The Surprising Reason Pennsylvania Founder William Penn Ended Up In Jail

He is the namesake of the state of Pennsylvania, and aside from founding one of the first American colonies, William Penn was an interesting figure. He would become one of the early faces of resistance in the fight for religious freedom during a time when that wasn’t the norm. In fact, one of the main reasons why a lot of English people like Penn came to the colonies was to escape persecution for their religion. They faced a lot of punishment for personal choices, and several even paid the price for it. Penn would be one of them, and it all started when he made a choice to convert in his early 20s.

William Penn was born on October 14, 1644, to Sir William Penn and Margaret Jasper Vanderschuren, says Biography. His religious upbringing was in the Church of England, but as it turned out, Penn was not a devoted Anglican like his parents. He actually held some opposing views of the church, and it would ultimately get him expelled from school. However, expulsion and all, Penn stayed undeterred and was committed to his views. 

William Penn discovers the Quaker Movement

He was more than partial to the Quaker movement — a sect of the Protestant Christian religion. His father even made several attempts to intervene in his thinking, and in sending his son to Ireland in hopes of seeing a change, it would further drive Penn to a new religion, per U.S. History. When William Penn arrived in Ireland, he would encounter Quaker leaders for the first time. 

The meeting inspired him, and he quickly converted (via Biography). Penn then became even more vocal about his newfound faith, and often wrote and spoke about it. But this was not a good idea considering the English laws at the time (via Parliament). Anything that wasn’t in support of the English church came with persecution, and Penn’s writings made him a standout figure, and of course, a target. And he sure was. Penn would be jailed four times (some reports say six, via PBS) for crimes of none other than his religious beliefs.

William Penn's rap sheet

William Penn’s first arrest came in 1667 after publishing his first book, per Quakers in the World. But during his imprisonment, he’d write even more about his Quaker belief. When he was released he’d get arrested again. There was even a law created to curb people like Penn from preaching publicly. But, of course, that didn’t stop him. He and another man, William Meade, were arrested and charged with inciting a riot — a dramatization of events. The case went to trial, but the pair won.

Still, Penn was not in the clear. He and other Quakers were repeatedly targeted and jailed. This led to Penn also becoming a major activist. During his activism, Penn was one of the several Quakers colonizing North America. He was interested in a particular stretch of land that he wanted to be a safe haven for Quakers (via Britannica). Lucky for Penn, his late father had a debt owed to him by King Charles II. As a result, when the time came to pay, it was given in land that is modern-day Pennsylvania and Delaware.

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