William Penn and the Fight for Religious Freedom

Students of history understand how precious religious freedom can be, since governments of ages past so often tended to regulate and restrict a person’s religious behavior and belief. In America, the freedom of religion can be traced in part to the bold civil disobedience of William Penn, 346 years ago today.

portrait_tAmericans are familiar with Penn as the founder of the province of Pennsylvania, a colonial refuge for religious dissidents. But his contribution to the cause of religious freedom came many years before his migration.

Despite being born into a distinguished Anglican family as the son of an Admiral, young William decided to join the Religious Society of Friends, or “Quakers,” at the age of 22. Two years later he wrote a pamphlet titled “Truth Exalted,” in which he criticized all religious groups except Quakers. He soon thereafter published his second, titled “Sandy Foundation Shaken,” a doctrinal critique of the Trinity. This led the Bishop of London to order Penn to be indefinitely detained until he publicly recanted his fiery theological attack.

Placed in solitary confinement inside an unheated cell, and threatened with a life sentence, Penn refused to budge. “My prison shall be my grave before I will budge ta jot,” he wrote, “for I owe my conscience to no mortal man.” He was finally released after eight months of imprisonment.

Penn demonstrated no remorse for his aggressive stance and vowed to keep fighting against the wrongs of the Church and the King. The Crown confiscated Quaker property and put thousands of Quakers—seen as religious dissidents and therefore threats to the state—in jail. Penn was arrested several times on charges of illegal preaching and inciting a riot.

In 1664 Parliament passed the Conventicle Act in an attempt to control religious subversion and competition to the state church. (A conventicle was an assembly of more than a few non-family members discussing religion unlawfully.) Penn decided to deliberately provoke the law in an effort to fight for religious freedom, and did so openly to a crowd of around 300 outside Grace Church in London. Predictably, he was arrested and charged with violation of the Conventicle Act.

The jury in Penn’s case refused to convict him, however, with many jurors feeling quite strongly about the injustice of the law itself. They returned a verdict of guilt only in “speaking at Grace Church,” which was not itself illegal. The panel of judges was furious, leading the presiding judge to tell the jury:

Gentlemen, you shall not be dismissed until we have a verdict that the court will accept; and you shall be locked up without meat, drink, fire, or tobacco. You shall not think thus to abuse the court. We will have a verdict by the help of God, or you shall starve for it.

The judges repeatedly sequestered the jury (and once denied them food and water) in hopes of a different result, but each time the same verdict was rendered for the alleged crime: not guilty. Finally, in frustration at the jury’s obstinance, Penn was thrown in jail and the entire jury was forced to join him—each of whom was fined a substantial sum for going against the court’s wishes.


Notwithstanding his personal fortune and the ease with which he could pay the fine, jury foreman Edward Bushell refused. He filed a writ of habeas corpus to challenge his imprisonment and following weeks of cruel incarceration won a legal challenge that established a clear precedent that has stood ever since: juries are independent of the court and cannot be punished for their decision.

Jurors exercising their discretion in enforcing a law against William Penn thus won a decisive victory for the freedom of religion—and an extra victory in favor of jury independence.

Read more about this power of juries in our policy brief.

Penn had openly broken an unjust law, and the government’s inability to successfully prosecute it helped to undermine it. The law was later relaxed and ultimately repealed.

Penn’s new colony—a result of a settlement with the king who owed William’s late father a debt—became a safe haven for practitioners of alternative religions looking to escape the crushing intolerance of the Crown—Quakers, Huguenots, Mennonites, Amish, Lutherans, and more. Penn drafted a charter for his territory guaranteeing the very freedoms for which he had personally fought: a fair trial by jury, freedom of religion, no unjust imprisonment, and more.

Penn’s audacious plan provoked the public conscience and undermined the state’s attempts to snuff out dissident voices. In a day where civil disobedience is so often frowned upon by a people who are quick to praise religious freedom, it’s worth taking a moment to remember a time when the two were thankfully intertwined.