Letters concerning the English Nation/Letter IV

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LETTER IV.

ON THE

QUAKERS.

About this[1] time arose the illustrious William Pen, who establish'd the power of the Quakers in America, and would have made them appear venerable in the eyes of the Europeans were it possible for mankind to respect virtue, when reveal'd in a ridiculous light. He was the only son of vice-admiral Pen, favourite to the duke of York, afterwards king James the second.

William Pen at twenty years of age happening to meet with a[2] Quaker in Cork, whom he had known at Oxford, this man made a proselyte of him; and William being a sprightly youth, and naturally eloquent, having a winning aspect, and a very engaging carriage, he soon gain'd over some of his Intimates. He carried matters so far that he form'd by insensible degrees a society of young Quakers who met at his house; so that he was at the head of a sect when a little above twenty.

Being return'd, after his leaving Cork to the vice-admiral his father, instead of falling upon his knees to ask him blessing, he went up to him with his hat on, and said, Friend, I'm very glad to see thee in good health. The vice-admiral imagin'd his son to be crazy; but soon finding he was turn'd Quaker, he employ'd all the methods that prudence could suggest, to engage him to behave and act like other people. The youth made no other answer to his father, than by exhorting him to turn Quaker also. At last his father confin'd himself to this single request, viz. that he shou'd wait upon the king and the duke of York with his hat under his arm, and shou'd not Thee and Thou them. William answer'd, that he could not do these things for conscience sake, which exasperated his father to such a degree, that he turn'd him out of doors. Young Pen gave God thanks, for permitting him to suffer so early in his cause, after which he went into the city, where he held forth[3], and made a great number of converts.

The church of England clergy found their congregations dwindle away daily; and Pen being young, handsome, and of a graceful stature, the court as well as the city ladies flock'd very devoutly to his meeting. The patriarch George Fox hearing of his great reputation, came to London, (tho' the journey was very long) purely to see and converse with him. Both resolv'd to go upon missions into foreign countries, and accordingly they embark'd for Holland, after having left labourers sufficient to take care of the London vineyard.

Their labours were crown'd with success in Amsterdam; but a circumstance which reflected the greatest honour on them, and at the same time put their humility to the greatest trial, was the reception they met with from Elizabeth the princess Palatine, aunt to George the first of Great-Britain, a lady conspicuous for her genius and knowledge, and to whom Des Cartes had dedicated his Philosophical Romance.

She was then retir'd to the Hague, where she receiv'd these friends, for so the Quakers were at that time call'd in Holland. This princess had several conferences with them in her palace, and she at last entertain'd so favourable an opinion of Quakerism, that they confess'd she was not far from the kingdom of heaven. The friends sow'd likewise the good seed in Germany, but reap'd very little fruit; for the mode of Thee-ing and Thou-ing was not approv'd of in a country, where a man is perpetually oblig'd to employ the titles of highness and excellency. William Pen return'd soon to England upon hearing of his father's sickness, in order to see him before he died. The vice-admiral was reconcil'd to his son, and tho' of a different persuasion, embrac'd him tenderly. William made a fruitless exhortation to his father not to receive the sacrament, but to die a Quaker; and the good old man intreated his son William to wear buttons on his sleeves, and a crape hatband in his beaver, but all to no purpose.

William Pen inherited very large possessions, part of which consisted in crown-debts due to the vice-admiral for sums he had advanc'd for the sea-service. No monies were at that time more secure than those owing from the king. Pen was oblig'd to go more than once, and Thee and Thou king Charles and his ministers, in order to recover the debt; and at last instead of specie, the government invested him with the right and sovereignty of a province of America, to the south of Maryland. Thus was a Quaker rais'd to sovereign power. Pen set sail for his new dominions with two ships freighted with Quakers, who follow'd his fortune. The country was then call'd Pensilvania from William Pen, who there founded Philadelphia, now the most flourishing city in that country. The first step he took was to enter into an alliance with his American neighbours; and this is the only treaty between those people and the Christians that was not ratified by an oath, and was never infring'd. The new sovereign was at the same time the legislator of Pensilvania and enacted very wise and prudent laws, none of which have ever been chang'd since his time. The first is, to injure no person upon a religious account, and to consider as brethren all those who believe in one God.

He had no sooner settled his government, but several American merchants came and peopled this colony. The natives of the country instead of flying into the woods, cultivated by insensible degrees a friendship with the peaceable Quakers. They lov'd these foreigners as much as they detested the other Christians who had conquer'd and laid waste America. In a little time, a great number of these savages (falsely so call'd) charm'd with the mild and gentle diſposition of their neighbours, came in crowds to William Pen, and beſought him to admit them into the number of his vaſſals. 'Twas very rare and uncommon for a ſovereign to be Thee'd and Thou'd by the meaneſt of his ſubjec͡ts, who never took their hats off when they came into his preſence; and as ſingular for a government to be without one prieſt in it, and for a people to be without arms, either offenſive or defenſive; for a body of citizens to be abſolutely undiſtinguiſh'd but by the publick employments, and for neighbours not to entertain the leaſt jealousy one against the other.

William Pen might glory in having brought down upon earth the ſo much boaſted golden age, which in all probability never exiſted but in Penſilvania. He return'd to England to ſettle ſome affairs relating to his new dominions. After the death of king Charles the ſecond, king James, who had lov'd the father, indulg'd the ſame affection to the ſon, and no longer conſider'd him as an obſcure Sec͡tary, but as a very great man. The king's politicks on this occasion agreed with his inclinations. He was desirous of pleasing the Quakers, by annulling the laws made against Nonconformists, in order to have an opportunity, by this universal toleration, of establishing the Romish religion. All the sectarists in England saw the snare that was laid for them, but did not give into it; they never failing to unite when the Romish religion, their common enemy, is to be oppos'd. But Pen did not think himself bound in any manner to renounce his principles, merely to favour Protestants to whom he was odious, in opposition to a king who lov'd him. He had establish'd an universal toleration with regard to conscience in America and wou'd not have it thought that he intended to destroy it in Europe; for which reason he adhered so inviolably to king James, that a report prevail'd universally of his being a Jesuit. This calumny affected him very strongly, and he was oblig'd to justify himself in print. However, the unfortunate king James the second, in whom, as in most princes of the Stuart family, grandeur and weakness were equally blended; and who, like them, as much overdid some things as he was short in others, lost his kingdom in a manner that is hardly to be accounted for.

All the English sectarists accepted from William the third and his parliament, the toleration and indulgence which they had refus'd when offer'd by king James. 'Twas then the Quakers began to enjoy, by virtue of the laws, the several privileges they possess at this time. Pen having at last seen Quakerism firmly establish'd in his native country, went back to Pensilvania. His own people and the Americans receiv'd him with tears of joy, as tho' he had been a father who was return'd to visit his children. All the laws had been religiously observ'd in his absence, a circumstance in which no legislator had ever been happy but himself. After having resided some years in Pensilvania he left it, but with great reluctance, in order to return to England there to solicit some matters in favour of the commerce of Pensilvania. But he never saw it again, he dying in Ruscomb in Berkshire, anno 1718.

I am not able to guess what fate Quakerism may have in America, but I perceive, it dwindles away daily in England. In all countries where liberty of conscience is allow'd, the establish'd religion will at last sw'allow up all the rest. Quakers are disquallfied from being members of parliament; nor can they enjoy any post or preferment, because an oath must always be taken on these occasions and they never swear. They are therefore reduc'd to the necessity of subsisting upon traffick. Their children, whom the industry of their parents has enrich'd, are desirous of enjoying honours, of wearing buttons and ruffles; and quite asham'd of being call'd Quakers, they become converts to the Church of England merely to be in the fashion.

  1. 1666.
  2. Thomas Lea.
  3. About 1668, and the 24th year of his age.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.