I love this letter written to his wife and children by Quaker William Penn, when he left his family in England to travel to the New World and see the land he had been given by King Charles II in recognition of what the monarch owed Penn’s father, Admiral Sir William Penn, who at one time had fed the entire Navy from his own resources while the Crown sorted out its finances. Because Quakers were persecuted in England and America alike, the acquisition of this land was crucial in creating a refuge for freedom of thought and worship. Penn called it at first “New Wales”, then amended that to Sylvania – presumably because of its wooded landscape – but the King insisted it be named Pennsylvania to honour the Admiral for whom the gift had been made.
William Penn’s crossing from England took seven weeks under sail; he did not know what he would find or if he would ever come home. But he took this chance to realise his dream of a place where government would be ethical and just, and Friends would be free to meet in silent waiting on the movement of the Spirit of God.
His first treaties, signed with the native Indians of the country he had been given, were based on an acceptance of Indian equality, and the beginning of the peaceable civilisation he planned.
In his territory, the two hundred crimes punishable by death in his native England reduced to two – treason and murder, and the prisons Penn built were for reform and correction, not the hellholes he had left in England. Penn had himself been incarcerated for his allegiance to the Society of Friends, in Newgate Prison near London’s Old Bailey, where in due course Oscar Wilde also served time for his homosexuality.
Despite his wisdom and integrity, and his hopes and dreams for the life human beings could build together, William Penn was cheated right and left, and harrowed by political turmoil and worldly ambition in the realm of freedom and brotherly love he tried to create.
Two strokes ruined his health and cheating acquaintances ruined him financially. He died penniless back in England in 1718, and his body was laid to rest alongside his first wife, in an unmarked grave in the burial ground of Jordans Meeting House in Buckinghamshire, a place of remarkable peace.
I love his letter's humble moderation and level-headed good sense. Its aspirations are attainable. The world was a better place for having had William Penn travel through:
“I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.” ~ William Penn