A Look Back in History: William Penn's Free World Holy Experiment

Submitted photo Erected in 1726, this Quaker/ ìSociety of Friendsî meeting house is located along 662 in Exeter Township, and where ancestors of President Lincoln and Daniel Boone are buried.

Hardly had William Penn became the proprietor of the British colony of Pennsylvania in the New World, when German Protestants accepted his invitation as early as 1683 to begin a Holy Christian settlement by his “Society of Friends,” known as Quakers. These German Quakers and Mennonites arrived in his “City of Brotherly Love,” Philadelphia under their leader, Francis Daniel Pastorious, and founded a suburb of Philadelphia, known as Germantown.

This is where Christopher Sauer printed the first German Bible in the Free World, and German Quakers and Mennonites were able to worship God, without being forced to join a national church or get any government interference, within Penn’s Commonwealth. In time, Germantown became the printing center for the PA Deitsch/German religious tracts and documents for the PA German Protestant religions, until the Ephrata Cloister’s press was begun. Shortly thereafter, PA German printers were established in all the major cities of the PA Dutch Country where the Christian religion was followed.

Today, in modern Pennsylvania, William Penn’s legacy of Christian love and fellowship is still alive and can be seen with a number of PA German/Dutch Plain People who, with their Amish cousins in Lancaster County, are a vibrant folklife reminder of Christianity every time you meet these Horse and Buggy Dutch people, as well as on the roads of the Commonwealth. Also, their faith can be seen in PA Dutch folk art manuscripts proclaiming their steadfast love of Christian folkways like Fraktur birth certificates and dower chests decorated in Germanic motifs that can skyrocket to $100,000 or more at public art auctions!

Since William Penn, the proprietor of Pennsylvania, was himself a member of the Quaker faith in England that was outlawed by the Anglican Church of England, he knew how other Reformation Protestant faiths were disadvantaged where national government outlawed their existence. Therefore, Penn traveled to Central Europe and encouraged Quaker and Protestant groups to settle in his Commonwealth, where they were all considered “equal” in the eyes of God, and a universal ideal carried out by all these Christian denominations. A unique advantage of Penn’s Society of Friends religion, was one’s inner light was known as one’s “conscious,” and in the eyes of an all knowing God, he would have you treat everyone as you would treat yourself.

Thus, Penn’s Holy Experiment, founding the Colony of Pennsylvania, attracted many Old World peasant farmers to immigrate to America where a utopian Civilization was born out of Freedom of religion, and economic opportunity. One in which man’s love for his fellow mankind has never seen such exuberance. This also, at a time when the 30 year wars in central Europe had both German and French Huguenot followers’ eager to immigrate to the New World Promise land.

The utopian principles of the Society of Friends religion made William Penn’s Holy Experiment in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania welcomed chance for them to farm the New World. Of the numerous French Huguenots who came to Pennsylvania, was Albert Gallatin, who eventually became the Secretary of The U.S. Treasury under President Thomas Jefferson. But as later German Quaker and Mennonites arrived in Philadelphia, they were followed by Moravians, Lutherans and other Protestants, religious sects like the German Brethren or Baptists who were equally attracted to Penn’s Holy Experiment. Even today, there are still an outstanding number of religious sect individuals like the Quakers, nostalgically following Penn’s footprints, at the 1758 Exeter Township-Quaker meeting house (pictured) is still a very active congregation.

Richard L. T. Orth is assistant director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.

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