His first book got him arrested. When the jury refused to convict him, the judge put both him and the jury in prison. Later, the writings of this radical man became foundational for the Constitution of the United States. If George Washington is the “Father of our nation,” then William Penn is the “Grandfather.”
Penn’s non-conformist views and actions would brand him a radical even today. Yet this man, so often overlooked by contemporary culture, held an ideal of freedom in his heart that still beats in the heart of our nation 300 years later.
His faith in God and his biblical perspectives drew him into the fray, not away. Penn said, “It is impossible that any people of government should ever prosper, where men render not unto God, that which is God's, as well as to Caesar, that which is Caesar's.” To have faith, was to be involved.
Penn landed in a splintered land of disparate viewpoints and unyielding religious prejudices in 1682. The hardy colonists who had endured the religious persecution of Europe and the murderous seas of the North Atlantic were now resigned to religious fiefdoms in separate colonies that were often as treacherous as the religious tyranny they had fled.
In deep contrast Penn had dreams of an open and free State, where biblical freedom was the foundational truth and no one was prosecuted because of his church or her beliefs. He settled in a place he named “Sylvania.” To assure Penn his rights, King Charles renamed it “Pennsylvania.”
Penn named his first grand village “Philadelphia,” the “City of Brotherly Love.” His belief was that religion allowed freedom for men and harmony between them “since Religion itself is nothing else but Love to God and Man.” He wrote, “For where there is not Love; there is Fear: But perfect Love casts out fear. Love is above all; and when it prevails in us all, we shall all be Lovely, and in Love with God and one with another."
In contrast to the theologies of the other colonies, Penn stood strong against people being forced to attend a certain church, or have the badge of one chosen sect to do business. Penn even paid the locals, the Native Americans, for the land that King Charles had given him.
Penn was revolutionary in how he governed his colony. He claimed that “if we will not be governed by God, we must be governed by tyrants."
His understanding of the Bible led him to advocate for and institute public education for all children, due process for people charged of crimes, equal rights for women, a free press, a written state constitution and a sense of brotherhood and mutual respect.
His methods and reasoning were so persuasive that his capital, Philadelphia, became the first capital of the new nation, the United States of America.
Penn’s life was fully absorbed by his faith in God, his belief in the veracity of the Bible and his sense of the uniqueness of all mankind. Far from becoming a religious bigot due to his unwavering belief in the Christian God, Penn based his arguments for all people to have religious freedom on the pages of the Scripture he loved. He wrote that people were “born with a title to perfect freedom and uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature.”
In his own way, my father Dr. Edwin Louis Cole taught me what Penn taught a young nation. He said, “A nation is not great by virtue of its wealth, but by the wealth of its virtue.” He also taught me, “private philosophy determines public performance.”
Our nation is increasingly bifurcated, not along political lines, but within the very lives of individuals. Leaders attempting to live a public morality intended to please a constituency or community often practice a personal immorality intended to please only their own selfish desires.
The nation has reeled from the scandals caused by such leaders so often that we have lost our ability to express shock and awe.
Where are the William Penns of today?
Where are the leaders who will honor their moral compass over the winds of political expedience?
Where will we find men who will prefer the freedom of others over personal gain or those who believe in the right of all to have a voice, to have the freedom of choice that comes with a culture based on mutual respect and trust?
Penn wrote, “No one can be put out of his estate and subjected to the political view of another, without his consent." Yet today public discourse is fraught with the demand that those with opposing views abdicate, or at the least quiet their views. Penn believed that everyone had a voice, that the Bible taught the involvement of all good people, with good will towards each other, and that all discussion lead, at the least, to a mutual respect.
Let Penn’s words be a guiding light for you and me, and hopefully for a new generation of leaders: “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness or abilities that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."
Against powerful business interests, narrow-minded zealots and the courts of Europe, Penn stood strong. He could be described in the writings of his beloved Apostle Paul in a letter that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth… “You have ten thousand instructors, but not many fathers.” The principle is that an instructor tells you what he knows, but a father gives you who he is. Penn gave us his life, his honor, his word. Where’s William Penn when we need him?
Paul Louis Cole is president of the global men's movement, Christian Men’s Network, and Founding Pastor of C3 Church in Dallas, Texas.