The Quakers, officially members of the Religious Society of Friends, were a pietistic Christian sect founded by George Fox in England in the 1640s. Quakers believed that Christ’s presence in the hearts of individuals provided an inner light that would guide them in their beliefs and actions. As a result, they emphasized inward spiritual experience rather than conformity to outward creeds. At a time when all European states expected conformity to a state church, and the Church of England had the strong support of a parliament fearful of dissent, the Quakers were considered radical and were often persecuted. In practice, they were generally pacifists, egalitarians, and social reformers, emphasizing society’s common humanitarian concerns. But they refused to swear oaths in court or recognize distinctions in society and as such were both annoying and potentially dangerous to the state and the aristocratic society in which they lived. Quaker missionaries first immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1656, where they were not well received. Puritan magistrates drove them out of the colony and ordered the execution of several Friends between 1659 and 1661.
The transformation of Quakers from mistrusted religious radicals to model pioneers was largely the work of William Penn, who was born into an aristocratic English family. Penn was expelled from Oxford University in 1662 for unorthodox religious views and eventually joined the Society of Friends. In 1668, he published Truth Exalted, the first of his 150 books, pamphlets, and tracts, and traveled extensively in Britain and Europe, preaching and promoting the doctrines of the Quakers. Violating numerous laws prohibiting non-Anglican (Church of England) preaching, meeting, and publishing, he spent two years in prison. He nevertheless was well connected politically, having friends among the supporters of the Stuart kings as well as the Whigs who opposed the Stuart monarchy. When the New Jersey colony foundered, in 1674, a group of Quaker investors, including Penn, bought a stake in it and divided it into East Jersey and West Jersey. West Jersey became the first Quaker colony in America, but it eventually went bankrupt and was rejoined to East Jersey in 1702 to form a royal colony. Dismayed by Quaker quarreling in Jersey, in the late 1670s, Penn turned his attention to the unsettled land west of Jersey as a possible refuge for persecuted European Quakers. In 1681, he was granted a royal charter guaranteeing both land and governance, thereby enabling him to establish the Pennsylvania colony from the first according to Quaker principles.
In 1682, Penn published his Frame of Government, which established the principles of liberty of conscience, freedom from persecution, and due process of law. In the same year, he purchased the Three Lower Counties (later, Delaware colony) from James, Duke of York, in order to guarantee access to the sea. As a proprietor, he advertised widely throughout England, Ireland, and the German states, lauding the rich Pennsylvania soil and the high degree of personal freedoms enjoyed there. Indeed, the colony became a model of the religious toleration that Penn so deeply supported. Although Quakers held the most influential positions of leadership and governed according to Quaker principles— there was no army and only a small police force— Pennsylvania was from the first both ethnically and religiously diverse. In 1685 alone, 8,000 immigrants arrived, most of them Quakers from the British Isles. They largely settled in southeastern Pennsylvania, around the cosmopolitan city of Philadelphia. Between the 1680s and the 1720s, Mennonites, Amish, Moravians, Dunkers, Schwenkfelders, and Lutherans arrived from across Europe and soon outnumbered the Quakers. Only a few years into the colony’s development, Penn could boast that the people of Pennsylvania were “a collection of divers nations in Europe,” including “French, Dutch, Germans, Swedes, Danes, Finns, Scotch, Irish, and English.”
Diversity and toleration together produced an unruly political process in Pennsylvania, with the Quaker-dominated urban areas frequently at odds with the country, especially the Three Lower Counties, which were inhabited principally by Dutch, Swedish, and Finnish settlers who had little connection with Penn. In 1701, Penn’s Charter of Liberties granted political control to a unicameral assembly, free from proprietary influence. By 1725, most of the 25,000 Quakers who had immigrated to the Delaware Valley lived in Pennsylvania. By 1760, Germans accounted for more than one-third of the entire population of the colony, and after 1760, German and Scots-Irish settlers rapidly filled the trans-Appalachian Pennsylvania west, far from Quaker influence and English control. By 1756, Quakers had lost political control in the colony.