in the latter part of 1693, when he established his innocence and was acquitted. The sad and melancholy bereavement which now awaited him is thus recorded by himself:—

"My dear wife, after eight months' illness, (though she never perfectly recovered her weakness the year before, which held her about six months,) departed this life on the 2nd of the 12th month, 1693-4, about half an hour past two in the afternoon, being the sixth day of the week, and in the fiftieth year of her age, and was sensible to the very last." Her maiden name was Gulielma Maria Springett, the step-daughter of Isaac Pennington, a ministering Friend. They had lived in the most happy manner in the holy estate of wedlock about twenty years. He bears ample testimony to her happy exit from time to eternity. He now continued to write, preach, and travel, not, however, escaping arrests and other hindrances.

On the 5th of the 1st month, (March,) 1695-6, he consummated his second marriage, at Bristol, with Hannah, the daughter of Thomas Callowhill, with whom he lived during the remainder of his life, and by whom he had four sons and one daughter.

In April, 1696, his eldest son by his first wife died; his name was Springett, aged twenty-one years. "This year he published a treatise, entitled, Primitive Christianity Revived, in the Faith and Practice of the People called Quakers. A book which rightly represented that people's principles, and hath been serviceable to the information of many." This is the book I now reprint, with the hope that it may prove serviceable to the information of many more.

On the 9th day of September, 1699, himself and family set sail for his province of Pennsylvania. They were nearly three months at sea; the great length of the voyage saved them from the danger of a contagious disease, the yellow fever, that reigned in the province. When they arrived it was over, and they were received with the universal joy of the inhabitants. Intending to remain in the province, he gave attention to all of its interests. But immediately some persons in England, taking advantage of his absence, endeavoured to undermine the proprietary governments. Representations were soon made to the Parliament, and time solicited for his return to answer for himself. He was pressed to return forthwith; seeing it necessary to comply, he summoned an assembly to meet at Philadelphia, to whom, on the 15th of September, 1701, he made a speech, setting forth the condition of the province, the necessity of his return to England, the great and abiding interest he felt in their welfare, tendering them his aid to secure their privileges and property in any and every way in his power that they might suggest. To which he received the following reply:

May it please the Proprietary and Governor:—

We have this day in our assembly read thy speech delivered (yesterday) in council; and having duly considered the same, cannot but be under a deep sense of sorrow for thy purpose of so speedily leaving us, and at the same time taking notice of thy parental regard to us and to our posterity, the freeholders of this province and territories annexed, in thy loving and kind expressions of being ready to comply with whatsoever expedient and provisions we shall offer for our safety as well in privileges as property, and what else may render us happy in a nearer union of our interests, not doubting the performance of what thou hast been solemnly pleased to promise, do in much humility, and as a token of our gratitude, return unto thee the unfeigned thanks of this house.

Subscribed by order of the House,


The next month, October, he sailed for England, and arrived about the middle of December at Portsmouth and proceeded to London. After his return the bill was wholly dropped, and never revived. Upon the death of King William, which occurred on the 8th of March, 1701-2, the Princess Anne of Denmark ascended the throne. She began her reign with moderation and clemency, maintaining the Act of Toleration. William Penn was in her favour, and often at court. He continued to preach, and write, and travel, until about the year 1709, when the infirmities of age began to visit him.

In 1710, he, for a better atmosphere, left the vicinity of London, and took a handsome seat at Buncombe, near Troyford, in Buckinghamshire, where he resided until his death. In 1712, he had three several fits, supposed to be apoplectic, by which his understanding and memory were so impaired as to render him incapable of public action for the future. He continued to fail by degrees for the space of about six years, until, the 30th of the fifth month, (July,) 1718, in the 74th year of his age, his soul, prepared for a more glorious habitation, forsook the decayed tenement, which was committed to the earth on the 5th of the 6th month, at St. Jordan's, in Buckinghamshire, where his former wife and several of his family had been buried.


William Penn, as a legislator, deserves great honour among mankind. He created a commonwealth which, from a few hundreds of indigent refugees, have in seventy years grown to a numerous and flourishing people. A people who from a wilderness have brought their territory to a state of high cultivation, filled it with wealthy and populous towns, and who, in the midst of a fierce and lawless race of men, have preserved themselves, with unarmed band, by the rules of justice and MODERATION, better than any other have done by policy and arms. The way in which he did this deserves eternal notice. Though brought up, as it were, in the corrupt courts of Charles the Second, who had endeavoured to carry the kingly prerogative to as high a pitch of aristocracy as possible, yet, oh, glorious! oh, all-subduing power of REASON! when he got that, he thought of nothing but to make everybody happy. To take the lands from the Indians he abhorred; he bought their lands. To exact and starve the poor who followed him across the ocean for conscience and quiet sake, he could not brook. He put the lands at the low rate of forty shillings a hundred acres, and one shilling per hundred acres yearly quit-rent. But what crowned all, was the noble character of privileges by which he made them more free, perhaps, than any people on earth; and which, by securing both civil and religious liberty, caused the eyes of the oppressed from all parts of the world to look to his country for relief. This one act of godlike wisdom and goodness has settled Penn's country in a more strong and permanent manner than the wisest regulations could have done on any other plan. A man has but to believe there is a God; that he is the inspector of our actions, and the future rewarder and punisher of good and ill, and he is not only tolerated, but, if possessed of talents and integrity, is on the road to a place.

This great and good man lived to see an extensive country rescued from the wilderness and filled with a free and flourishing people; he lived to lay the foundation of a splendid and wealthy city; he lived to see it promise every thing, from the situation he himself had chosen and from the encouragement which he himself had given it; he lived to see all this, but he died in the Fleet prison! [ a mistake -J.M.B.]

'Tis pleasing to do honour to those great men whose virtues and generosity have contributed to the peopling of the earth and to the freedom and happiness of mankind; who have preferred the interest of a remote posterity, and times unknown, to their own fortune and to the quiet and security of their own lives. Now both Britain and America reap just benefit from his labours and his losses; and his posterity have a vast estate out of the quit-rents of that very province whose establishment was the ruin of their predecessor's fortune.


"A character so extraordinary in the institutions of Greece, has shown itself lately in the dregs and corruption of modern times. A very honest legislator has formed a people to whom probity seems as natural as bravery to the Spartans. William Penn is a real Lycurgus; and though the former made peace his principal aim, as the latter did war, yet they resemble one another in the singular way of living to which they reduced their people—in the ascendent they gained over freemen, in the prejudices they overcame, and in the passions they subdued."

Deputy Extraordinary from the Quakers in France to the National Assembly,

"After so many acts of violence and oppression, so many robberies and murders committed by the Europeans in the New World, the heart finds some consolation in pausing over the part which William Penn acted there. In an age when savage Europe put to death so many innocent people merely because they could not embrace the faith of their sovereigns, and spread over so large a part of America those horrors of fire and sword at which nature revolts, William Penn, like an angel from heaven, presented the olive-branch to those afflicted people, and, by acts of godlike justice, not only restored tranquillity to their ravaged quarters, but laid the foundation of extensive liberty and happiness.

"He was perhaps the first who ever built one of the fairest empires of the world on the sole basis of general good, and, by assuring universal toleration and community of rights, offered a happy asylum to persecuted innocence throughout the earth. There are but few sections of the American continent that have not been drenched with human blood; and to their eternal shame it was the enlightened and polished Europeans who did this, and who murdered by thousands the poor harmless natives, who received them with hospitality! and then to extenuate their guilt, they branded those as savages whom they had so barbarously slaughtered. The arrival of William Penn put a stop to those frightful enormities. His godlike humanity to these oppressed people—treating them as brothers, buying their lands and heaping them with favours, melted their simple natures with gratitude and affection. Astonished to see a white man who was good, and abhorred injustice and bloodshed, they revered him as something more than man, and gloried in calling him 'Father.'

"Of all the Europeans who have mitigated the ills of life and the fury of religious persecution, William Penn most deserves the gratitude of posterity. His first act in America held up a lovely presage of the prosperity that was to follow. And in his unyielding efforts to shield the oppressed, he looks like Moses, followed by a host of religious friends, whom he conducted across the wilderness of waves to a new 'land of promise,' flowing with the milk and honey of freedom, peace, and plenty.

"Abhorring persecution, as the direst reproach and scourge of mankind, he resolved effectually to bar the door against it. Hence that sublime charter of his, guaranteeing the most perfect liberty of conscience to all the honest worshippers of God, no matter what their opinions and forms. Instantly crowds of persons, oppressed in their own country because of religion, embarked for the country of William Penn. Then shone forth that divine philosophy ' Love thy neighbour as thyself,' in the blessed fruits resulting from it, for, while among the antichrists of Europe, the popes and bishops, nothing was heard but cries and groans from the inquisitions and dungeons; nothing talked of but sales of property belonging to heretics and dissenters; nothing seen but marks of deadly hate between the oppressing and oppressed churches; in good William Penn's country, glory to God, you met with no spectacles of this sort; but, on the contrary, every thing to sparkle the eye of charity with pleasure. There you saw worshippers of a hundred different sects, moving along the streets to their several churches, in the most perfect peace and harmony; there, whether Jews or Christians, Catholics or Protestants, all adored God in the way they thought most rational; and, meeting with no persecution themselves, they felt no temptation to persecute others. Every poor emigrant to Pennsylvania was welcome as an exile from his native land; and, having no country or family of his own, he found in William Penn a tender and generous father.

"The most virtuous of men was the honoured instrument of blessings to thousands of the unfortunate; and his institutions have laid the imperishable foundations of a new empire, which shines like a star in the west, and whose rays have already begun to open the eyes of Europe.

"Having held the reins of government no longer than was necessary for the good of his province, he mixed among his people as only one of their number, and despising on the one hand all the pomps of the falsely great, and filling up life, on the other, with the most beneficent labours, he came to the grave in a good old age, eulogized by the greatest philosophers, honoured above the proudest kings, and to this day revered by the Indians, as a benevolent spirit sent down from heaven to establish the reign of peace and happiness on earth."

[Continued, Memoir of Penn, Chapter 5.]