I have always been interested in American history, but I must confess that my interest was somewhat limited to what I knew of the early American revolutionary heroes. Since moving to Pennsylvania in 2002 I have become aware of one pre-revolutionary hero, William Penn. Before my move from North Carolina, all I really knew about William Penn was that he founded the state of Pennsylvania and that many people thought he was the guy on the Quaker oatmeal box. Upon moving to the state that Penn founded, I became aware of some of the spiritual history that led to him leaving his native England to engage in what he called “a holy experiment”.
William Penn had grown up in a turbulent time in the history of England. His father was an admiral in the the King of England’s Navy and had helped restore the monarchy after the English Civil War. This triumph made the Penn family a prominent one. Adm. Penn had high hopes for his son William; sending him away to school to grow his education and hopefully become a respectable citizen of the King. During William Penn's time away, he encountered a different expression of Christianity. Keep in mind that at this time the Church of England had broken away from the Roman Catholic church. Penn was exposed to a movement that would be called the Quakers, who in large part rejected the way that the Church of England was operating.
In the Quakers eyes, the Church of England had changed their hierarchical titles, but kept much of the structure of the Church of Rome. This change may have had a different appearance, but much of the same religious substance. The Quakers longed for a simpler, more authentic expression of a life following Jesus. William Penn left the Church of England to join this new movement. This caused him problems with his father and with the King. After all, here was the son of the admiral who had helped restore the King to his throne, defying the church that the King led.
William Penn's fascination with and commitment to the Quaker movement led to the forming of a strong relationship with George Fox- the primary leader of the Quakers. Penn soon began to write the stories and theological thoughts of George Fox, and in fact became one of the Quakers' most influential theologians himself. Penn would be imprisoned for the preaching of the gospel contrary to the King's orders because his preaching did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Church of England. At one point, William Penn even left England and settled in County Cork, Ireland in an attempt to allow his tempestuous relationship with his father and the King to cool down, and to watch over his father's holdings there.
While he was in Ireland, Penn attended Quaker meetings in Cork. It was there that he reconnected with Thomas Loe, who had been an early influence in his spiritual journey. Again, Penn was arrested for attending the Quaker meetings. It was during this season of his life that he began to articulate why he was attracted to the Quakers’ way of following Jesus and the Scriptures. Penn believed that the Quakers had no political agenda and that they should be free from the laws that were designed to limit political minorities from spreading their propaganda. He saw the way the King created laws that affected the spread of the gospel of Jesus as religious persecution. This perspective began to shape the prayers and dreams in his heart that would later be expressed in forming Pennsylvania.
Once Penn had been released from jail, he was recalled to London by his father. Upon his return, Penn found himself in trouble once again because of his faith. Still in his early twenties, William Penn’s strained relationship with his father and with the crown left him homeless and with no inheritance. Despite his hardships Penn grew in his passion for Jesus, for righteousness and for justice. Penn’s service to the Quaker church led him to travel throughout Europe. He spent much of his time in Germany, witnessing the hardship of religious exiles who were a part of the Protestant movement. There, he also saw the trials that German Catholics went through as the religious tides of the Reformation began to turn in that country.
Through all of Penn's journey a longing was forming in his heart. Penn believed that the Bible that he read, and that the Jesus that he followed, offered hope and a real sense of justice for all people. Penn dreamed and prayed for a society that would be governed by men who would willingly place themselves under the teachings of Scripture. He famously said, “if we will not be governed by God we will be ruled by tyrants”.
This set of beliefs was at odds with the King and the Church of England. Eventually, Penn was imprisoned in the Tower of London because of his faith. He had been charged with both heresy and treason by the crown. During this time his father became seriously ill. While his father did not agree with his sons convictions or conclusions, he grew to admire William’s sense of integrity and willingness to sacrifice for what he believed. Against William Penn's wishes, Adm. Penn paid the fines to see his son released from prison. He also reinstated his son's inheritance and appealed to the King to offer his son protection in exchange for what had been his (the Admiral’s) lifetime of service to the crown.
Upon his father's death, William Penn now found himself a wealthy man. This does not change his approach to life, and because of that he found himself imprisoned once again. Once released from prison, Penn returned to his missionary work to Holland and Germany before making a request to the King for land in the New World. This land would be used as a home for Quakers and others who are suffering religious persecution. In this request, Penn was making an appeal based on the stirring of his heart, that “there might be room for such a holy experiment.”
Penn had suffered a loss of finance, social status, and political opportunity and had been imprisoned multiple times for his faith; however, through this process, the burning desire to see a new expression of government released upon the earth continued to grow. In making his request to the King, he was asking the crown, which had been his enemy, to grant to him the proprietorship of a new colony. This request gave the King the opportunity to repay the debt of gratitude that he owed to Penn's father and to rid himself of the agitation that Penn and the other Quakers had been causing him.
The King did grant William Penn land in the New World. In fact, William Penn became the recipient of the largest land-grant ever given to an individual in the colonies. As Penn founded Pennsylvania, he did so with this prayer, "That there may be room for such a holy experiment. For the nations want a precedent and my God will make it the seed of the nation."
William Penn began to lay out the groundwork of his “holy experiment”. He was heavily involved in the planning of Philadelphia, which would serve as the capital of his new colony. Through the study of his Christian beliefs, research and prayer, Penn began to lay the framework of a system of government that would be based on checks and balances and the separation of powers. This new government would have three branches. The executive branch, in which he acted as royal governor, was held in check by a legislative branch that represented the people. Both of these branches would work together with the legislative branch which was significantly different than how the courts of England operated. Little did William Penn know, that his new experiment would serve as the laboratory of a new nation. In fact, some historians called William Penn “the Grandfather of Independence”.
Over the last several years I've become more interested in the story of William Penn and what led to his forming of the state that I now call home. In fact, it was just a little over four years ago that my family and I found ourselves at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. During this time our family, along with several others, were in the process planting a new church. As we spent time praying about forming this new community of faith, the word “experiment” continued to surface in my heart. At first I did not know why this word seemed so strongly connected to our new church. To be quite honest I was very uncomfortable at the thought of communicating anything that seemed experimental, because this seemed unsafe.
It was during that visit to the state capital that I remembered William Penn's prayer that Pennsylvania would become a holy experiment. As I walked into the capital building I looked up and saw the words to Penn’s prayer engraved in the rotunda. I began to weep almost uncontrollably at the thought that though I was following Jesus and not William Penn, I found myself living inside the answer of someone else's prayer. The things that seemed most important to those who were forming our new church community seemed so connected to the prayers and dreams that had led William Penn through his hard journey to form Pennsylvania.
I am humbled whenever I remember the importance of allowing our journey with Jesus to shape and fuel the prayers and dreams of our hearts. As we walk with him, we will find that our hearts grow strangely warm as we begin to grow more connected to his heart for people, places, and things. We must pay attention to the people that he places on our hearts. Whether it is our families, a certain social set of people within our culture, or a certain people group, we must give ourselves to loving, praying, and dreaming for those people to know the fullness of God's love.
We must also learn to pay attention to the places to which Jesus has called us to share in His compassion. It may be a certain city or college campus, or even a local hangout spot, but we can join with God in adopting a burden to see these places come under the influence of the Kingdom of Heaven. I would propose that when we are faithful and seeking God's heart for our neighbors and our neighborhoods that we can grow in our expectation of seeing the nations discipled for Jesus.
Finally, as we continue to turn our hearts with His as we journey together, we may find ourselves growing in tenderness over certain things that are happening in our society. For William Penn, his conviction that men should not be persecuted over their religious convictions led him to establish Pennsylvania with the value of guaranteed religious freedom. As one who had been persecuted by the crown for his own faith, Penn even welcomed those from the Church of England to live in his new colony. What things make your heart burn with a desire to see justice? Maybe you want to see every orphan adopted into family. Or maybe, you have a desire to see racial discrimination erased. When will human trafficking come to an end? When will we see the turning of the tide in the epidemic of sexual brokenness in our culture?
There are so many areas of our society that need to be reconciled to the Kingdom of God. Pay attention to the people, places, and things that stir your heart. Take notice of what makes you cry. Once you recognize these things, turn them into fuel for your prayer life. Begin to call upon the One who is able to do exceedingly above all that you can ask or think and ask Him to drop dreams into your heart, that there might be room for such a holy experiment.
I must admit, there have been many times in my life that I pray prayers that seem ridiculous. There have been moments where I have met in a room with just a handful of people seeking the Lord on behalf of a nation that is undergoing political upheaval, a natural disaster, or a great tragedy. In those moments, I hear a quiet whisper mocking me, telling me that there is nothing that our little prayers can do in such a big situation. There are times in which prayer can feel more like a pipe dream, when the things that I pray for seem so far away. But I pray to the One, who says “call on me and I will answer you. I will show you great and mighty things you do not know.”
I don’t know where William Penn was when he first began to pray in the late 1600’s for “room for such a holy experiment.” Maybe he was in his father’s home in County Cork, or maybe it was when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. It doesn’t really matter where he was, but today, I sit in the answer to that prayer. I pray that God would give us the courage and conviction to pray prayers that future generations can live in.