• Exploring American History

William Penn acquired land for the Quakers

Though he did not set out to do so, William Penn successfully found a home for England’s Quakers. Originally established by George Fox in 1647, the Quaker religion responded to the need of people who were tired of the "showmanship" of traditional churches. Fox taught them Christ was to be experienced directly and not through a church ritual or minister. Though the congregations actually referred to themselves as "Friends", or the Society of Friends, the term "Quakers" was applied to the religion to ridicule the way many members of the congregation would shake as they prayed to God.


While still in England, the Quakers were persecuted due to their opposition towards paying taxes that were used to support wars. Parliament went so far as to proclaim the Quakers were “mischievous and dangerous people.” This persecution soon led to the Quakers migrating to America.

Arriving first in Massachusetts, the Quakers’ welcoming committee was nowhere to be found. Instead, they were met by individuals who held just as low a regard for the Quakers as did Parliament; primarily because most of those who traveled with George Fox to Massachusetts were from the lower levels of life. Fox finally came to the realization the only way for the Quakers to exist peacefully was to find an area they could settle apart from those who shunned them; but where?

An answer to prayer soon turned things around for the bedeviled congregation. British Admiral Sir William Penn had been a close friend of King Charles II. At the time of his death, the king owed him a debt totaling £16,000 ($880,882.43 – 2021). When Admiral Penn died, this debt was inherited by his namesake son.

William, born on October 14, 1644, was well educated and had attended Christ Church in Oxford. He was later converted to Quakerism under the teaching of Thomas Loc, a disciple of George Fox. Penn wrote a pamphlet The Sandy Foundation Shaken, which angered the Bishop of London. He urged that Penn be confined in the Tower of London, without trial. His wishes were granted and Penn spent eight months in the Tower.

To help the persecuted Quakers establish a homeland of their own, Penn approached the king and asked that instead of money, the debt be resolved in acreage. He requested a tract of land in America, 40,000 square miles in size. When the king agreed, this became the largest American land grant ever given to one individual. The tract he received was located west of the Delaware River, with the northern boundary of Maryland marking the northern boundary of this acreage.


Penn’s charter went into effect on March 4, 1681. William originally chose “New Wales” for the territory’s name; however, King Charles named it “Pennsylvania” – Penn, in memory of his deceased friend and “sylvania” - Latin for "forest land".

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