William Penn and His “Holy Experiment” in Religious Tolerance

October 12, 2017

The Birth of Pennsylvania, 1680, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.  King Charles II granted a title of land in America to William Penn to repay a debt to Penn’s father, Sir William, who was a friend of the Crown.

William Penn was one of America’s most notable advocates and movers for religious freedom.  Penn believed everyone had the God-given right to choose what to believe and how to peaceably worship.  As a Quaker in England who believed in the “Inner Light of Christ” and criticized formal external religion, Penn was expelled from the Church of England.  He was sent to France by his father to shake his non-conformist views but there, studying among persecuted Huguenots (or French Protestants), became a stronger dissenter.  Penn traveled Europe visiting Quakers and met philosopher John Locke.  When non-conformists were persecuted in Britain, he became an advocate for religious freedom and was imprisoned.  He corresponded with Roger Williams of Rhode Island and protested to colonial authorities when Quakers in Massachusetts were mistreated.

William Penn

In 1670, Penn wrote A Great Case of Liberty of Conscience Debated and Defended by the Authority of Reason, Scripture, and Antiquity in support of freedom of belief and against religious coercion and persecution as violating the Bible and human rights.  Some of Penn’s views reflected those of Martin Luther and Roger Williams.  Penn argued that coercion discredits the honor of God, the meekness of the Christian religion, the authority of Scripture, the privilege of nature, the principles of common reason, the well-being of government and society, and the teachings of wise men in historical and modern times.  One early historian called Penn’s treatise “the completest exposition of the theory of toleration of the time.”

In 1681, Penn was granted a charter and title of land in colonial America by King Charles II to repay a debt to Penn’s father and to remove Penn and his protests from England.  King Charles named the land Pennsylvania, meaning “Penn’s woods” or “Penn’s forest,” to honor Penn’s father, Sir William, who had been a friend of the Crown.  In founding a new colony, Penn hoped for revenue to pay off debts and to create a “tolerance settlement” in America for persecuted Christians.  He called this colony a “Holy Experiment” in religious tolerance and hoped it would be an example for Christians everywhere.

Penn’s ideas of religious tolerance, like Williams’s, differed from those of others who sought a conformed religious society that followed a state church.  Penn wanted to allow differences in Christian belief and worship.  He thought believers’ doctrinal differences were less important than their shared, fundamental Christian belief.

Penn’s colony of Pennsylvania was self-governing, had no state church, and allowed religious pluralism.  It forbid irreverence against God but did not impose conformity to one sect.  One had to be a Christian to be a citizen or hold public office, but no denominational restrictions existed.  The government maintained peace, order, and other necessary affairs.  Penn placed power in the hands of the people and in their consent of governance and laws.  Pennsylvania’s Frame of Government of 1682 declares, “Any government is free to the people under it where the laws rule, and the people are a party to those laws, and more than this is tyranny, oligarchy, or confusion.”  The colony provided, says lawyer David Gibbs, Jr. in his book One Nation Under God, “not freedom from religion but freedom of religion—not a separation of government from all religion, but a government that respected the religious consciences of all its citizens.”  Penn hoped the environment would allow colonists to pursue and find true faith in God.

Penn recruited Christians of all sects from England and Europe.  Refugees came from many parts of Europe who were affected by the Protestant Reformation, European religious wars, and English Civil war.  Such Christian groups included Mennonites, Lutherans, Reformists, Moravians, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Huguenots, Baptists, Dunkers, Quakers, Methodist Episcopalians, and others.  Colonists often described the settlers as “a great mixt multitude.”

Pennsylvania became one of the most religiously tolerant places in New England and the world at that time.  It became an example for the future nation of the United States of America.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.


Source for more information:  Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
2.  The Two Kingdoms Doctrine 
3.  Challenges in the Early Puritan Colonies:  The Dilemma of Religious Laws & Religious Dissent 
4.  The First Experiments in Freedom of Belief and Religious Tolerance in America
5.  Roger Williams and His Quest for Religious Purity
6.  Roger Williams:  First Call for Separation of Church and State in America 
7.  Early Americans supported Religious Tolerance based on God as Judge of Conscience
8.  Early Americans opposed Religious Persecution as contrary to the Biblical Teachings of Christ.
9.  Early Americans argued Religious Coercion opposes Order of Nature
10.  Early Americans Believed Religious Coercion Opposes Reason
11.  Early Americans Supported Religious Tolerance within Civil Peace and Order
12.  Philosopher John Locke Defended Religious Tolerance
13.  The Religious Landscape of the Thirteen Colonies in the Early 1700s

Additional Reading/Handout:  Why Religious Freedom Became an Unalienable Right & First Freedom in America by Angela E. Kamrath, American Heritage Education Foundation.  Paper available to download from member resources,


Activity:  Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 4, Part 1 of 2, Activity 6:  Thinking About Freedom of Conscience and Religion, p. 147.  MS-HS.

Thinking About Freedom of Conscience and Religion…


To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.

Published by: The Founding

Receive Blog Updates