William Penn Proclaims Liberty of Conscience in 1701 Colonial Pennsylvania

Dateline: Philadelphia, 28 Oct 1701: William Penn, Proprietor and Governor of Pennsylvania and territories, says that men are happiest when they can follow their conscience, particularly liberty of religion. Except for one class of citizens….

This is Article One of his new charter, which improves and updates the one in 1683. A section of Article Eight is also added.

Modernized transcription begins:

I, the said WILLIAM PENN, do declare, grant, and confirm unto all freemen, planters and adventurers and other inhabitants in this Province and Territories these following liberties, franchises and privileges, so far as in me lies, to be held, enjoyed and kept by the freemen, planters, and adventurers and other inhabitants of and in the said Province and Territories there unto annexed, forever;

FIRST, because no people can be truly happy, though under the greatest enjoyment of civil liberties, if abridged of the freedom of their consciences as to their religious profession and worship;

And Almighty God being the only Lord of conscience, Father of lights and spirits and the author as well as object of all divine knowledge, faith and worship, who only does enlighten the mind and persuade and convince the understandings of peoples;

I do hereby grant and declare that no person or persons inhabiting in this Province or Territories, who shall confess and acknowledge one almighty God, the Creator, upholder and Ruler of the World and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under the civil government shall be in any case molested or prejudiced in his or their person or persons because of his or their consciences, persuasion, or practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry contrary to their religious persuasion.

And that all persons who also profess to believe in JESUS CHRIST the SAVIOUR of the world shall be capable (notwithstanding their other persuasions and practices in point of conscience and religion) to serve this government in any capacity, both legislatively and executively, he or they solemnly promising, when lawfully required allegiance to the king as sovereign and fidelity to the Proprietor and Governor;

And taking the attests [i.e. oaths] as now established by the law made at New Castle, in the year one thousand seven hundred, titled an Act Directing the Attests [i.e. oaths] of Several Officers and Ministers as now amended and confirmed by this present Assembly.


EIGHTHLY … But because the happiness of mankind depends so much upon the enjoying of liberty of their consciences, as aforesaid, I do hereby solemnly declare, promise, and grant for me, my heirs and assigns that the first article of the Charter, relating to liberty of conscience and every part and clause therein, according to the true intent and meaning thereof, shall be kept and remain without any alterations, inviolably forever.

Transcription ends.

Here are sample summaries of the oaths or attestations that members of the Council swore or promised. They swore before the Council or Board at Philadelphia, the 9th of February 1703-04.

At present, the queen is Anne. Can you guess which one is the Anglican and which the Quaker?

Modernized transcription begins:

William Trent was called to the Board to be a member of this Council and took the Oath for that purpose: the oath of allegiance [to the queen] and the abjuration of the Pope’s supremacy and subscribed the same

Richard Hill was called to the Board to be a member of this Council and took the affirmation for that purpose, the declaration of fidelity to the Queen, and renunciation of the Pope’s supremacy and subscribed the same.

Transcription ends.

Trent was the Anglican (oath) and Hill was the Quaker (affirmation). Either way, they could not be Catholic. Why? Theological differences, to be sure, but also Spain and France were real military threats. The colonists up and down the country were constantly nervous about invasions, and the Philadelphians discussed this on many occasions in the Council. After all, France and their Indians allies had been wreaking havoc in New York and New England.

Transcription begins:

Ordered that religious worship be restricted to the Christian …. (p. 229)

There is no doubt that the Christian religion was Protestant, not Catholic.

Eighty years later our constitutional founders in Article Six of the Constitution said no religious Test shall be required or administered before one could serve in the government. Practically, though, it was difficult to serve if one was a Catholic—all the way up to John F. Kennedy.

So religious liberty and of conscience was not fully open (as it is today), but Penn moved things forward, and the late eighteenth-century founders built on it.


Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania from the Organization to the Termination of the Proprietary Government, containing the Proceedings of Council from December 18 1700 to May 16 1717, vol. II, (Harrisburg Theophilus Fenn, 1838), pp. 54 and 58 and 229.

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