Monday 20 October 2014

William Penn ( 1644--1718 )

One of my heroes is the British Quaker, preacher, and founder of the state of Pennsylvania, William Penn.
 He was a remarkable man. He was an early advocate of democracy and religious freedom, at a time in England when these were dangerous ideas, and he was imprisoned several times because of his views, writings and teachings.

 He was the son of an English Admiral, a very rich man, who had great ambitions for his son. At the age of 16, in 1660, William Penn was sent to Oxford by his father. There he became associated with a dissident Christian religious sect called the Quakers.

 The Quakers were a sect founded by one George Fox, who, after the English Civil War ( 1642-1651 ) was dissatisfied with the Church of England ( Anglican Church ). He claimed that it was possible to have direct experience of Christ without an intervening clergy, and was critical of organized religion.

The sect founded by George Fox became known as 'Quakers' ( though they called themselves ' The Religious Society of Friends ' ), because they 'quaked' or trembled before God.

 The Quakers had several distinguishing features, which marked them off from other Christians :
(1) They never used the pronoun ' you ' when addressing someone, and only used the term ' thou'.
 Nowadays the word ' thou ' is not used in English for addressing anyone, and only ' you ' is used.
 In Hindi, for addressing someone there are 3 pronouns which are used. ' Aap ' is used for elders or persons whom one wishes to give respect. ' Tum ' is used for equals. And 'tu' is used for inferiors or younger people ( it is often also used as a word of affection between two close friends ). In English, however, ' you ' is used for all 3 categories, and 'thou' is out of vogue.  ' Thou ' is equivalent to 'tu' in Hindi.

The Quakers used ' you ' only for addressing God.

(2) They never took off their hats before anyone, and took it off only while praying, because they thought only God deserved that honour.

(3) They refused to bow before anyone, not even the King of England, believing all men to be equal
(4) They refused to participate in wars
(5) They wore plain clothes at all times.
(6) They refused to swear oaths, or oath of loyalty to the king
(7) They were strict teetotallers
(8) They opposed slavery
 (9) There were no rituals , and no professional clergy, among them
( 10) They did silent meditation in a meeting hall.
(11) They regarded Catholics and Puritans as hypocrites

 While at Oxford, William Penn became a Quaker. In those days ( the reign  of King Charles the Second ) this was dangerous, since Parliament had outlawed Quakers, and declared their activities criminal. Despite this, William Penn attended Quaker meetings regularly.

 When he came home from Oxford for his holidays he refused to take off his hat before his father, as was expected to be done before elders or superiors, and he addressed his father as 'thou' ( like the Hindi 'tu' ). His father thought that his son had gone mad.

 In those days there was a custom that high dignitaries would present their sons to the King. William Penn's father told his son that he would like to present him before the King. However, he told his son, even if he did not take off his hat before his father, and addressed him as ' thou', he should take off his hat before the King, and address him properly as 'Your Majesty'. William refused, saying that that would be against his religious principles. This made his father so angry that he turned his son out of the house. Probably he feared for his own position at Court if he allowed such a dangerous rebel to remain in his home.

 William Penn then became homeless, and started living with poor Quaker families. He refused to compromise with his principles, and started preaching to people on the streets, for which he was often imprisoned in the Tower of London. There he declared " My prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot, for I owe my conscience to no mortal man ".

 In 1668 Penn was put in solitary confinement in the Tower of London for writing a tract ' The Sandy Foundation Shaken '. While in prison he was given pen and paper, in the hope that he would write an apology. Instead he wrote another inflammatory tract ' No Cross No Crown '.

 In 1670 in what became famous as 'The Bushel's Case', William Penn was accused of preaching the principles of Quakerism on the streets. When he asked to be shown the charges against him, and the law he had supposedly broken, the Judge angrily refused, though that was a right guaranteed by English law. Furthermore, the Judge directed the jury to return a verdict of guilty against Penn, without even hearing him.
 Despite heavy pressure by the Judge, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. The Judge then asked the jury to reconsider their verdict, but they refused. This so infuriated the Judge that he said "  You shall go and bring a verdict of guilty, or you will starve ", and he ordered the jury to be imprisoned in a cold cell, where they were kept for several days without food or water. Penn and the jury were in addition fined the equivalent of one year's wages each.

 The members of the jury and Penn fought their appeal before the High Court from jail. They ultimately won their case, the High Court holding that all English juries can give their verdicts free of the Judge's control, and that the verdict of the lower Court was a travesty of justice.

 Penn was imprisoned several times for asserting his right of religious freedom. His father, though initially hostile to him,later  started respecting his son in his old age for his integrity and courage, and said to him " Let nothing in this world tempt you to wrong your conscience ".

 Penn later migrated to America, and founded the state of Pennsylvania on the democratic principles of John Locke. He was one of the earliest supporters of unification of the American colonies, a vision which was realized only after the American War of Independence ( 1775-1781 ).

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Sir, for writing such great pieces of history lucidly for your readers.