The “Holy Experiment” Colony

During the last few weeks, we’ve discovered that several colonies were started as refuges for those facing religious persecution. Rhode Island was founded by a Puritan dissenter and Maryland was supposed to be a homeland for English Catholics. One of the largest English colonies in North America was founded by the “Society of Friends” and they called their colony a “holy experiment.”

A portrait of William Penn; he is wearing the simple clothing styles adopted by the Quakers. (Public Domain)

A portrait of William Penn; he is wearing the simple clothing styles adopted by the Quakers. (Public Domain)

The Society of Friends

England experienced many religious movements during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Church of England was the official religious organization, but there were plenty of dissenters. The Puritans remained part of the Church of England, advocating to purify the church and adopt more Biblical practices. The Separatists left (separated) from the Church of England and faced persecution. The English Catholics had their own set of difficulties (learn more here). In Scotland, the Presbyterians and Covenanters stoutly resisted conforming to the official church because they felt it wasn’t doctrinally sound. And then there were the Quakers…

Disagreeing with the Church of England, a group of people broke away from the church and formed the “Society of Friends.” Called Quakers by puzzled society, they believed there was an “inner light” in each person and that people should worship God from the heart and with no external influences. The Quakers had “meeting houses” (not churches), had no pastors, and no order in their meetings – each person could speak or pray as he or she chose. They were also strict pacifists and would not defend themselves against persecution.

Quakerism was a reaction to the rituals of the Church of England. Worship with the right heart attitude is Biblically correct, but the confusion of their meetings and lack of godly leadership lead to some Biblically questionable theology. It should be noted that Quakers were very focused on living their faith and sought practical ways to influence society; in later years, they were very influential in the temperance movements, societal reform, and abolition.

William Penn (standing, right) receives a colonial charter from the king.

William Penn (standing, right) receives a colonial charter from the king.

William Penn

Born in 1644 to a privileged family, William Penn’s early life was filled with a religious quest and conflict. Meeting Quakers when he attended college, Penn was troubled by the religious questions of his era; he became reclusive in a effort to avoid arguments. Eventually, he began attending Quaker meetings. When Penn’s father heard about his son’s new religious pursuits, young Penn was disowned and thrown out of the family house. He took refuge with the Society of Friends.

In the following years, he traveled, wrote pamphlets, and spent time in prison for his faith.

Then, his father died. King Charles II of England owed the Penn Family a large sum of money. William Penn persuaded the king to remit payment in the form of a land grant in the New World. In 1681, the King agreed and gave him a tract of woodland (Transylvania), asking that it be called by the family name: Pennsylvania. With his new land, William Penn made plans to help the Quakers…

The Colony: The “Holy Experiment”

Though he didn’t know it when he received the land, Penn’s colony would have a conflict with the Baltimores of Maryland because the king had accidentally given Penn part of Maryland. Conflict over the boundaries ensued until a survey in the mid-1700’s established the Mason-Dixon line which separated Pennsylvanian and Maryland (and later became the free state/slave state borderline).

Penn called his colony a “holy experiment” because the land would be a refuge for Quakers. However, unlike Oglethorpe’s colony of Georgia, Penn was a businessman and wanted to make an honest profit from his venture.

The first settlers of Pennsylvania arrived in 1681, and, the following year, William Penn brought more colonists. Philadelphia, “the city of brotherly love”, was established. Penn made many positive attempts to build the colony and bring new settlers from Europe. He sent back pamphlets which contained honest and beautiful accounts of the new land. To the arriving settlers, he sold land at reasonable prices and even rented plots if they couldn’t afford it at first.

A sketch of William Penn's home in Pennsylvania

A sketch of William Penn’s home in Pennsylvania

Penn was active in promoting good government in his colony. He allowed religious freedom, as long as people believed in “one almighty and eternal God.” The government process was relatively democratic and progressive for its era. William Penn treated the Native Americans fairly and bought the colonial land from them; as a result, there were peaceful relations between the colonists and native peoples for many years.

Prosperity in Pennsylvania

Four years after Pennsylvania was founded, there were about 9,000 colonists, making it one of the fastest growing colonies. Inspired by the reports, reasonably priced land, and the promise of a new life, many Germans immigrated to Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, the English-speakers misunderstood or mispronounced “Deutsch” which is Germanic for “German” and called their new neighbors “Dutch” – thus creating the term “Pennsylvania Dutch.” The so-called “Pennsylvania Dutch” brought many Protestant religions with them, including Mennonite, Amish, German Reformed, and Dunkers.

Philadelphia was transformed from a frontier town to a large and prosperous trading center. It became the largest city in Colonial America.

The Penn family controlled their colony and took an active part in its government until the American War for Independence.

Concluding Thoughts

The idea of religious freedom played a large role in the founding of the United States and is written into the Constitution. I’ve already discussed this idea in a few previous posts, so I think I need to not re-hash it again as my conclusion today. 😉

So…how about the Quaker influence on early American history? Well, Pennsylvania prospered as a colony; the Quakers attended their church meetings, waited to be filled with the “inner light”, and oversaw their successful businesses.

During the American War for Independence, several important battles were fought in Pennsylvania, but as a general rule, the Quakers did not fight in the war. However, they made some important contributions. For example, Betsy Ross – a Quaker – designed and stitched one of the first American flags. And Lydia Darragh spied for General Washington (you can read the story here).

Philadelphia was the city were the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Liberty Bell was rung, and the Constitution was framed!

In later decades, Quaker continued to have a positive influence in America. They were particularly active in running the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape from the South and find freedom in the North or Canada. They advocated strongly for abolition of slavery.

Pennsylvania – “the holy experiment” of the Quakers – was a leading colony and state in early American history, and the practical faith of its people played a significant role in our nation’s past.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What benefits have come from America’s offered freedoms to immigrants?


Searching for Religious Freedom

Many of the early colonists came to America seeking religious freedom. “The Pilgrims” might come to mind (more on them and what they were really seeking next month) or maybe the Quakers of Pennsylvania. Yet one man was so troubled by the religious oppression in the colony of Massachusetts that he set off into the wilderness and founded the colony of Rhode Island.

Trouble in Massachusetts

Massachusetts Bay Company was controlled by the Puritans, a fine religious group of folks who felt they had the only right way of doing things. The Puritans were very influential in early American history and laid many good foundations for our country, but they were pretty legalistic about their faith…and their religion was part of their colonial government. Strong faith and government with moral laws and understanding is a good thing, but when religion is controlling the state (the government) that’s not so great.

The Puritans had determined that their colony was going to be “a light on a hill.” They were going to show the world how to do it. The Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England, but did not actually separate from that establishment; thus, if their colony was successful, maybe it would actually change religion in England.

Sketch of a statue of Roger Williams

Sketch of a statue of Roger Williams

Roger Williams: The Preacher Who Would Not Conform

Roger Williams came to Massachusetts in 1631, but there was a problem. He wasn’t a Puritan; his religious beliefs and theology were more Congregationalist…and there was trouble.

There were three major points of contention between Williams and the leaders of Massachusetts:

1). Williams believed it was best to break-away from the Church of England entirely. This would allow for better interpretation of Scripture and stronger theology.

2). Williams wanted the church and the state separate. While he acknowledged that religious influence and morality is important for good government, he didn’t not believe government leaders should be using “the power of the church” to run a colony. Civil and religious duties needed to be separate.

3). Williams felt the colonists were taking advantage of the Native Americans and stealing their land.

Roger Williams was friendly with the Native Americans.

Roger Williams was friendly with the Native Americans.

Although highly respected as a minister, Roger Williams was outspoken in his beliefs and gained the disapproval of the Massachusetts leaders. Four years after his arrival, he was banished from the colony. A difference of opinion would not be allowed to tarnish this “city on the hill.”


Banished in the winter, Williams left his family and home. Native Americans he had befriended with his genuine kindness and concern welcomed him to their settlements and there he spent the winter. When the spring of 1636 came, he travelled south and came to Narragansett Bay (in modern-day Rhode Island). There, he started a new settlement, calling it “Providence” because “of God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress.”

Foundational Ideas

In Providence, Roger Williams established and practiced some new, foundational ideas which would later have great impact on America.

1). He separated the church and the state. Realizing that faith could not be forced, he removed the requisites of church membership for serving in government and kept the colonial government from meddling in church affairs and vice versa. Williams did believe that faith and government could exist side by side and would promote and assist each other, but they could not be connected and controlling each other.

2). He promoted freedom of religion. While the Puritans only allowed the Puritan Church, Roger Williams allowed religious freedom in his colony. Thus, Rhode Island became a religious refuge for other Puritan dissenters. Particularly, the Baptists played a large role in the settlement of this area.

The Providence Gazette in 1762 - newspapers were an important form of information sharing in Colonial America. (I just love the word "gazette"!)

The Providence Gazette in 1762 – newspapers were an important form of information sharing in Colonial America. (I just love the word “gazette”!)

The Colony

Roger Williams established Providence and outlined many governmental changes. Anne Hutchinson – another Puritan dissenter who was banished – founded Portsmouth in 1637. Two other settlements were started.

By 1644, the British Parliament prepared to grant a charter, combining the four settlements into one colony. And Roger Williams made a request. He asked that the separation of church and state be clearly stated in the charter.

Puritan controlled Parliament refused. England was firmly in Puritan grasp, but, after the monarchy was restored, King Charles II granted Rhode Island a charter in 1663 guaranteeing religious freedom.

The Legacy

The opening phrase of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Hmm…Roger William’s principles regarding religion and government became a cornerstone of America. We have no official church of the nation. The government is not supposed to limit religious freedom.

Rhode Island was a colony founded out of religious conflict. Roger Williams and other settlers could not go against their conscience and conform to Puritan law – thus they were exiled. Exiled to build a new colony where religious freedom was welcomed. Exiled to build a new colony where the church did not control the government, but neither did the government control the church. Exiled to lay foundations that would become part of the American Constitution.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Do you think it is a wise government principle to not have an official church of the nation? Why or why not?


Benevolent Intentions…The Last Colony

The first successful English colony in America was Virginia. The last was Georgia. While all the colonies were unique, Georgia’s founder had a special goal and mission. He wasn’t seeking fame or fortune; he wanted to help people. Today, Georgia’s state motto – “Wisdom, Justice, Moderation” – reflects the ideals of its founder.

James Oglethorpe (c. 1730's)

James Oglethorpe (c. 1730’s)

The Prison Reformer

Meet James Oglethorpe. A member of the British House of Commons, Oglethorpe led an investigation of the English prison system. He was appalled by the cruelty.

In this period of English history, if a person could not pay his or her debts they were thrown in prison, leaving little hope of ever being able to repay. And prisons weren’t like the ones we have today. No, prisons in Georgian England were filthy, crowded, disease infested…and there was little hope of getting out.

Oglethorpe wanted to do something to help these people. He realized many people had got in debt because they’d lost their job. Many were honest people, but they were literally imprisoned by the legal system. He wanted to create a place were debtors could go and work, earning money to repay their debts…and where they might have a chance of a successful life when their compensating work was over.

The colony of Georgia was named for King George II of Great Britain

The colony of Georgia was named for King George II of Great Britain

The King’s Permission

King George II gave James Oglethorpe a large tract of land below the Carolina colonies and north of the Spanish settlements (which were in modern-day Florida). The colony administration would be a board of trustees and would be run as a non-profit venture for 21 years. After 21 years, the colony would become the property of the crown.

Was George II really being charitable to the prisoners? Maybe. Maybe not.

There were probably more influential political motives at work in the king’s decision. The new colony could be a sort of frontier between the prosperous Carolinas and the “greedy” Spanish down in Florida. Also, it could open a new fur trade avenue and maybe even raise silk-worms. Oooh…the king will get rich from the new colony!

Georgia Is Founded

In 1733 James Oglethorpe and his band of colonists set sail across the Atlantic for their new home. Oglethorpe wouldn’t make a profit from his venture; he went along as a trustee of the colony and to help everything get started smoothly.

Once they arrived, they named their colony “Georgia”, in honor of the king. Their first town was Savannah. Oglethorpe planned out the division of land and each settler got a tract to develop and farm.

The colony was started with noble ideals and principles. Peace with the Native American tribes was promoted. Oglethorpe prohibited liquor in the colony and also attempted to put a strict ban against slavery. Georgia was the only colony whose government took measures against the importation of slaves.

Map of Georgia - late 1700's (This work is in public domain only in the United States)

Map of Georgia – late 1700’s (This work is in public domain only in the United States)

The Settlers

Sadly, Oglethorpe’s vision of a colony where people could work to get out of debt failed. Only about a dozen settlers in the colony were actually debtors…and the English prisons remained full.

However, his dream of a land where people could build a new life flourished. People of many different backgrounds came to Georgia. Some sought relief from religious persecution and found the southern colony more welcoming than the strict Puritan, Quaker, and Catholic colonies farther north.

The new colonists weren’t delighted with the small tracts of land Oglethorpe had planned and pressured for more land and more control. The board of trustees’ good principles were undermined, and slavery became part of life in the colony.

A Royal Colony

In 1752, before the 21 years had past, Oglethorpe and his trustees decided to return the colony to the crown. Georgia became a royal colony, under the control of the British monarch and his royal governor.

A State

Georgia joined with the other colonies in the revolt against British rule. Freed of colonial status, a state government was established in 1777.

After the end of the war, it was the 4th state to ratify the Constitution of the United States of America.


“Wisdom, Justice, Moderation”

Georgia’s motto reminds us of James Oglethorpe’s dream – a wise plan, justice with hope, and moderation or self-government as a principle of life. While his colonial idea was not ultimately successful, his belief in giving people a new opportunity has become part of the American dream.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Do you agree with Oglethorpe’s vision to provide people with a way to work toward a better life?