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William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” (review)

Robert Levering
On Normality (July 2022)
William Penn’s “Holy Experiment”
Quaker Truth in Pennsylvania, 1682-1781
written by James Proud
reviewed by Robert Levering

I’d be interested in this book even if I weren’t a Quaker.

In 1685, Wigard and Magdalena Levering (my great-great- . . . -great-grandparents) and their four children settled in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. They came from a town in Germany where, a few years earlier, William Penn, George Fox, Robert Barclay, and other notable Friends visited on a proselytizing mission. (Yes, early Friends were evangelists.) Impressed with the visitors’ integrity and vision, Wigard and his brother Gerhard jumped at the chance to move to Penn’s new colony in America. Once in Pennsylvania, the brothers spent four years as indentured workers to pay for their two-month passage across the Atlantic.

The Leverings thus became part of William Penn’s “Holy Experiment,” which also happens to be the title of a book by James Proud, published in 2019. The book certainly satisfied my curiosity about what my ancestors found in the “New World.” But Proud also tells the fascinating tale of what happened to a project founded on Quaker principles of peace and religious toleration as it met – or didn’t meet – myriad challenges both external and internal.

It’s a complicated story, but one with lessons for contemporary Friends who seek to translate their beliefs into action.

I was impressed with Penn’s bold vision. Or, as he put it, he felt the call to “serve His Truth and people, that an example may be set up to the nations . . . for such a holy experiment.” Unlike other colonies where the settlers simply exterminated the indigenous peoples, Penn negotiated with Native Americans over land rights. He helped set up the Friends Public School that was to be open to “all children and servants, male and female.” The rich would be educated “at reasonable rates and the poor to be maintained and schooled for nothing.” And Pennsylvania did offer religious and political toleration to European settlers like my ancestors, although not to people from Africa, brought into the colony by slave traders. Indeed, some of these enslaved people were purchased by wealthy Quakers, including Penn himself.

In addition to that glaring moral blind spot, Penn was also a terrible businessman. His massive debts eventually landed him in debtors’ prison in London. And he was a terrible judge of character. The second half of William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” describes how the men Penn picked to administer Pennsylvania, as well as their successors, were actually scoundrels who used their powers to enrich themselves, often at the expense of native peoples. Penn’s sons were among the worst of them.

This book amply illustrates the adage “power corrupts,” even among high-minded Quakers, especially when they controlled the major governmental positions in the colony during the first decades of its existence. Once that stranglehold was broken in about 1750, Quakers like John Woolman were able to get the Society of Friends to assume a more prophetic role on the issues of slavery, Native American rights, and war. Many of us know that by 1776 Quakers became the first religious group to take a united stand against slavery. That struggle is especially remarkable in this account because Proud details how enmeshed Friends were in the ownership and trade of slaves a half century earlier.

I didn’t realize before reading this book that the clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and thirty-eight other Quaker leaders were arrested and exiled to Virginia during the Revolutionary War as “dangerous persons” who “have in their general conduct and conversation evinced a disposition inimical to the cause of America.” Keep that in mind the next time you hear about the glories of the American revolution.

Proud specifically avoids passing judgments on the Quaker colonists, but rather merely provides a detailed account, so “the interested reader will have the tools with which to make an independent judgment.” And he does offer lots and lots of facts, including eleven helpful appendices of chronologies, glossaries, mini-biographies, and important documents. This is a book that needs to be read slowly.

It’s also a great book for history nerds like myself. William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” is a terrific resource and ought to be found in the library of every Quaker meeting.

Robert Levering is a member of Santa Cruz Friends Meeting (PacYM).


Quaker history Pennsylvania Colony William Penn

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