The story of William Penn and his sword is deeply embedded in Quaker mythology; so deeply, it seems, that it must tell us something about how we view ourselves and our relationship to the earliest Friends.
It is, in fact, almost certainly not true, but it continues to be cited in our vocal ministry, in our business meetings, and in print. I believe that the function of this myth is to make early Friends appear to be more like us and, therefore, to relieve us of the need to be more like them.
The Origin of the Myth
George Fox died in 1691 and William Penn in 1718, and this story is not mentioned in any writings of those times. It first appeared in print on pages 42 and 43 of Samuel M. Janney’s The Life of William Penn. He cites as his source, “Related to me by J. P. of Montgomery County, Pa., who had it from James Simpson.” The relevant section is:
When William Penn was convinced of the principles of Friends, and became a frequent attendant at their meetings, he did not immediately relinquish his gay apparel; it is even said that he wore a sword, as was then customary among men of rank and fashion. Being one day in company with George Fox, he asked his advice concerning it, saying that he might, perhaps, appear singular among Friends, but his sword had once been the means of saving his life without injuring his antagonist, and moreover, that Christ has said, “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.” George Fox answered, “I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.” Not long after this they met again, when William had no sword, and George said to him, “William, where is thy sword?” “Oh!” said he, “I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.”
For an anecdote (as Samuel Janney called it) as compelling as this one to be first printed more than 180 years after it occurred is roughly equivalent to a new and significant story about Abraham Lincoln as a young man to just now be reported—possible, but not likely.
To understand the meaning of this story and how it came to be so widely repeated, we need to examine the three people involved: George Fox, William Penn, and Samuel Janney.
George Fox had a clear sense of Truth, Light, and Darkness. He was repeatedly imprisoned, beaten, and had his life threatened for his unwillingness to compromise in even the least thing. George Fox and thousands of other early Friends were persecuted—some even died—for their insistence that they had rediscovered true Christianity and were compelled to renounce the false religion they saw around them. This led them to adopt what they called plain clothes and to use the plain speech. They refused to remove their hats as a sign of submission to their social betters, and they persisted in using “thee” and “thou” when addressing people who expected the more honorific “you”—and these practices were often the occasion for their persecution.
Hats were also at the heart of an incident among early Friends that illustrates George Fox’s character. John Perrot was one of the early traveling Quaker ministers who were so important in the rapid spread of the Quaker message throughout Great Britain, Europe, and the British colonies in America. In 1661, John Perrot wrote a letter in which he protested the practice of Quaker men removing their hats when prayers were offered in meet-ing for worship. He declared his basis for the protest to be direct revelation—one that none of the other leading Friends of the day had shared.
Modern Friends would almost certainly be tolerant of this personal eccentricity. What difference does it make if some people wear their hats during prayers and others don’t?
George Fox didn’t see things this way. John Perrot’s claim was that ultimately each individual is a free agent, dealing directly with God, and bound only by the inspiration that he or she received. This flew in the face of Friends’ belief that God’s revelations to humanity are consistent—not leading us one way sometimes and another way at others. Rather than advising the “hat men” to wear their hats as long as they could, George Fox and other leading Quakers confronted and labored with them. In the end, nearly all acknowledged their error.
In short, George Fox was a zealot, a man convinced that he had been called by God to gather together a great people who would live lives of absolute faithfulness to the will of God.
William Penn was a very young man when he threw his lot in with Friends, but one who was extraordinarily experienced.
Born in 1644, he enrolled in Oxford University when he was 15 years old. At 16, he was expelled for his nonconforming (but not yet Quaker) religious beliefs. Hoping that he would learn something of the “real world,” his parents sent him to France. At 18, he fought off an assault in the streets of Paris—very likely the incident in which “his sword had once been the means of saving his life without injuring his antagonist.” He later reported that this event left him troubled by the possibility that he could have killed another person over an unintended social slight. While in France, he studied theology at Saumur, the leading Huguenot university. Returning to England, he read law at Lincoln’s Court in London and, having regained his parents’ trust, was sent to Ireland to manage the family’s estates. There, he so distinguished himself in helping to quell a rebellion that he was recommended for a military commission. All this before he was 23 years old!
William Penn began consistently to associate with Friends in 1667, the year he was arrested with 18 others in Ireland for attending a Friends meeting. When the mayor of Cork saw how William Penn was dressed, he offered freedom in ex-change for a promise (as a gentleman) of good behavior. His dress may have includ-ed a sword. If so, he had to relinquish it when he refused the offer and joined the others in prison. According to some sources, he never wore a sword again.
Following his release, he was called back to England by his father, Admiral William Penn. When the Admiral realized that young William had adopted Quaker ways, he asked for only one small compromise on his son’s part. This was that William would remove his hat when in the presence of King Charles II, the Duke of York (the king’s brother and later King James II), or himself. The younger Penn refused his father’s request, was disowned, and cast out of the house.
William Penn was willing to give up great wealth and influence rather than accommodate his father’s one condition. It seems unlikely that such a person would be willing to compromise the principles of his adopted spiritual family by carrying a sword.
Samuel McPherson Janney was an impressive figure, born on January 11, 1801, in Loudoun County, Virginia. He was among the more active Quaker abolitionists, working to provide both religious and secular education for black children. On one occasion he faced criminal charges in Virginia for his opinions on slavery. During the Civil War he supported the Union, but he opened his home to wounded soldiers from both armies. After the war, he accepted President Ulysses S. Grant’s nomination to serve as a Superintendent of Indian Affairs. He died on April 30, 1880.
In addition, Samuel Janney was a Quaker historian and biographer and, by 19th-century standards, an extraordinarily careful one. Prior to his Life of William Penn, the most popular Penn biography had been written by Mason Weems—the same Mason Weems who is well known for inventing the story of the cherry tree in his Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington. Mason Weems’s biography of Penn contained numerous similar inventions (but not the sword). At the time, this was considered a proper way for a writer to convey the essence of a person. Samuel Janney, on the other hand, meticulously researched his material and provided footnotes on his sources. If he included something in a biography, he had reason to believe it to be true.
In addition to his Life of William Penn, Samuel Janney published The Life of George Fox, a four-volume History of the Religious Society of Friends from its Rise to the Year 1828, and other works. His History is particularly notable for its frequent use of quotations from original sources. Significantly, nothing in these works reveals his membership in a Hicksite yearly meeting.
He also traveled extensively among Friends and often sought out opportunities to advocate the reunification of the Orthodox and Hicksite branches. In his Memoirs, he notes one example at the 1851 meetings of Genesee Yearly Meeting:
Just before the close of the Yearly Meeting, Caleb Carmalt, the clerk, addressed the meeting in a feeling and impressive manner concerning the divisions which have taken place among Friends, by which the Society is now severed into two distinct bodies, each of which has been weakened by smaller subdivisions. He showed that the fundamental doctrine of the Society, the immediate operation of the Divine principle in man, is held by both of the two main bodies, and that the testimonies we bear are the same, and he pointed to the necessity of reunion, in order that our influence in promoting the great cause of truth and righteousness may be effectual in the world.
His views were so entirely in accordance with my own, that I felt it my duty to express my concurrence, and to extend the subject further by a more direct reference to our duty in the case, which is to live near the Divine principle in ourselves, to evince by our life and conversation that we are the disciples of Christ, to cherish kind feelings towards those of our brethren who are separated from us, and to embrace every opening to remove the obstructions that prevent a reunion.
In a letter to Caleb Carmalt later that year, he notes that many of the differences between Orthodox and Hicksite Friends may be less significant than members of either sect believe, and he proposes a way to encourage reunion:
I have thought a series of essays or tracts written in a style to interest general readers, explanatory of our principles, and interspersed with authentic anecdotes and short narratives, would circulate well among Friends and others. They might come out occasionally or periodically, and subscriptions could be obtained to promote their distribution.
Soon after the publication of my Life of William Penn, I was led to hope that its cordial reception by the Orthodox Friends and the esteem they manifested for me, would enable me to do something towards promoting a reunion between the two branches of the Society of Friends.
The story of William Penn’s sword is an excellent example of the kind of “authentic anecdote” being suggested and may explain why a story with such poor provenance was included in The Life of William Penn.
In 1851, it would have been difficult for an outsider to distinguish a Hicksite meeting from an Orthodox one. Their meetings for worship were indistinguishable. They followed the same practices in conducting their business. Both used the plain speech and wore plain clothes (and both were soon to abandon these practices). Their opinions on social issues, such as slavery, women’s rights, and war, were virtually identical. The distinctions that are most obvious to people today— programmed worship and pastors—had not yet been introduced. As much as anything, what prevented reunification were painful memories of the separations and the immediate aftermath. In particular, one of the most distressing features of the separations had been the practice of disowning those who affiliated with “the other body.”
There is another way in which Hicksite and Orthodox meetings were the same. Neither would have tolerated a member carrying a sword. Disownment would have been swift and sure. But in this story, Samuel Janney shows George Fox accepting just such behavior on William Penn’s part. By comparison, the theological differences separating the two branches were insignificant. If the First Friend was tolerant of Penn’s sword, couldn’t Friends be tolerant of each other’s less outrageous beliefs?
But there is even more to this story. In The Life of William Penn, Samuel Janney appends an interpretation immediately following Penn’s unarmed reappearance: “This anecdote, derived from reliable tradition, seems to be characteristic of the men and the times. It shows that the primitive Friends preferred that their proselytes should be led by the principle of divine truth in their own minds, rather than follow the opinions of others without sufficient evidence.”
Not only, Janney informs his readers, does Fox tolerate Penn’s behavior, but it is “characteristic of the men and the times” to expect new converts to “be led by the principle of divine truth in their own minds.” This goes straight to the heart of a primary Orthodox critique of Hicksites. As Janney noted in his letter to Caleb Carmalt:
The freedom of thought and expression prevailing among us [Hicksite Friends] has sometimes been attended by the promulgation of views that shock the feelings of pious minds in other churches [i.e., Orthodox Friends]. Some of these liberal views, as they are called, are erroneous; others have truth in them, but so unguardedly expressed as to pass for error with many who might otherwise receive them. I think the views we hold, if properly elucidated, would find an opening in the minds of many, for there is a spirit of inquiry abroad which seems to say: Who shall show us any good?
In other words, the free thinking that characterized Hicksites should not be cause for separation, but for forbearance and joint exploration.
The Persistence of the Myth
Once released, this story spread widely. Its original purpose is no longer a major issue among Friends—a wave of reunions passed through the society 50 years ago and seems to have died down. The things that divide us are more outwardly prominent and more inwardly significant today than they were in 1851. What, then, is the source of its enduring appeal?
I believe it rests in the pictures it paints of George Fox and William Penn.
The image of George Fox in this story is that of a kindly and understanding elder—one who is tolerant of a young acolyte’s failings. Likewise, William Penn is portrayed as a young seeker, one who was, to a degree, still searching for his spiritual home. These are comforting pictures. They are, in many ways, how we contemporary Friends like to see ourselves—both as tolerant of others and as continuing seekers.
George Fox, in person, was both engaging and highly demanding. William Penn, even as a young man, was a true believer. Both were convinced of the utter rightness of their beliefs and quite assertive in expressing them. When they petitioned the king and Parliament for toleration, they were asking for freedom from persecution and freedom to live in complete and uncompromising faithfulness to the will of God as it had been revealed. If they were to walk into a contemporary Quaker meeting, we would probably find them demanding, overbearing, and unreasonable.
It is far easier to emulate the tolerant and forgiving men in this story than the originals. But it may be time to give up what makes us comfortable and see if we are ready to be George Fox’s and William Penn’s true spiritual descendents. One small step would be to give up this myth.