“Holy Experiment” Establishes Pennsylvania

William Penn established a haven for the Society of Friends, or Quakers, and their “holy experiment.” Empowered to design his own government, Penn and the other colonists restructured the fundamental governmental bodies several times, striving for an effective structure and representing an experimental phase in the design of democracy in the American colonies.

Summary of Event

On March 4, 1681, King Charles II Charles II (king of England)[Charles 02 (king of England)];Pennsylvania and of England granted to William Penn Penn, William a charter creating the colony of Pennsylvania. Named for his father, Sir William Penn, an admiral who had aided Charles’s accession, the younger Penn received the charter in payment of a debt of sixteen thousand pounds sterling that the king owed to him. [kw]”Holy Experiment” Establishes Pennsylvania (Mar. 4, 1681)
[kw]Pennsylvania, “Holy Experiment” Establishes (Mar. 4, 1681)
Colonization;Mar. 4, 1681: “Holy Experiment” Establishes Pennsylvania[2740]
Expansion and land acquisition;Mar. 4, 1681: “Holy Experiment” Establishes Pennsylvania[2740]
Government and politics;Mar. 4, 1681: “Holy Experiment” Establishes Pennsylvania[2740]
Religion and theology;Mar. 4, 1681: “Holy Experiment” Establishes Pennsylvania[2740]
American Colonies;Mar. 4, 1681: “Holy Experiment” Establishes Pennsylvania[2740]
Colonization;England of Pennsylvania
Penn, William
Markham, William
Charles II (king of England)

The charter made Penn proprietor of the Pennsylvania Colony. In many ways, it was similar to other proprietary charters, in that it made Penn the owner of all lands in the province, with authority to structure and run the colony. Under the charter, Penn was empowered to grant property, establish the form of government, appoint a governor, and initiate and promulgate laws with the advice and consent of the freemen in the assembly. The Pennsylvania charter was unique, however, in its restriction of proprietary prerogatives.

Three provisions of the charter ensured the enforcement of the Navigation Acts passed by Parliament prior to the establishment of the colony. Laws passed in the colony were to be submitted to the king for his confirmation or disallowance, with the king retaining the right to hear and decide appeals from the courts of the province. The Church of England was assured a place in the colony. In addition to these laws limiting the colonial government’s power, however, the charter contained a promise that the king would not impose taxes “unless the same be with the consent of the proprietary, or chiefe governour, or assembly, or by act of Parliament.” These provisions implemented England’s new colonial policy of limiting provincial self-government and centralizing the empire as a means of securing its commercial and defensive interests.

Penn’s avowed purpose in establishing a colony in America was to found a “holy experiment” based on Quaker Quakerism;Pennsylvania principles. Pennsylvania was to be a holy commonwealth, similar to other religion-based colonies like Massachusetts Bay and characterized by peace, brotherly love, and religious toleration, which would serve as “an example . . . to the nations.” At the same time, the colony would offer a haven to Quakers who were being persecuted in England for their Nonconformist beliefs.

One month after receiving his charter from the king, Penn began advertising the new province to prospective settlers in England, Ireland, and Wales. Some Account of the Province of Pennsylvania was published in April, 1682, the first of eleven such publications designed to attract colonists. Settlers began to arrive in Pennsylvania in the summer of 1682. The promise of community drew many of them: Immigrants coming to Pennsylvania would be settling among those of the same country or even of the same region.

Penn dispatched his cousin William Markham Markham, William to the colony to serve as his deputy governor until the proprietor’s arrival. Not until August 30, 1682, did Penn himself set sail for the colony in the ship Welcome, along with about one hundred colonists. Shortly before leaving England, he had obtained the Lower Counties (Delaware) from the duke of York, an intimate friend, thereby gaining ocean access for his new colony. In fact, the duke of York did not possess clear title to these lands, and Penn found himself defending his claim to the territory against Lord Baltimore. Pennsylvania’s right to rule the region persisted until a charter in 1701 granted the Lower Counties the right to self-government.

Negotiations for the land that was to become Philadelphia and its surrounding area were concluded with the Lenni Lenape Lenni Lenapes tribe, whom the settlers called the Delaware, in the summer of 1682. Blankets, bolts of cloth, and other goods were exchanged for the signatures of twelve Lenni Lenape sachems, or chieftains. Later purchases would be made from the native peoples of the Susquehanna River region, the Susquehannocks Susquehannocks , and the Iroquois Iroquois as the Pennsylvania colony expanded. In contrast with other Europeans’ poor record of promises made and quickly broken in the New World, Penn seems to have been genuinely concerned with being fair to the Native Americans with whom he dealt.

Like other proprietors in the New World, Penn hoped to profit from the sale or rent of land in his colony, but his primary aim was a religious one. He was a member of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, organized by George Fox Fox, George in the late 1640’. One of the many radical religious sects that emerged from the turbulence of the English Civil Wars, the Quakers embraced the Puritan social ethic but went beyond Puritanism to reject formal creeds and worship. The faith was founded on the belief that the Holy Spirit, which Quakers called the Inner Light, dwelled within each person.

Belief that one’s Inner Light placed one in communication with God meant that Quakers, like Puritans, rejected the idea of clergy as intermediaries. Their ecclesiastical organization shows the influence of the Puritan theory of congregationalism: Each congregation, or “meeting,” was completely autonomous, although a hierarchy of meetings ultimately developed, similar in structure and purpose to that of the Presbyterians. Quakers differed from Puritans in their rejection of a national church. Like other sectarians, Quakers insisted on separation of church and state and viewed the meeting as a voluntary association composed only of believers. Two important consequences of Quaker religious beliefs were egalitarianism and humanitarianism.

William Penn negotiates for land with Lenni Lenape sachems.

(Gay Brothers)

Before sailing to America, Penn had drawn up the “first frame of government” to serve as a constitution for the new colony. It provided for a governor appointed by the proprietor, a council of seventy-two members that was to be the source of all legislation, and an assembly of two hundred, which had the power to accept or reject bills initiated by the council. Both the council and the assembly were elective bodies. More than 150 laws were passed by the legislature implementing the “holy experiment.”

In 1696, Governor William Markham issued a third frame, which further modified suffrage requirements, reduced the council to twelve members and the assembly to twenty-four, and granted the latter body the right to initiate legislation. A fourth frame, known as the Charter of Privileges Charter of Privileges , was drawn up by Penn in 1701. It created a one-house legislature by vesting legislative power in the assembly, subject to the governor’s veto, and limiting the council to executive and judicial powers. The council was appointed by the governor instead of being elected by the freemen. This marked the end of proprietary rule in Pennsylvania, save in the appointment of a governor. The unicameral legislature that was created endured until the American Revolution.

Penn issued the Charter of Privileges in order to end almost twenty years of quarreling between council and assembly, the former asserting its superior status against the latter’s demands for a greater share in the government of the colony. The assembly had considerably enlarged its power from 1692 to 1694, when the colony was under royal rule. Markham’s third frame, issued after the Crown returned Pennsylvania to Penn, had extended the prerogatives of the assembly, and the Charter of Privileges’ establishment of a unicameral legislature represented a further triumph for that body.

Although he had inherited wealth, one reason Penn embarked on the troublesome business of a new colony was to make his personal fortune. It is, however, difficult to say whether Pennsylvania was a success from the viewpoint of the Penn family. Penn spent much of the first twenty years of his colony’s life in England, entrusting his interests to a series of governors and agents. The result was less than satisfactory, as Penn was imprisoned for debt and was forced to mortgage Pennsylvania in 1708.


With the council eliminated as both a legislative and an elective body, the assembly redirected its opposition to the governor. In the early eighteenth century, two parties dominated Pennsylvania politics, the Proprietary Party, led by James Logan, which sought to centralize authority in the hands of the governor and the council, and the Popular Party, led by David Lloyd, which sought to expand the powers of the assembly.

The main political issue was the Quaker principle of pacifism, which underwent a critical test in 1756, when warfare between the Iroquois tribes and European settlers erupted on the frontier. A declaration of war against the Lenni Lenape and Shawnee Indians by the governor and the council resulted in the Quakers’ decision to withdraw from the assembly rather than compromise their stand against the war. This withdrawal ended almost seventy-five years of Quaker rule over the colony of Pennsylvania. For those seventy-five years, Pennsylvania was the only government in the New World, or anywhere else, to be run by pacifists, a situation the very concept of which was alien to most Europeans given the turbulence of world in which they lived. The tradition of Quakerism is still strong in Pennsylvania, which contains many meetinghouses and Quaker schools.

Further Reading

  • Doerflinger, Thomas. A Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise: Merchants and Economic Development in Revolutionary Philadelphia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. An interesting study that challenges the older concept of a Quaker merchant aristocracy in prerevolutionary Philadelphia.
  • Dunn, Richard, and Mary Maples Dunn, eds. The World of William Penn. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986. An outstanding collection of articles reevaluating the politics and religious issues of early Pennsylvania history.
  • Geiter, Mary K. William Penn. New York: Longman, 2000. Assesses Penn’s religious and political significance in America and Britain.
  • Nash, Gary B. Quakers and Politics: Pennsylvania, 1681-1726. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968. Unlike earlier historians of colonial Pennsylvania, Nash approaches his subject not from a religious angle but from the viewpoint of the sociology of politics.
  • Penn, William. The Papers of William Penn, edited by Mary Maples Dunn et al. 5 vols. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981-1987. An essential collection of primary materials, with informative introductions and bibliography.
  • Schwartz, Sally. “A Mixed Multitude”: The Struggle for Toleration in Colonial Pennsylvania. New York: New York University Press, 1987. Explores the development and consequences of Quaker toleration in an increasingly diverse colony.
  • Soderlund, Jean R., et al. William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania, 1680-1684: A Documentary History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. A documentary study of the political, economic, and social origins of Pennsylvania on both sides of the Atlantic.

Pilgrims Arrive in North America

Great Puritan Migration

Settlement of Connecticut

Rhode Island Is Founded

Maryland Act of Toleration

Fox Organizes the Quakers

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Charles II (of England); William Penn. Pennsylvania
Colonization;England of Pennsylvania