Local News: Earlier this week, Jackson’s Belhaven University was ranked as one of the top 97 colleges to work for in the United States, according to a survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Due to Belhaven’s high performance in the survey, The Chronicle went on to designate Belahven, a historically Presbyterian college, as an Honor Roll institution, an honor only 42 other colleges in America have received. Only three other Mississippi universities–Mississippi State University, University of Mississippi, and Mississippi University for Women–have received the honor. The Chronicle’s findings were based on random surveys of 370 full-time Belhaven staff. To read more about this, go to www.belhaven.edu/news.
This week marks the 295th anniversary of the death of William Penn, the English businessman best known for founding Pennsylvania. Penn, born in 1644, is for many people the “face” of the Quaker faith. Whatever could be said against the Society of Friends (they disbelieve in the sacraments, they have a view of Scripture that troubles many evangelicals, etc.), much can be said in their favor if one looks at William Penn as an example. What can Christians in the 21st century learn from the life of William Penn?
1. William Penn—example of a peace-loving man
To put Penn’s character in perspective, consider this summary from Jim Powell in an article posted on www.quaker.org:
“During the late seventeenth century, when Protestants persecuted Catholics, Catholics persecuted Protestants, and both persecuted Quakers and Jews, Penn established an American sanctuary which protected freedom of conscience. Almost everywhere else, colonists stole land from the Indians, but Penn traveled unarmed among the Indians and negotiated peaceful purchases. He insisted that women deserved equal rights with men. He gave Pennsylvania a written constitution which limited the power of government, provided a humane penal code, and guaranteed many fundamental liberties.”
At a time when many colonies in what became the United States were founded by stealing land from Native Americans, Penn made a point to purchase property before presuming any right to colonize it. As a result, the Native Americans and settlers of Pennsylvania had no cause to be at each other’s throats.
Powell went on to say, “Penn achieved peaceful relations with the Indians–Susquehannocks, Shawnees, and Leni-Lenape. Indians respected his courage, because he ventured among them without guards or personal weapons. He was a superior sprinter who could out-run Indian braves, and this helped win him respect. He took the trouble to learn Indian dialects, so he could conduct negotiations without interpreters… Reportedly, Penn concluded a ‘Great Treaty’ with the Indians at Shackamaxon, near what is now the Kensington district of Philadelphia.”
2. Penn’s religious beliefs
According to www.ushistory.org, William Penn, who was raised as an Anglican, didn’t formally join the Religious Society of Friends, until he was 22. From that point on, Penn lived out his Quaker beliefs by refusing to bow or take his hat off to anyone, and he also refused to support war. In time, Penn became a close friend of George Fox, the founder of Quakerism. Because of the pacifist position of Quakers, as well as their unwillingness to swear oaths of allegiance to the King, they were sometimes suspected in England of being subversive to the state.
The William Penn biography page on www.ushistory.org explains that Penn’s newfound religious beliefs grieved his family. Most troubling of all was Penn’s unorthodox view of the person of Jesus Christ. In 1668, at age 24, Penn was briefly put in prison for his tract, The Sandy Foundation Shaken, which attempted to argue against the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Quaker church didn’t formally deny the doctrine of the Trinity, but unfortunately with its emphasis more on the “inner light”—God’s voice communicating internally to each individual—than on Scripture, God’s written revelation, deviation from historic truths was tolerated more so than it would’ve been in most other Protestant churches of the day. Reading Penn’s tract, it’s unclear whether he disbelieves in the Deity of Christ, or whether he merely disbelieves in the formula of the Trinity as a philosophical explanation of God’s nature.
Penn was not a perfect man. His religious beliefs were unconventional enough to where evangelicals were (and are) right to be alarmed by them. Even his attempt to establish Pennsylvania as a haven of peace and liberty was not flawless. As Powell pointed out, even Pennsylvania tolerated slavery initially, and it wasn’t until decades after Penn’s death that Quakers began speaking out against this, realizing that slavery and “brotherly love” were incompatible.
The literal meaning of the word “Philadelphia”, one of the better known cities in Pennsylvania, is “city of brotherly love”. This is the kind of city Penn envisioned it being—a place where people could get along with each other, regardless of religious differences. Of course, Pennsylvania wasn’t (and isn’t) a utopia, and brotherly love is mixed with sin and strife as it is everywhere else on earth. This is the tightrope that Christians are called upon to walk—to work hard to ensure peace on earth, to recognize that it will never fully happen before Christ returns to the earth, and yet to keep going without having a defeatist attitude.
May we learn from the life of William Penn, respecting his efforts to be a man of peace. Yet may we also not ignore his errors, realizing that peace on earth will never fully be realized until the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ who is very God of very God, returns.