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William Penn By George Hodges Characters: 19938

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

William now began to attend Quaker meetings, though he was still dressed in the gay fashions which he had learned in France. His sincerity was soon tested. A proclamation made against Fifth Monarchy men was so enforced as to affect Quakers. A meeting at which Penn was present was broken in upon by constables, backed with soldiers, who "rudely and arbitrarily" required every man's appearance before the mayor. Among others, they "violently haled" Penn. From jail he wrote to the Earl of Orrery, Lord President of Munster, making a stout protest. It was his first public utterance. "Diversities of faith and conduct," he argued, "contribute not to the disturbance of any place, where moral conformity is barely requisite to preserve the peace." He reminded his lordship that he himself had not long since "concluded no way so effectual to improve or advantage this country as to dispense with freedom [i. e. to act freely] in all things pertaining to conscience."

Penn wrote so much during his long life that his selected works make five large volumes. Many of these pages are devoted to the statement of Quaker theology; some are occupied with descriptions of his colonial possessions; some are given to counsels and conclusions drawn from experience and dealing with human life in general; but there is one idea which continually recurs,-sometimes made the subject of a thesis, sometimes entering by the way,-and that is the popular right of liberty of conscience. It was for this that he worked, and chiefly lived, most of his life. Here it is set forth with all clearness in the first public word which he wrote.

William's letter opened the jail doors. It is likely, however, that the signature was more influential than the epistle; for his Quaker associates seem not to have come out with him. The fact which probably weighed most with the Lord President was that Penn was the son of his father the admiral, and the protégé of Ormond. His father called him home. It was on the 3d of September that William was arrested; on the 29th of December, being the Lord's day, Mrs. Turner calls upon Mr. and Mrs. Pepys for an evening of cheerful conversation, "and there, among other talk, she tells me that Mr. William Pen, who has lately come over from Ireland, is a Quaker again, or some very melancholy thing; that he cares for no company, nor comes into any."

Admiral Penn was sorely disappointed. Neither France nor Ireland had availed to wean his son from his religious eccentricities. Into the pleasant society where his father had hoped to see him shine, he declined to enter. He said "thee" and "thou," and wore his hat. Especially upon these points of manners, the young man and his father held long discussions. The admiral insisted that William should refrain from making himself socially ridiculous; though even here he was willing to make a reasonable compromise. "You may 'thee' and 'thou' whom you please," he said, "except the king, the Duke of York, and myself." But the young convert declined to make any exceptions.

Thereupon, for the second time, the admiral thrust his son out of the house. The Quakers received him. He was thenceforth accounted among them as a teacher, a leader: in their phrase, a "public Friend." This was in 1668, when he was twenty-four years old.

The work of a Quaker minister, at that time, was made interesting and difficult not only by the social and ecclesiastical prejudices against which he must go, but by certain laws which limited free speech and free action. The young preacher speedily made himself obnoxious to both these kinds of laws. Of the three years which followed, he spent more than a third of the time in prison, being once confined for saying, and twice for doing, what the laws forbade.

The religious world was filled with controversy. There were discussions in the meeting-houses; and a constant stream of pamphlets came from the press, part argument and part abuse. Even mild-mannered men called each other names. The Quakers found it necessary to join in this rough give-and-take, and Penn entered at once into this vigorous exercise. He began a long series of like documents with a tract entitled "Truth Exalted." The intent of it was to show that Roman Catholics, Churchmen, and Puritans alike were all shamefully in error, wandering in the blackness of darkness, given over to idle superstition, and being of a character to correspond with their fond beliefs; meanwhile, the Quakers were the only people then resident in Christendom whose creed was absolutely true and their lives consistent with it.

"Come," he says, "answer me first, you Papists, where did the Scriptures enjoin baby-baptism, churching of women, marrying by priests, holy water to frighten the devil? Come now, you that are called Protestants, and first those who are called Episcopalians, where do the Scriptures own such persecutors, false prophets, tithemongers, deniers of revelations, opposers of perfection, men-pleasers, time-servers, unprofitable teachers?" The Separatists are similarly cudgeled: they are "groveling in beggarly elements, imitations, and shadows of heavenly things."

Presently, a Presbyterian minister named Vincent attacked Quakerism. Joseph Besse, Penn's earliest biographer, says that Vincent was "transported with fiery zeal;" which, as he remarks in parenthesis, is "a thing fertile of ill language." Penn challenged him to a public debate; and, this not giving the Quaker champion an opportunity to say all that was in his mind, he wrote a pamphlet, called "The Sandy Foundation Shaken." The full title was much longer than this, in the manner of the time, and announced the author's purpose to refute three "generally believed and applauded doctrines: first, of one God, subsisting in three distinct and separate persons; second, of the impossibility of divine pardon without the making of a complete satisfaction; and third, of the justification of impure persons by an imputed righteousness."

Penn's handling of the doctrine of the Trinity in this treatise gave much offense. He had taken the position of his fellow-religionists, that the learning of the schools was a hindrance to religion. He sought to divest the great statements of the creed from the subtleties of medi?val philosophy. He purposed to return to the Scripture itself, back of all councils and formulas. Asserting, accordingly, the being and unity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, he so refused all the conventional phrases of the theologians as to seem to them to reject the doctrine of the Trinity itself. He did deny "the trinity of distinct and separate persons in the unity of essence." If the word "person" has one meaning, Penn was right; if it has another meaning, he was wrong. If a "person" is an individual, then the assertion is that there are three Gods; but if the word signifies a distinction in the divine nature, then the unity of God remains. As so often happens in doctrinal contention, he and his critics used the same words with different definitions. The consequence was that the bishop of London had him put in prison. He was restrained for seven months in the Tower.

The English prison of the seventeenth century was a place of disease of body and misery of mind. Penn was kept in close confinement, and the bishop sent him word that he must either recant or die a prisoner. "I told him," says Penn, "that the Tower was the worst argument in the world to convince me; for whoever was in the wrong, those who used force for religion could never be in the right." He declared that his prison should be his grave before he would budge a jot. Thus six months passed.

But the situation was intolerable. It is sometimes necessary to die for a difference of opinion, but it is not advisable to do so for a simple misunderstanding. Penn and the bishop were actually in accord. The young author therefore wrote an explanation of his book, entitled "Innocency with her Open Face." At the same time he addressed a letter to Lord Arlington, principal secretary of state. In the letter he maintained that he had "subverted no faith, obedience or good life," and he insisted on the natural right of liberty of conscience: "To conceit," he said, "that men must form their faith of things proper to another world by the prescriptions of mortal men, or else they can have no right to eat, drink, sleep, walk, trade, or be at liberty and live in this, to me seems both ridiculous and dangerous." These writings gained him his liberty. The Duke of York made intercession for him with the king.

Penn had occupied himself while in prison with the composition of a considerable work, called "No Cross, No Crown." It is partly controversial, setting forth the reasons for the Quaker faith and practice, and partly devotional, exalting self-sacrifice, and urging men to simpler and more spiritual living. Thus the months of his imprisonment had been of value both to him and to the religious movement with which he had identified himself. The Quakers, when Penn joined them, had no adequate literary expression of their thought. They were most of them intensely earnest but uneducated persons, who spoke great truths somewhat incoherently. Penn gave Quaker theology a systematic and dignified statement.

When he came out of the Tower, he went home to his father. The admiral had now recovered from his first indignation. William was still, he said, a cross to him, but he had made up his mind to endure it. Indeed, the world into which he had desired his son to enter was not at that moment treating the admiral well. He was suffering impeachment and the gout at the same time. He saw that William's religion was giving him a serenity in the midst of evil fortune which he himself did not possess. He could appreciate his heroic spirit. He admired him in spite of himself.

William then spent nearly a year in Ireland, administering his father's estates. When he returned, in 1670, he

found his Quaker brethren in greater trouble than before. In that perilous season of plots and rumors of plots, when Protestants lived in dread of Roman Catholics, and Churchmen knew not at what moment the Puritans might again repeat the tragedies of the Commonwealth, neither church nor state dared to take risks. The reigns of Mary and of Cromwell were so recent an experience, the Papists and the Presbyterians were so many and so hostile, that it seemed unsafe to permit the assembling of persons concerning whose intentions there could be any doubt. Any company might undertake a conspiracy. The result of this feeling on the part of both the civil and the ecclesiastical authorities was a series of ordinances, reasonable enough under the circumstances, and perhaps necessary, but which made life hard for such stout and frank dissenters as the Quakers. At the time of Penn's return from Ireland, it had been determined to enforce the Conventicle Act, which prohibited all religious meetings except those of the Church of England. There was, therefore, a general arresting of these suspicious friends of Penn's. In the middle of the summer Penn himself was arrested.

The young preacher had gone to a meeting-house of the Quakers in Gracechurch or Gracious Street, in London, and had found the door shut, and a file of soldiers barring the way. The congregation thereupon held a meeting in the street, keeping their customary silence until some one should be moved to speak. It was not long before the spirit moved Penn. He was immediately arrested, and William Mead, a linen draper, with him, and the two were brought before the mayor. The charge was that they "unlawfully and tumultuously did assemble and congregate themselves together to the disturbance of the king's peace and to the great terror and disturbance of many of his liege people and subjects." They were committed as rioters and sent to await trial at the sign of the Black Dog, in Newgate Market.

At the trial Penn entered the court-room wearing his hat. A constable promptly pulled it off, and was ordered by the judge to replace it in order that he might fine the Quaker forty marks for keeping it on. Thus the proceedings appropriately began. William tried in vain to learn the terms of the law under which he was arrested, maintaining that he was innocent of any illegal act. Finally, after an absurd and unjust hearing, the jury, who appreciated the situation, brought in a verdict of "guilty of speaking in Gracious Street." The judges refused to accept the verdict, and kept the jury without food or drink for two days, trying to make them say, "guilty of speaking in Gracious Street to an unlawful assembly." At last the jury brought in a formal verdict of "not guilty," which the court was compelled to accept. Thereupon the judges fined every juryman forty marks for contempt of court; and Penn and the jurors, refusing to pay their fines, were all imprisoned in Newgate. The Court of Common Pleas presently reversed the judges' decision and released the jury. Penn was also released, against his own protest, by the payment of his fine by his father.

The admiral was in his last sickness. He was weary, he said, of the world. It had not proved, after all, to be a satisfactory world. He did not grieve now that his son had renounced it. At the same time, he could not help but feel that the friendship of the world was a valuable possession; and he had therefore requested his patron, the Duke of York, to be his son's friend. Both the duke and the king had promised their good counsel and protection. Thus "with a gentle and even gale," as it says on his tombstone, "in much peace, [he] arrived and anchored in his last and best port, at Wanstead in the county of Essex, the 16th of September, 1670, being then but forty-nine years and four months old."

The admiral's death left his son with an annual income of about fifteen hundred pounds. This wealth, however, made no stay in his Quaker zeal. Before the year was ended, he was again in prison.

Sir John Robinson, the lieutenant of the Tower, had been one of the judges in the affair of Gracious Street. He had either taken a dislike to Penn, or else was deeply impressed with the conviction that the young Quaker was a peril to the state. Finding that there was to be a meeting in Wheeler Street, at which William was expected, he sent soldiers and had him arrested. They conveyed him to the Tower, where he was examined. "I vow, Mr. Penn," said Sir John, "I am sorry for you; you are an ingenious gentleman, all the world must allow you, and do allow you, that; and you have a plentiful estate; why should you render yourself unhappy by associating with such a simple people?" That was the suspicious fact. Men in Robinson's position could not understand why Penn should join his fortunes with those of people so different from himself, poor, ignorant, and obscure, unless there were some hidden motive. He must be either a political conspirator, or, as many said, a Jesuit in disguise, which amounted to the same thing. "You do nothing," said Sir John, "but stir up the people to sedition." He required him to take an oath "that it is not lawful, upon any pretense whatsoever, to take arms against the king, and that [he] would not endeavour any alteration of government either in church or state." Penn would not swear. He was therefore sentenced for six months to Newgate. "I wish you wiser," said Robinson. "And I wish thee better," retorted Penn. "Send a corporal," said the lieutenant, "with a file of musqueteers along with him." "No, no," broke in Penn, "send thy lacquey; I know the way to Newgate."

William continued in prison during the entire period of his sentence, at first in a room for which he paid the jailers, then, by his own choice, with his fellow Quakers in the "common stinking jail." Even here, however, he managed, as before, to write; and he must have had access to books, for what he wrote could not have been composed without sight of the authors from whom he quoted. The most important of his writings at this time was "The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience once more briefly Debated and Defended by the Authority of Reason, Scripture and Antiquity."

Being released from prison, Penn set out for the Continent, where he traveled in Germany and Holland, holding meetings as opportunity offered, and regaining such strength of body as he may have lost amidst the rigors of confinement.

In 1672, being now back in England, and having reached the age of twenty-seven years, he married Gulielma Maria Springett, a young and charming Quakeress. Guli Springett's father had died when she was but twenty-three years old, after such valiant service on the Parliamentary side in the civil war that he had been knighted by the Speaker of the House of Commons. Her mother, thus bereft, had married Isaac Pennington, a quiet country gentleman, in whose company, after some search for satisfaction in religion, she had become a Quaker. Pennington's Quakerism, together with the sufferings which it brought upon him, had made him known to Penn. It was to him that Penn had written, three years before, to describe the death of Thomas Loe. "Taking me by the hand," said William, "he spoke thus: 'Dear heart, bear thy cross, stand faithful for God, and bear thy testimony in thy day and generation; and God will give thee an eternal crown of glory, that none shall ever take from thee. There is not another way. Bear thy cross. Stand faithful for God.'"

It was in Pennington's house that Thomas Ellwood lived, as tutor to Guli and the other children, to whom one day in 1655 had come his friend John Milton, bringing a manuscript for him to read. "He asked me how I liked it, and what I thought of it, which I modestly but freely told him; and after some further discourse about it, I pleasantly said to him, Thou hast said much here of Paradise Lost, but what hast thou to say about Paradise found?" Whereupon the poet wrote his second epic.

Ellwood has left a happy description of Guli Springett. "She was in all respects," he says, "a very desirable woman,-whether regard was had to her outward person, which wanted nothing to render her completely comely; or as to the endowments of her mind, which were every way extraordinary." And he speaks of her "innocent, open, free conversation," and of the "abundant affability, courtesy, and sweetness of her natural temper." Her portrait fits with this description, showing a bright face in a small, dark hood, with a white kerchief over her shoulders. Both her ancestry and her breeding would dispose her to appreciate heroism, especially such as was shown in the cause of religion. She found the hero of her dreams in William Penn. Thus at Amersham, in the spring of 1672, the two stood up in some quiet company of Friends, and with prayer and joining of hands were united in marriage.

"My dear wife," he wrote to her ten years later, as he set out for America, "remember thou hast the love of my youth, and much the joy of my life; the most beloved, as well as the most worthy of all earthly comforts. God knows, and thou knowest it. I can say it was a match of Providence's making."

The Declaration of Indulgence, the king's suspension of the penalties legally incurred by dissent, came conveniently at this time to give them a honeymoon of peace and tranquillity. They took up their residence at Rickmansworth, in Hertfordshire. In the autumn, William set out again upon his missionary journeys, preaching in twenty-one towns in twenty-one days. "The Lord sealed up our labors and travels," he wrote in his journal, "according to the desire of my soul and spirit, with his heavenly refreshments and sweet living power and word of life, unto the reaching of all, and consolating our own hearts abundantly."

So he returned with the blessings of peace, "which," as he said, "is a reward beyond all earthly treasure."

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