Quaker Universalist Voice

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Complex Penn

A Book Review of Andrew Murphy, William Penn: A Life (2019)

Andrew Murphy, William Penn: A Life (2019) is the most comprehensive, candid, and readable narrative of the life of William Penn currently available.  There are other biographies, but none are as complete as this book. The book title “William Penn: A Life” is humbly apt, but the title understates the present reality that this book is the most accessible, readable, and candid biography of Penn that is available today and, likely, for years to come. The book is big (nearly 500 pages) and about as complete as can ever be hoped.   There was a substantial volume of documents to review in compiling a life of Penn and Murphy has done it all.  There is now little left to be discovered in the archives on Penn.

Penn was a complex person, living in his aristocratic social class and also in his Quaker environment.  He was unable, because unwilling, to face the reality of his deteriorating economic circumstances (more expenses than income) and emotionally unable to engage expert and disciplined financial assistance. He was a poor and inattentive administrator of staff in an imperial model of monarchy. Penn was a lousy administrator of the colony that bore his name, Pennsylvania.  He was a profligate spender and a terrible money manager. Penn was an owner of slaves  He was a poor model for the emerging Quaker testimonies.  He was inept in personal relationships.  Still, he was a credible and creative second-generation advocate and interpreter of the Quaker gospel of the immediate, inward teacher. This book by Murphy provides light on Penn’ substantial faults and weaknesses.  

Penn himself seems to be mostly innocent of dishonest dealing with native people in the Delaware Valley, but his surrounding colonists were not so innocent, and Penn did little to protect those relationships as described in this book.

Penn’s writings have stood tests of time, influence, and guidance in Quaker circles.  This biography describes the circumstances of these writings and application of his remarkably clear gifts in sharing his Quaker convictions. 

Some historians see persons as small visible points of compressed social forces in a big narrative.  Some other historians, chiefly biographers, see persons as nearly the whole of the story of history. It is the difference between a focus on the tides of history and the human actors.  Some see the big picture. Some sell books.  This book provides a balance of both.

The author provides an exhaustive bibliography of primary and secondary sources and some interesting endnotes.  He provides a guide to the shorthand conventions of his citations.  He provides helpful maps of Penn’s Ireland origin, his London advocacy, his European travels, and his life connection to the new world colony in the Delaware Valley. There are 21 photos of places and personalities in the story. 

Quakers: This book is all about Quakers. The book points out Penn’s virtues and his vices.  What does not come out explicitly is the failure of any distinctive Quaker process to aid Penn in managing the vices.  There was a lack of Clearness Committees and a lack of eldering in Penn’s case.  Perhaps it was a problem of class and the harms of social deference that avoided the Quaker processes of firm and  kindly love until Penn was finally the defendant in civil litigation against him by a Quaker family demanding his payment of debts, which was a form of  tougher love.  

Ordinary Quakers of Penn’s time are all over this book.  The author portrays Quakers as ordinary people in unfamiliar circumstances. Their adopted faith translated into some beneficial and harmful priorities, but, mostly, they lived ordinary lives in their cultural context.

In summary, Penn was a good writer.  His books (No Cross, No Crown and Some Fruits of Solitude) have appealed to Quakers and beyond for centuries.   Penn was an active and public defender of the Quaker gospel of truth in public controversies with Quaker critics. Quakers can be grateful for this tenacious advocacy in writing and voice. Penn’s deficiencies are another matter for our recognition.


  • Do Quaker efforts for the Quaker beatification of William Penn leave room to recognize Penn’s weaknesses, stupidities, injustices, harms,  and mistakes?
  • To what extent are Penn’s writings properly a part of the Quaker scripture?
  • Do Quakers retain responsibility for apology and reparations now for historic abuse of relationships with native peoples in the Delaware Valley?
  • Is there a role for intrusive application of Clearness Committees and Eldering in the lives of Quakers?
  • Are Quaker Clerks and weighty Quaker leaders exempt from these Clearness Committee and Eldering processes because they are in a class by themselves?


Andrew Murphy, William Penn: A Life  (2019)

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