Liberty, Conscience, and Toleration

The Political Thought of William Penn

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Andrew R. Murphy
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


William Penn has long been mythologized as a progenitor of American religious freedom. Yet he has not attracted the scholarly attention as an architect of toleration that some of his contemporaries have. Andrew Murphy aims to fill this gap in Liberty, Conscience, and Toleration: The Political Thought of William Penn, a full-length examination of Penn’s political thought that situates Penn in the intellectual context of early modern England and the larger Atlantic world. Murphy sees Penn as a particularly useful figure to study because he not only theorized about toleration, but ultimately wrestled with how to implement it in the colony of Pennsylvania.

One of Murphy’s goals is to trace Penn’s shifting views over time and in context. He focuses on several episodes during which Penn theorized about toleration, starting with his opposition to the Second Conventicle Act of 1670, under which those attending unauthorized religious meetings could be fined. As a recently convinced Quaker, Penn had already been imprisoned under the previous Conventicle Act. Murphy provides sustained attention to the Penn-Mead trial of 1670, in which Penn and fellow Quaker William Mead were on trial for disturbing the peace; they had preached in the street because their meetinghouse had been closed under the Second Conventicle Act. Murphy also covers Penn’s writings regarding the Popish Plot and subsequent succession crisis, the founding of Pennsylvania as an experiment in religious liberty, and Penn’s relationship with King James II of England.

Rather than focus on what became the governing document of Pennsylvania, Murphy takes readers through Penn’s multidraft process. The first document Penn drafted, Fundamental Constitutions of Pennsylvania, sought a government infused with the egalitarianism and consensualism of Quaker meetings. Many drafts later, Penn published the Frame of Government for Pennsylvania, which tilted power in favor of the governor and Council, and away from the Assembly. He also toned down his commitment to liberty of conscience by including a prohibition on religious insult that drew the ire of John Locke. Murphy sees this as a measure aimed at living together; it “recognized the pragmatic reality that Pennsylvanians would need to learn to coexist in new ways, which demanded a new approach to difference in their midst” (144). Of course, after the colonial government was implemented, challenges arose. Penn did not want Quakers to dominate the government, but they tried to; Penn wanted Quakers to listen to him, but they mostly didn’t. This was complicated by his absence: After traveling there in 1682 Penn hoped to spend the rest of his life in America, but returned to England in 1684 to address a dispute with Lord Baltimore over the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland. He did not return to Pennsylvania until 1699 and stayed less than two years, returning to England in 1701, where he died in 1718.

One important thread that runs through Murphy’s work is his demonstration that Penn was more accommodating to the toleration of Catholics than other major tolerationist thinkers. Murphy makes a distinction between Penn and other tolerationists of the period, most notably Locke, in that Penn was willing to tolerate Catholics while most tolerationists saw no irony in both promoting toleration and advocating exclusion of Catholics. Tolerationism and anti-Catholicism were intertwined in the concept of “popery,” an epithet that Protestants not only used for Catholics, but also frequently for other Protestants when accusing them of insufficient opposition to outside control of England. In this way, Catholics could be placed outside the limits of toleration with the charge that they wished to use toleration to overthrow England. Read on his own, with titles to his credit such as A seasonable caveat against popery, Penn might seem very anti-Catholic. But Penn did not believe that Catholics by definition were working for the overthrow of England, and he advocated toleration for those who did not pose a political threat.

Penn’s view that even Catholics deserved liberty of conscience helps make sense of his close relationship towards the end of his life with James II, England’s last Catholic sovereign. James II advocated increased toleration to help integrate Catholics into English life. Any such legislation would help Penn accomplish the goal—liberty of conscience—he had spent decades advocating for. Many Protestants, though, suspected in the king’s efforts a plot to align England with Catholic powers. After pushing Protestants hard to accept toleration of Catholics, James II was deposed in favor of his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange. From Penn’s point of view, James II’s overthrow was a loss for toleration because the sovereign’s proposed changes would have benefited not only Catholics, but also Dissenters, including Quakers. The next year (1689), Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration was published, in which he argued that tolerating differing sects makes society stronger—except for Catholics and atheists, to whom Locke did not suggest extending toleration. Thus Murphy suggests that while Locke gets much of the glory, Penn’s version of toleration was stronger.

Penn did not produce one definitive work on toleration, so Murphy has performed a useful service in bringing together a lifetime of Penn’s writings on toleration. Murphy makes a powerful argument for Penn’s importance in the development of toleration. Murphy also renders Penn appropriately human-sized, reminding us that, even though Thomas Jefferson proclaimed Penn “the greatest lawgiver the world has produced” (240), the limits of toleration would continue expanding after Penn.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brooke Sherrard is Assistant Professor of History at William Penn University.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew R. Murphy is Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. His previous books include Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11 and Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.