Trails of History
Pennsbury Manor
William Penn personally designed and laid out the plan for Pennsbury Manor along the Delaware River.

William Penn (1644-1718) knew well the sting of discrimination and the misery of persecution for his religious beliefs. He suffered the consequences of breaking with the Church of England, leading to estrangement from his father, Admiral Sir William Penn (1621-1670). When imprisoned for attending meetings of the Society of Friends-commonly called Quakers and Friends-the younger Penn finally declared himself a full-fledged member. His father attempted to reason with him, but Penn was determined to adopt the Quakers' religious beliefs. His decision prompted his father to disown him.

As he grew in his faith, Penn began writing religious tracts and was imprisoned several times. He became a chief legal defender of Quakerism and held firm to its tenets. Reconciled to his father toward the end of the elder Penn's life, he inherited a fortune and a promise made to his father by King Charles II to protect him and make him a counselor.

In light of a minor split in the Society of Friends and acceleration of the persecution of Quakers, Penn proposed to the king that a large number of English Quakers move to North America. Several years earlier, in 1677, Penn and a group of prominent Friends had purchased the land that now makes up the western half of New Jersey. In response to a petition Penn presented to the crown in 1680, the king granted him a large tract of land west of New Jersey and north of Maryland, satisfying a debt to the elder Penn for provisions he had supplied to the crews of his ships, which with interest had grown to sixteen thousand pounds. The extraordinarily generous Charter of 1681 made Penn the largest non-royal landowner in the world with more than forty-five thousand square miles.

And so Pennsylvania was born.

"It is a clear and just thing, and my God who has given it to me through many difficulties, will, I believe, bless and make it the seed of a nation," Penn wrote. He extended the principle of religious toleration to all inhabitants of his beloved "holy experiment," proclaiming that the European settlers, simply working together, would glorify God.

How has Penn's vision of religious tolerance fared in Pennsylvania? The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) is examining Penn's impact through its annual theme for 2011, "William Penn's Legacy: Religious and Spiritual Diversity," and a look at several PHMC historic sites and museums along the Pennsylvania Trails of Historyâ„¢ tells the story.