A few weeks ago, I was doing some research and became more aware of a unique part of American history. As a Pennsylvania native, I have always been intrigued by the microcosm of religious diversity that has been part of this state’s history. You might be aware that Pennsylvania was founded as a British province by order of King Charles II in issuance to William Penn. As a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Penn sought to create a province based on the ideal of religious freedom. The Charter of Privileges was produced after a variety of previous versions and it would state:
“…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 Estate, because of his or their conscientious Persuasion or Practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place or Ministry, contrary to his or their Mind, or to do or super any other Act or Thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion.” — Article I, Charter of Privileges
In this document, all persons of a monotheistic religion were granted residence in Pennsylvania. This province attracted persecuted religious groups throughout Europe: Quaker, Unitas Fratrum (Moravian), Mennonite, Amish, Schwarzenau Brethren (Dunkers), Jewish, etc. Notably, Penn’s approach for engaging the indigenous people of America was one of peace and mutual commerce, unlike other British colonies of the era. The religious freedom guaranteed by Penn and his province was hardly unheard of in the western world. His model would become the cornerstone of the American ideal of religious liberty.
Unfortuantely, the true religious liberty of the Pennsylvanians would be challenged during the American Revolution. Many of the previously-persecuted religious groups that now called Pennsylvania home were pacifists. During the Revolution, Pennsylvania was one of the most conflicted colonies in regards to the Patriot cause. American history tends to focus on the story of the Patriots, told from that perspective. Canadian and British history tells the story from the perspective of the Loyalists. However, the side of the story that is often untold is the story of those who were neutral or slightly in favor of either side, many of whom lived in Pennsylvania.
Prior to the Revolution, the Penn family remained as proprietors and governers of the colony for several decades. Leading to the Revolution, Pennsylvanians formed an assembly for the purpose of drafting a constitution. The governor, John Penn and his family were exiled from Phildelphia for their loyalty to the British crown. The Penns were not alone, as Pennsylvania citizens of the newly formed commonwealth (state) were required to sign an oath of allegiance in 1777, which read:
“I do swear that I renounce and refuse all allegiance to George III, King of Great [Britain], his heirs and successors; and that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a free and independent State; and that I will not at any time do, or cause to be done, any matter or thing that will be prejudicial or injurious to the freedom and indepedence thereof as declared by Congress; and also that I will discover and make known to some one Justice of the Peace of the said State, all treasons or traitorous conspiracies which I may know, or hereafter shall know to be formed against this or any of the United States of America.” — p. 471, Egle, W.H., Pennsylvania in the War of the Revolution
As an American citizen, I read this oath of allegiance and thought it seemed innocent enough. However, many pacifist religious groups in Pennsylvania also had prohibitions against oaths of allegiance, especially Anabaptists. Suddenly, whole groups of people who came to Pennsylvania seeking religious liberty were now being forced to make a decision regarding a new war. Additionally, the oath of allegiance was a document related to this war, so even those pacifists who were alright with oaths certainly did not agree with a war, regardless of the cause. Pennsylvania was divided among three groups that Colin Woodard identifies as Midlanders, Appalachians, and Yankees in his book American Nations.
The Midlanders were made up largely of pacifists, but the growing Appalachians in the west and Yankees in the north approached this issue of war and the Revolution differently. Suddenly, pacifists were again being persecuted and being forced to sign a document supporting a war that was “contrary to their religious persuasion.” As a result of this thousands of Anabaptists fled the Commonwealth, many of whom ended up in Upper Canada (modern Ontario). Within one century of the initial charter of the province promising religious liberty, this religious liberty was challenged.
You might be reading this post and asking, “So what?” This post has very little biblical connection and has more of a focus on historical and sociological realities found at the intersection of religion and government. Today, as Christians we can learn from stories like this as a way to understand our present realities. I am grieved that this reality was part of Pennsylvanian history, but we can make decisions today that look differently. I am reminded of the parable of the good Samaritan found in Luke 10. After telling the parable Jesus asks: “‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He [a lawyer] said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.'” vv. 36–37, NRSV. Jesus calls us to go and be a neighbor like the Samaritan man was. We are called to have mercy with our neighbors, even if they hold a different set of religious beliefs than ourselves.
This is very similar to the first article of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges. Penn’s province allowed people of different religious beliefs to exist in harmony. It was what was known as the Holy Experiment. This Christmas season, who might God be calling you to make peace with? Is there an opportunity to share the gospel of love with a neighbor? I pray that we all might ask these questions, look to God for opportunities, and that we might respond. Blessings to you as we seek to be good neighbors.