Liberty, Conscience & Toleration: The Political Thought of William Penn

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Beverly C. Tomek


In this intellectual biography of William Penn, Andrew Murphy uses Penn’s writings to trace the development of his political theory while placing Penn and his work in the historical context of Restoration England. This contextual approach leads to a deeper understanding of Penn’s theory on toleration, or liberty of conscience, and encourages a balanced assessment of the choices he made as he worked to put his theory into practice in Pennsylvania. As Murphy shows, Penn, like many other intellectuals of his day, theorized about politics, but unlike most, Penn also experimented and tried to put his ideas into practice. This unique position makes him an ideal case study for examining not just the theoretical aspects of religious toleration, but also the practical application of religious freedom and the challenges involved in creating a society that allowed individuals to openly follow the religious creed of their own choice rather than one prescribed by the state. His efforts in Pennsylvania set him “apart from contemporaries who outlined theories of toleration yet were never forced to grapple with the concrete practicalities of governance” (x). According to Murphy, four “major political episodes” affected Penn’s development as both a political thinker and an actor: the controversy over the Second Conventicle Act, the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis, the founding of Pennsylvania, and the reign of James II.

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