William Penn: A Life

By Andrew R. Murphy. Oxford University Press, 2018. 488 pages. $34.95/hardcover; $23.99/eBook.

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The name William Penn evokes an image of a pudgy, kindly man wearing a white wig and dowdy, colonial garb—the Quaker Oats man as history. Penn (1644–1718) is known for founding Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love and the Holy Experiment of Pennsylvania, where diverse religious groups and Native Americans tried to live in harmony. He wrote wise, important books like No Cross, No Crown and Some Fruits of Solitude. He was a champion of religious liberty and a central leader of the early Quaker faith.

Penn was all these things, but he also was much more. His life, far from serene, was chaotic and stressful. At times, he presented beliefs that modern Quakers would find far from Quakerly. And the man who once advised people to “Cast up your income and live on half” was absolutely terrible with money.

The many triumphs, tragedies, complications, and contradictions of this extraordinary life are explored in Andrew Murphy’s new biography, an exhaustive, well-written, and thoughtful work. It’s one of the best books about a Quaker historical figure that I have read in a while.

Of course, Penn was the subject of past biographies, some of them quite good. Others have veered toward hagiography. Murphy, a Rutgers University–New Brunswick political science professor and an expert on Penn’s political thought, has produced something rare: a thorough, scholarly work devoid of jargon or agenda.

Penn’s life was full of religious devotion and good intentions. He was a man of conscience who believed all should follow their own spiritual convictions. Once when under arrest, he declared, “Tell my father that my prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot, for I owe my conscience to no mortal man.”

Penn was a close friend to leading Quakers, including George Fox and Thomas Ellwood, and helped the faith grow in Europe and the American colonies. He fearlessly defended Quakerism against a horde of critics.

Penn’s faith was central to his adult life. It formed the core of his character from the moment he joined the religion in 1667. But as Murphy states, Penn’s life “is too complex to be viewed through only one lens.”

The colonial leader was, like all of us, flawed. He was beset with contradictions, hypocrisies, and worries. He was plagued by poor financial decisions and ensnared repeatedly by palace intrigue. His Holy Experiment (Murphy challenges the exact meaning of the phrase) was in fact a political mess with Quakers, Anglicans, and others battling for political control. Penn’s colony—which he visited only twice—was a perpetual headache.

William Penn: A Life is full of illuminating detail, like the fact that Penn first wanted to call his colony “New Wales” but later decided to call it “Sylvania.” Officials made it “Pennsylvania” in royal records despite Penn’s attempt to stop them. Murphy shows that Penn’s treatment toward Native Americans was financially murky and that Penn had no moral qualms about owning slaves.

Penn’s longest standing personal failing was his inability to manage money. He spent lavishly, got into debt, then borrowed from friends and family. After his first wife died in 1694, he remarried two years later to a much younger woman, the daughter of wealthy Quakers. The marriage raised eyebrows, but the influx of cash did little to solve Penn’s self-inflicted money woes.

Penn’s debts finally caught up with him when a Quaker family sued him for unpaid loans. Murphy describes Penn numerous times as “self-pitying” over legal problems that he himself caused through imprudent spending and borrowing.

Murphy does a masterful job of putting Penn’s complicated life into context, explaining the Great Fire of London, epidemics, European political turmoil, colonial expansion, religious battles, and even pirates. Murphy clearly presents the evolution of Quaker beliefs and the Religious Society of Friends’s unique organizational structure.

Murphy is careful when offering speculation about Penn’s life or motives, and sticks closely to his own comprehensive research. He tells readers only what he can support with letters or documents. The comprehensive citations in the book underscore how much research the author undertook to produce this impressive book.

Refreshingly, Murphy is just as quick to tell you what the record doesn’t show: a key example is his noting that the exact circumstances and timing of Penn’s convincement—his conversion to Quakerism—aren’t known. They likely never will be.

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