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Holy Experiment


HOLY EXPERIMENT. "Holy Experiment" was William Penn's term for the ideal government he established for Pennsylvania in 1681, when he obtained the charter for that colony from King Charles II of England. Penn believed that the charter was a gift from God, "that an example may be set up to the nations: there may be room there, though not here, for such an holy experiment." This "experiment," Penn believed, would be a success only if the colony was settled with people of virtue, whose spirituality would shape Pennsylvania society, law, and politics. A member of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers as they were derisively called, Penn shared with his coreligionists a belief that, by virtue of their direct knowledge of and communion with God's divine authority, their precepts of religious liberty, political freedom, and pacifism were bound to take root in the new colony.

The first law the assembly passed guaranteed religious liberty and toleration for all who "shall confess and acknowledge one Almighty God to be the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the world." The spiritual, legal, and political commitment to religious toleration loomed large to those Friends who had been persecuted in England. Economic, political, and religious divisions, however, undermined the colony's spiritual foundations within a few years of its establishment. An ineffective council, designated by Penn to be the executive branch of government in his absence, could do little to uphold the experiment's ideals. Most historians agree that between Penn's departure for England in 1684 and his return to the colony in 1699, the political ideals inherent in the Holy Experiment largely failed.


Bronner, Edwin B. William Penn's Holy Experiment: The Founding of Pennsylvania, 1681–1701. New York: Temple University Press, 1962.

Illick, Joseph E. Colonial Pennsylvania: A History. New York: Scribners, 1976.

Leslie J.Lindenauer

See alsoPennsylvania ; Quakers .

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