American Portraits

William Penn: Faith, Not Force

In this lesson, students will review the words and actions of William Penn, who established the colony of Pennsylvania with a guarantee of freedom of worship. They will achieve the following objectives.

Founding Principles

Freedom of Religion image

Freedom of Religion

The freedom to exercise one's own religious beliefs without interference from the government is essential to the existence of a free society.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.


Sir William Penn, the elder, was extremely familiar with, and not very happy about, his son’s tendency to flout tradition. After his son had been kicked out of Oxford at seventeen for expressing his religious views and for not attending required religious services, it was his father who sent him to study at a Protestant school in France, hoping to reform him. When that too failed, it was his father who called Penn back to England, put him in law school, and introduced him to the king’s court….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

Why is respect, especially as it relates to freedom of conscience, an essential trait for civil society?

Virtue Defined

Respect is civility flowing from personal humility.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will review the words and actions of William Penn, who established the colony of Pennsylvania with a guarantee of freedom of worship. They will achieve the following objectives.


  • Students will analyze William Penn’s character as a leader and his commitment to respecting freedom of conscience.
  • Students will examine Penn’s understanding of respect as a necessary virtue.
  • Students will understand why cultivating respect affects the future of the United States.
  • Students will demonstrate respect in their own lives to protect freedom.


He was imprisoned—for life—in the Tower of London in December 1668, but William Penn was unrepentant. “My prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot,” he said. “I owe my conscience to no mortal man.” Only twenty-four years old, Penn had crossed the wrong people. He had written and published a critique of England’s official church doctrines. Like thousands of religious separatists at the time, he had been “flung into Jail” and asked to deny his beliefs publicly. Instead, he held firm to his views while his country, for a time, did everything it could to force citizens to follow one faith.

Fortunately for Penn, he was well-educated and well-connected. He spent only eight months in his small room at the Tower. He passed the time writing two more influential essays with nonconformist views. In 1669, a family friend (James, Duke of York, and later King James II) secured his release.


  • Unrepentant
  • Jot
  • Separatist
  • Nonconformist
  • Flout
  • Derogatory
  • Heretical
  • Dissenter
  • Toleration
  • Ambitious
  • Abridge
  • Coercive
  • Conscience

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • In what ways did William Penn demonstrate respect in order to enhance life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for himself and others?
  • What was William Penn’s identity during the late 1600s? To what extent do you see an emphasis on the virtue of respect in his words and actions?
  • As he worked to establish the colony of Pennsylvania, how did Penn see his purpose?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the problem?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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