The Quaker Ideal of Religious Tolerance

“The very Remedies applied to cure Dissension, increase it; and that the more Vigorously a Uniformity is Coercively Prosecuted, the wider Breaches grow.”

Summary Overview

As a Quaker, William Penn was subject to religious persecution by the English authorities. The title of the full article, from which this document is taken, is “England’s Present Interest Considered, with Honour to the Prince, and Safety to the People.” This petition begins by criticizing the extreme force that has been used in the enforcement of the laws regarding religious conformity. Examples are given of the “barbarous practices” causing great harm. Penn concludes that the enforcement of these laws has actually caused more division within the country. He also asserts that the government’s pressure for religious conformity had also hurt England’s economic and political relations with other countries. Penn ends with the warning that as long as the government pressed for religious conformity, there will be more antigovernment sentiment than would be the case if religious freedom were granted.

Defining Moment

By the time William Penn wrote this plea for religious tolerance, he had become one of the best-known spokespersons for this cause, mainly due to his willingness to challenge English laws in his writing and speaking as well as through the courts. Although he had moderated his theological position by the time he wrote this document, he was first imprisoned for attacking the Anglican doctrine of the Trinity. While in the Tower of London, he wrote his first major plea for tolerance, No Cross, No Crown, in 1669. After regaining his freedom, Penn continued to attack restrictions on religion. He was arrested again, for holding a religious meeting not sanctioned by the Church of England (Anglican Church). Although under strong pressure by the lord mayor of London, the jury refused to convict Penn, leading to further legal problems for the jurors and for Penn. Following this case, Penn wrote “England’s Present Interest Considered.”

Unlike his earlier plea for tolerance, which was aimed at a broad audience of Christians, this document is directed toward those who were in positions of authority or those who could influence such persons, including both government and Anglican officials. Penn’s background uniquely qualified him for this type of proposal: his study of law, conversion to and enthusiasm for the Quaker movement, and connections with many governmental leaders and the royal family, which guaranteed that his argument for tolerance would be read by at least some who were in a position to alter official policy.

The second half of the seventeenth century was a time of religious turmoil in England. The monarchy had been overthrown in 1649 and Protestant dissenters (non-Anglicans) headed the government. With the restoration of the monarchy, the Anglican Church was once again the official church, although many feared the king would join the Catholic Church and attempt to make it the politically dominant church once again. In the midst of these politically influenced changes, many other Protestant groups were organizing, including a relatively new movement known as the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Once King Charles II gained the throne in 1660, he and Parliament tried to contain the diverse views that were spreading across the country. Several laws were passed to try to force these Protestant groups back into the Anglican Church or to make it illegal and impossible for them to continue to practice their faith. These were the “remedies” that Penn opposed and that he believed were causing great turmoil to the detriment of the people and government.

Author Biography

The oldest child of Admiral William Penn and Margaret Jasper Penn, William Penn was born on October 14, 1644. Penn briefly attended Oxford but was expelled in 1661 after only a year for refusing to attend mandatory church services. From 1662 to 1664, he studied in France. In 1665, Penn returned to England and undertook law studies at Lincoln’s Inn. As his father was among the officers charged with rebuilding the navy after the restoration of the monarchy, Penn became his courier to the monarch in early 1666, which was how the younger Penn became known by King Charles II and his brother James, then duke of York and later king.

Raised in an Anglican family, Penn had been exposed to the Quaker view of religion as a youth. During 1665 and 1666, he was impressed by the Quakers’ service to the people of London during the plague and then the Great Fire. Due to his father’s illness, he then went to Ireland to manage the family estates. While there, he began attending Quaker meetings on a regular basis. In 1667, a meeting was raided and everyone was arrested, including Penn, but he was quickly released from jail because of his family’s position. As a result of this arrest, Penn began to argue that Quakers should be allowed to practice their religion because they were not politically opposed to the English government.

From that time forward, Penn became a leader in the cause of religious tolerance, focusing mainly on the Quaker cause. While he did not suffer as severely as some did, due to his legal skills and standing at the royal court, Penn aggressively confronted the authorities with his beliefs. In and out of jail several times, Penn was a prolific writer and speaker for the Quakers and the cause of tolerance. The persecution continued to intensify, such that he and other leaders looked for a solution outside England. They first purchased part of New Jersey and tried to establish a Quaker colony there, but were unsuccessful. In 1681, Penn negotiated the purchase of what is now Pennsylvania from Charles II. Penn successfully established a very tolerant, religiously diverse, and economically strong colony, although it was not financially profitable for him personally, and he continued to work for religious tolerance in England. Many believe he was influential in the writing of James II’s royal decree for religious tolerance issued in 1687, which Penn strongly and publicly supported. In 1684, he became embroiled in a lengthy border dispute with Lord Baltimore, the proprietor of Maryland. He returned to Pennsylvania in 1699 to settle governance issues with the colonial assembly but left once more in 1702. He died in England in 1718, having become permanently incapacitated in 1712.

Document Analysis

Religion had been a major point of division within England since the founding of the Church of England in the 1534, over 140 years prior to Penn writing this plea for tolerance. William Penn was a member of a persecuted sect, which meant that this issue was before him each day. By appealing to English common law and common sense, Penn hoped to convince government officials that the best policy was tolerance. The suffering, which the religious persecutions had caused and continued to cause, would end with a policy of tolerance. In addition, the change of policy would not only help the government domestically, but also would strengthen its standing among other European nations. He was not arguing against the Anglican Church as the official Church of England or the Presbyterian Church as the recognized Scottish church; rather, he was arguing against a policy of enforced membership and enforced conformity of belief. He advocated greater unity through diversity of belief.

The full text from which this excerpt is taken is a very long, legalistic documentation of what Penn perceived to be the foundation for religious tolerance in England. In the introductory passage of the document, Penn asks the question regarding the best way to quiet the religious disputes for the best interests of the general society. After the brief answers given in the excerpt printed here, Penn then attempts to demonstrate logically why and how this could be done. In the full text, he begins with a historical examination in the first chapter titled “Of English Rights.” Much of his argument is based upon property rights from which English law derived the concept of personal liberty and freedom. Penn then discusses the system of government and the need for the general population to accept certain types of laws in order for them to be valid. Finally, he concludes his arguments with the role commoners play in the judicial system of trial by jury. At the conclusion of these arguments, Penn states that the people’s rights could not be taken from them without their acceptance. He then goes on to discuss religious rights specifically, demonstrating, to his satisfaction, that the civil government is separate from church affairs. For Penn, this meant that religious freedom should be the norm.

Penn then discusses how a government could maintain a stable society by balancing the interests of many different religious groups. The last half of the excerpt derives from this portion of the tract. Penn promotes religion in general as a practical contribution to society. He closes with a passage titled, “A Corollary,” which summarizes the way to quiet dissatisfaction. The solution is liberty for all, including religious tolerance. The full document is about thirteen times the length of the excerpt printed here.

The question repeated twice in this short segment is: What can be done to unify the diverse population of England in support of the government? Penn sees the English suffering because “there are few kingdoms in the world more divided within themselves.” Thus, Penn believes that the magnitude of the problem confronting society was quite great. However, he is certain that the solution could be much simpler. All that is required is a rational approach to the problem. He is convinced that people need only “deal honestly and plainly with the greatest, in matters of importance to their present and future good.” Rather than ignoring the problems, Penn asserts that it is everyone’s responsibility to consider issues of importance to the society—”a duty indispensable to the public.” He continues that if people do not take the responsibility to attempt to work out solutions to important problems of the day, then not only are they at risk, but the same is true for the entire nation. Thus, Penn’s concerns regarding religion go beyond the traditional question of salvation in some otherworldly sense; rather, he sees religion also as integral to the betterment of society in the present.

As any good apologist does, Penn tries to strike a conciliatory note with his anticipated audience, top-level government and religious officials. Penn notes that the religions’ differences and resulting social strife “renders the magistrate’s task hard.” He suggests that the problems coming from enforcement of the laws are not the reader’s fault, even if in reality they were. The worst problems are, Penn states, the fault of the system that had been put in place to try to make everyone conform to the same religious views or of the local officials implementing the regulations beyond what was mandated. Although Penn presents the situation this way, the top-level officials could not help but see criticism of themselves, even when Penn blames their subordinates.

Penn then goes on to list some of the most severe penalties that have been handed out to those found guilty of not obeying the laws regarding religion. The greatest of these was the death penalty. For over a hundred years prior to the reign of James II, every monarch had authorized the execution of individuals due to charges based on religion. Penn then mentions the thousands of people who have been jailed or had all their possessions confiscated or destroyed by the government. In addition to this, Penn notes the separation of families—”Parents left with out children, Children without their Parents, both without subsistence.” From Penn’s perspective, the strict enforcement of the laws was destroying people’s lives in such a manner as leading to their deaths. Even the smallest amount of money, the “widow’s mite,” was being taken from the poor, while all their resources were destroyed. Many were left without anything, as Penn asserts that for the local official enforcing the law, even “the skillet made part of their prize.”

However, the outrage Penn felt intensified because he saw the laws being distorted in such a way that religious intolerance was even greater than what had been legislated. As regards officials exceeding their authority, Penn had no doubt that many magistrates and officials “have abundantly transcended the severest clause in them.” Penn blasts those who enforced the laws using what is often called “guilt by association.” Some officials believed a person was guilty of the same religious crime as the prisoner, if a person visited someone who had been put in jail for violation of a law regarding religion. As a result, some who visited prisoners would be put in jail with no other evidence. Similarly, if a person visited a sick individual who was seen as a violator of the laws on religion, again the visitor was judged guilty of the same law. Social gatherings were broken up for being religious gatherings, with punishment meted out for the alleged crime. Those who were part of the nonconformist churches had no legal standing when accused of crimes, whether real or imagined, under the laws requiring conformity to religious belief and practice.

In addition to the harm these laws and views did to the relationship between the individual and the government, Penn also argues that these laws were destroying society. The uncertainty of one’s neighbor led to a breakdown of what should be common bonds. Penn blames “informers” who gave information about others for much of the problem. However, he does admire the fact that some did follow the Christian teaching to love their neighbor and helped the families who had had all their resources taken or destroyed because others had informed regarding their religious belief.

The previous problems applied to all who were seen as being outside the norm of the Anglican Church in England. However, one point specifically directed against the Quakers is raised at the end of the list of acts of official malfeasance. This was the transformation of the legally required question of “have you met” (do you agree with) to “will you swear.” One of the beliefs that separates Quakers from others is their literal acceptance of Jesus’ statement not to swear any type of oath. As recorded in Matthew 5:34, Jesus said, “But I say to you, do not swear at all.” Thus, if officials changed the wording from “have you met” to “will you swear,” Quakers could not respond to the question because of their belief against swearing oaths. The official then had an excuse to punish the Quaker for being disloyal, using the rule of praemunire, which is being loyal to some authority other than the king. Penn argues that people who were unwilling to swear an oath were not necessarily disloyal. Quakers and others could be as loyal as anyone else, including government officials who accused them.

Penn then concludes his introduction to this work by maintaining that in England the persecution of those outside the Anglican Church had resulted only in strengthening the dissenting churches. He states, “The more Vigorously a Uniformity is coercively prosecuted . . . the more Inflamed Persons are, and fixt in their Resolutions to stand by their Principles.” Not only that, he asserts that those being persecuted are generally seen more positively by others, which in this case resulted in more people joining the dissenting churches and their cause. He also reminds the authorities that often people had converted to Christianity itself because they had witnessed those who were devoted to their faith, even under extreme circumstances. This, he thought, should be a lesson to those who tried to stamp out Protestant groups that were outside the established church.

In the second part of the excerpt, Penn repeats the question that was the focus of this work. At this point, he gives a three-point answer on the best way to unify the society for the betterment of the nation: “Maintenance of English Rights,” “governing themselves upon a Balance . . . towards the several Religious Interests,” and “A sincere Promotion of General and Practical Religion.” These then are amplified throughout the many pages of text devoted to each part of the answer. The remainder of the excerpt is from the long explanation of the second answer, “Our Superiours governing themselves upon a Balance, as near as may be, towards the several Religious Interests.”

As part of the introduction to that section, Penn refers to his understanding there is an “Inconsistency . . . between the Christian Religion, and a forced Uniformity.” One of the ways he draws attention to this issue is by stating that he is not going to spend time writing about it. By mentioning what he is not going to argue, Penn makes readers spend at least some time thinking about the arguments that others had presented on this issue. The closing phrase, “they were most severely prohibited by Christ himself,” has to do with the use of force. While Quakers were generally against the use of force in any situation, this particular reference had to do with the general Christian understanding that the religion is based upon love. There is no passage in the New Testament where Christ specifically states the church should not be united; rather, what Penn refers to in the prohibition is the use of force to compel members to do something versus the use of love to encourage them to do it. Penn’s assumption—that it was apparent to all with a “free and impartial Temper” that forced uniformity did not work—was itself not obvious, since Penn had to write this plea to get others to reject the use of force.

The last three points in the printed text are from the sixth and seventh sections of Penn’s answer and the first of his responses to objections that might be made against his general line of thought regarding how to balance governmental interests and religion. In the first five sections of the response, Penn discusses the need for wisdom and for mercy, how persecution leads to unrest, the uncertainty of forced faith, and the error of sacrificing liberty for fashionable views. In the sixth, he presents the argument that the negative effects of religious persecution are not limited to those suffering the persecution. He asserts that “peace, plenty, and safety” are the key to domestic tranquility and the attributes that other countries seek in trading and political partners. According to Penn, religious persecution creates an aura of “animosity and contest.” Giving neighbors incentives for spying on one another created divisions that could go beyond the families to the dividing the larger society. Penn reminds the authorities to whom this was submitted, that most people would sympathize with the persecuted, not the persecutor. As a result, he asserts that religious persecution “breedeth ill blood against the government.” In the full text, Penn continues this argument by giving illustrations about the fluctuations in acceptable religious belief as monarchs and governments changed from the time of Edward VI through Charles II.

The seventh section of his argument, advocating a more lenient stance by the government toward all Christian denominations, has to do with events of the Reformation. When various Protestant groups emerged in Europe, some Catholic leaders used physical means, up to and including death, to suppress what they saw as heresy. Protestant leaders had always claimed the moral high ground by saying persecution, imprisonment, and execution were Catholic actions, not Protestant. Penn points out that the Protestant leaders of England could no longer make this argument, if they were taking exactly the same actions themselves. He then argues that if Protestant England felt it proper to do this, then why should not some of the Catholic countries start similar activities against the Protestants?

Imagining an immediate objection to his plea for religious tolerance, Penn raises the specter that religious groups outside the established church might use their freedom to plot overthrow of the government. Penn’s response is that mercy and kindness by one creates mercy and kindness in the other. Repression creates hatred, which is the basis for plots to overthrow the government. According to Penn, the current situation was creating dissatisfaction and political unrest. If the government changed its policy to one of tolerance, Penn claims, “What Dissenter can be so destitute of Reason and Love to common Safety, as to expose himself and Family; by plotting against a Government that is kind to him, and gives him the Liberty he desire.” Peace, safety, and stability would then be the ultimate results of religious tolerance.

Essential Themes

Ever since the time of Henry VIII, religious division and strife had been a major factor in English society. By the time of William Penn, in addition to the major Catholic-Anglican split initiated by Henry VIII, many different Protestant groups had gained strength in various regions. Penn had lived through the English Civil War, when Puritan leaders gained control and established the Commonwealth. During the process of the restoration of the monarchy, there were overt political maneuverings between the Presbyterians in Scotland and the Anglicans in England for supremacy. With the restoration complete and Parliament under Anglican leadership came renewed concern regarding a possible Catholic monarch, as well as the desire by Anglican leaders to retain control and keep Protestant divisions at a minimum. Charles II tried to override Parliament by increasing religious freedom. However, anti-Catholic sentiment in Parliament, in conjunction with the belief that Charles was a Catholic at heart, resulted in a showdown in which Charles had to withdraw his proclamation. A series of laws were passed by Parliament in the hopes of unifying Christianity in England, laws that made it impossible for practicing Catholics and members of many Protestant denominations to hold high office. This was the setting for Penn’s plea.

Penn’s work was not successful in immediately changing Parliament’s attitude toward religious tolerance. He continued to press for tolerance in England, though beginning in the late 1670s, he turned his attention to developing opportunities for Quakers and others in the North American colonies. It was another decade before Parliament accepted the idea of religious tolerance for Protestants. Many scholars see the work of Penn in the final version of the Declaration of Indulgence issued by James II, which did away with restrictions on personal worship, religious oaths for government officials, and jail terms for those outside the established church. While Parliament did not reject the initial draft of the declaration in 1687, there was great debate. As a result, a second draft of the declaration was issued in 1688, containing Penn’s arguments for religious tolerance, including the one that tolerance would lead to greater economic prosperity. Only the Quakers fully supported this declaration, as all the other churches found some part of it to criticize. However, opposition to James II on this, his membership in the Catholic Church, and his replacement of many Anglican officials with Catholics resulted in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, forcing James to abdicate after only three years on the throne. Nonetheless, the general mood of religious tolerance Penn sought had finally been accepted by the government, if not fully implemented.

Penn consequently made a major contribution to the debate on religious tolerance and his views ultimately carried the day. Although the response to his petition was not as fast as he desired, he lived to see great changes in both the government and society that allowed Quakers and other nonconformists to participate fully in economic and political endeavors.


  • Buranelli, Vincent. The King & the Quaker: A Study of William Penn and James II. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1962. Print.
  • Dunn, Mary Maples. William Penn: Politics and Conscience. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1967. Print.
  • Penn, William. “England’s Present Interest Considered, with Honour to the Prince, and Safety to the People (1675).” Online Library of Liberty. Online Library of Liberty, 2012. Web. 7 June 2012.

Additional Reading

  • Geiter, Mary K. William Penn. Harlow: Pearson, 2000. Print.
  • Moretta, John. William Penn and the Quaker Legacy. London: Longman, 2006. Print.
  • Murphy, Andrew R. Introduction. The Political Writings of William Penn. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002. Print.
  • Penn, William. The Papers of William Penn. Ed. Mary Maples Dunn, Richard S. Dunn, and Edwin K. B. Bronner. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1981–1987. Print.
  • Tully, Alan. William Penn’s Legacy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977. Print.