Front Page Titles (by Subject) William Penn: Religious Liberal - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1
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William Penn: Religious Liberal - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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William Penn: Religious Liberal
“William Penn, Model of Protestant Liberalism.” Church History 48(June 1979):156–173.
William Penn (1644–1718), English Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania (1681), typifies Protestant liberalism in his union of a universalist humanism and radical religious freedom of conscience. Trusting as an ultimate source of knowing in the anti-authoritarian and highly individualistic “Light within” of private judgment, Penn sought to remake mankind and society by removing selfishness. Against a backdrop of an immoral society and anti-Quaker political persecution, Penn combined the ethical concerns of rational humanism, millennarian religious urgency, and a shrewd pragmatism in his views of history, toleration, theology, and ethics.
Penn’s historical views progressed from a conservative sectarian separatism for the Quakers to a more universal humanistic sympathy for all mankind. Convinced that the Friends were a “saving remnant” he also showed concern for non-Quakers. “He did not feel inconsistent in campaigning for his agnostic friend, the republican Algernon Sidney, in the two parliamentary elections of 1679 despite the misgivings of many Friends, since it seemed the best hope in a generation for achieving toleration through Parliament.”
Throughout his life Penn crusaded for religious and political toleration. Thus, his universalism, liberalism, and humanism becomes apparent in the shifts in his various arguments for toleration. Penn argued for toleration more from pragmatic, economic, rational grounds (together with the universal value of free conscience) than from the doctrinal or sectarian claims of the Quakers’ “Light within.” On humanist grounds he held the rationalist’s faith in tolerating dissent, since inquiry and debate would sift truth from falsehood. Increasingly he stressed that it was in the pragmatic interests of the would-be intolerant persecutors and of men in general to promote toleration on behalf of the civil interest in tranquillity. Penn’s pragmatism in achieving toleration appears in his switching to political allies who could best advance his goal of toleration. Penn tended to identify the “Light within” and free conscience with individual reason as a basic principle of individual freedom and pluralistic liberalism.
Penn’s theology interacted with his ethical and social liberalism. He balanced a liberal openness of the Light’s power in every person’s experience with a need for atonement through Christ. Like most Quakers, Penn was a Sabellian who fused the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit into one God rather than a Socinian who denies the divinity of Christ. In his The Christian Quaker (1674, 1699) he affirmed the Quaker belief in the universality of Light’s reach in touching all men’s hearts, but he recognized the difficulty of exercising radical moral judgment to extirpate pride and selfishness from the heart. His latitudinarian conviction of how the Light was available to all men including pagans may have been influenced by such Cambridge Platonists as Jeremy Taylor. The Cambridge Platonists “rooted religion in a direct intuitive knowledge of God,” an understanding that they identified with reason.
“Today’s Quakers are still faced with Penn’s dilemma, how to recognize and affirm truth insofar as it may be shown in any man, and yet respond to man’s need for moral challenge and social transformation.