William Penn was a constant source of frustration for his father, a wealthy English admiral. The rebellious younger Penn got kicked out of Oxford University for refusing to attend Anglican (Church of England) services. Then he joined the Society of Friends, a religious sect known as the Quakers because their leader had once told an English judge to “tremble at the Word of the Lord.” Quakers’ religious beliefs and refusal to swear allegiance to any king but God led to their persecution. William Penn found himself imprisoned more than once.
Admiral Penn was an old friend of King Charles II and loaned the monarch a good deal of money. When the admiral died, William asked that the debt be paid with land in America. The king liked William, despite his religious beliefs, and granted him a huge tract of wilderness, which Charles named Pennsylvania, meaning “Penn’s woods.”
On August 30, 1682, William Penn sailed for America to begin his “Holy Experiment” – a colony that would be a refuge for not only Quakers but settlers of various faiths. Penn’s guarantee of religious freedom was then one of the most comprehensive in the world. Indeed, his plan to include diverse populations while extending a broad measure of religious and political equality was nothing less than revolutionary for its time.
Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, French Huguenots, and even Anglicans rushed to settle the rich lands. By 1700, Pennsylvania had as many as 21,000 settlers. The capital, Philadelphia (“City of Brotherly Love”), became a thriving metropolis, soon the largest of North America’s colonial cities. As settlers arrived – English, Scots-Irish, Welch, German, Dutch, Swedish, and more – Penn’s woods began to resemble the famous American “melting pot.”