William Penn in the Tower of London

Penn is imprisoned in the Tower, 1668-9.

from Samuel M. Janney (The Life of William Penn, Sixth Edition, 1882):

"Two persons belonging to the congregation of Thomas Vincent, at Spitalfields, visited a Friends' meeting, where they were convinced of the doctrines heard, which induced them to withdraw from their former pastor. This produced in the mind of the latter a violent animosity to Friends, of whom he spoke in the harshest terms, saying they held most erroneous and damnable doctrines, and William Penn he publicly stigmatized as a Jesuit.

This coming to the ears of Penn, he and George Whitehead, an eminent minister among Friends, demanded an opportunity to clear themselves and the society before the same congregation where the slanders had been uttered. After some demur, Vincent appointed a day and hour for them to meet, but he called his own congregation together an hour earlier, so as to pre-occupy the house. When Penn and Whitehead arrived and heard Vincent proclaiming that the Quakers held damnable doctrines, one of them demanded that they should be heard in their own defence; but Vincent proposed that he should question them, which was agreed to by the congregation who were mostly his followers.

He then queried whether Friends "owned one Godhead subsisting in three distinct and separate persons," and objection being made to this doctrine, he attempted to prove it by the following syllogism, which may serve as a specimen of the mode of argument employed in that age of religious controversy.

"There are three that bear record in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one.

"These are either three manisfestations, three operations, three substances, or three something else besides substances.

"But they are not three manisfestations, three operations, three substances, nor three any thing else besides subsistences.

"Ergo three subsistences.

George Whitehead utterly rejected the terms, as not found in Scripture, nor deducible from the place he instanced; wherefore he desired an explanation of the terms, "inasmuch as God does not choose to wrap up his truths in heathenish metaphysics, but in plain language." On the weakness of their syllogism being exposed, and the expression "three distinct and separate persons" being objected to as not found in the Scriptures, the audience attempted to put down the Friends, and prevent their defence by hisses, opprobrious epithets, and other rude behaviour. Vincent, affecting to be shocked with the doctrines of Friends, fell suddenly into prayer, in which he accused them of blasphemy; and that he might prevent them from defending themselves, he desired the people, when he had done, to retire, setting the example himself by withdrawing from the house. The Friends being about to proceed with their defence, the others attempted to pull them down and extinguished the candles; but they still continued to speak in the dark, and many remained to hear them, until Vincent came back with a candle and dismissed the audience, after promising the Friends another hearing.

This promise not being fulfilled, Whitehead and Penn went to his meeting-house on a lecture day, waited till he had done, and then requested an opportunity to clear their society of his false accusations; but he left the house, and none who were there would attend to their request. Being thus frustrated in their efforts to obtain a hearing, Penn resorted to the press for a vindication, and published a tract with the following title: "The Sandy Foundation Shaken, or those so generally believed and applauded doctrines, of one God subsisting in three distinct and separate persons; the impossibility of God's pardoning sinners without a plenary satisfaction; the justification of impure persons by an imputative righteousness, refuted, from the authority of Scripture testimonies and right reason."

From the "Conclusion" of this work the following passage is quoted: --

"Mistake me not, we never have disowned a Father, Word and Spirit, which are ONE, but men's inventions: For, 1. Their Trinity has not so much as a foundation in the Scriptures. 2. Its original was three hundred years after Christianity was in the world. 3. It having cost much blood; in the council of Simium, Anno 355, it was decreed, that thenceforth the controversy should not be remembered, because the Scripture of God made no mention thereof. Why then should it be mentioned now with a Maranatha on all that will not bow to this abstruse opinion? 4. And it doubtless hath occasioned idolatry; witness the popish images of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. 5. It scandalizeth Turks, Jews and Infidels, and palpably obstructs their reception of the Christian doctrine. Nor is there more to be said on the behalf of the other two: for I can boldly challenge any person to give me one Scripture phrase which does approach the doctrine of satisfaction, (much less the name) considering to what degree it's stretched; not that we do deny, but really confess that Jesus Christ, in life, doctrine and death, fulfilled his Father's will, and offered up a most satisfactory sacrifice, but not to pay God, or help him (as otherwise unable) to save men; and for a justification by imputative righteousness, whilst not real, it's merely an imagination, not a reality, and therefore rejected; otherwise confest and known to be justifying before God, because there is no abiding in Christ's love without keeping his commandments."

The work gave great offence to the clergy, and especially the Bishop of London, insomuch that an order was procured from the government for Penn's imprisonment in the Tower, where he was confined with great rigour, and his friends denied access to him.

After having been some time in prision, he was informed by his servant, that "the bishop was resolved he should either publicly recant, or die a prisoner." He answered, "All is well: I wish they had told me so before, since the expecting of a release put a stop to some business; thou mayest tell my father, who I know will ask thee, these words: that my prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot; for I owe my conscience to no mortal man; I have no need to fear, God will make amends for all; they are mistaken in me; I value not their threats and resolutions, for they shall know I can weary out their malice and peevishness, and in me shall they behold a resolution above fear; conscience above cruelty, and a baffle put to all their designs by the spirit of patience, the companion of all the tribulated flock of the blessed Jesus, who is the author and finisher of faith that overcomes the world, yea, death and hell too. Neither great nor good things are ever attained without loss and hardships. He that would reap and not labour, must faint with the wind and perish in disappointments: but an hair of my head shall not fall without the Providence of my Father that is over all."

Being thus prevented from going abroad in the performance of his religious duties, he could not remain unemployed, but, like many others of his brethren, occupied the time of his imprisonment by writing on religious subjects.

The principal work produced at this time is called "No Cross, No Crown," a book that has been frequently republished, extensively read, and universally approved. It is not controversial, but practical, being intended to show the nature of true religion in its effects upon the life and conversation of men, by withdrawing them from the pomp and vanity of the world, and leading them to seek for peace and happiness in communion with God, and in deeds of charity and love. These views are illustrated by numerous quotations from the sayings and writings of the wise and good of former ages, who have left their testimony to the value of an approving conscience, and a heart at peace with God.

... (Janney quotes examples from this work, which are left out here)

In the conclusion of this excellent work, Penn shows that they who will not take up the cross of self-denial, cannot expect to enjoy the crown of eternal glory; he refers to the holy lives of the primitive Christians, their self-sacrificing zeal for the cause of truth; and he calls upon all, but more especially upon those whose hearts have been awakened to the convictions of duty, to come away from the vanities of a perishing world.

While imprisoned in the Tower, he wrote a letter to Lord Arlington, Secretary of State, showing the illegality of his imprisonment, without trial and conviction, and the impolicy of persecuting people on account of their opinions. In this letter he says, "What if I differ from some religious apprehensions? Am I therefore incompatible with human societies? Shall it not be remembered with what success kingdoms and commonwealths have lived under the balance of divers parties? I know not any unfit for political society, but those who maintain principles subversive to industry, fidelity, justice, and obedience; but to conceit that men must form their faith of things proper to another world, according to the prescriptions of other mortal men of this, is both ridiculous and dangerous."

"The understanding can never be convinced by other arguments than what are adequate to its own nature. Force may make hypocrites, but it can make no converts. If I am at any time convinced, I will pay the homage of it to truth, and not to base hypocrisy."

In conclusion, he requests that Lord Arlington will represent his case to the King, and obtain his release, or at least the privilege of being heard in his own defence; but he adds, "I make no apology for my letter, as a trouble — the usual style of suppliants; because I think the honour that will accrue to thee by being just, and releasing the oppressed, exceeds the advantage that can succeed to me." This letter appears to have been without effect, and he soon after published a small tract, entitled, "Innocency with her Open Face," presented by way of apology for the "Sandy Foundation Shaken."

In this tract he neither recants nor renounces any of the doctrines advanced in the former work, but believing his views had been misunderstood, he explains them, on some points, more fully. He remarks, that he has undersood the principal cause of his imprisonment was a malicious charge spread among the people, that he had denied the Divinity of Christ; and he proceeds to disprove that charge, by showing, from Scripture, that as "Christ is the true Light," and Saviour of all men; and as "God is Light," and has proclaimed himself the only Saviour, therefore he asserts the unity of God and Christ, because, though nominally distinguished, they are essentially the same. As for the doctrine of satisfaction, he shows that his arguments were principally levelled at the prevailing notion of the impossibility of God's forgiving sin upon repentance, without Christ's paying his justice, by suffering infinite vengenace and eternal wrath, for sins past, present, and to come; and he quotes from Bishop Stillingfleet to show that this eminent prelate has granted both the possibility of God's pardoning sins as debts without such a rigid satisfaction, and the impossibility of Christ's so suffering for the world, reflecting closely upon those persons as "giving so just an occasion to the church's adversaries to think they triumph over her faith, whist it is only over their mistakes who argue with more zeal than judgement." "One of the main ends," says Penn, "that first induced me to that discourse, I find delivered by him (Stillingfleet,) namely, if they did belive Christ came into the world to reform it, 'that the wrath of God is now revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness; that his love which is shown to the world is to deliver them from the hand of their enemies, that they might serve him in righteousness and true holiness all the days of their lives; they never could imagine that salvation is entailed by the gospel upon a mighty confidence or vehement persuasion of what Christ hath done and suffered for them."

"Thus doth he confess upon my hypothesis or proposition, what I mainly contend for: and however positively I may reject or deny my adversaries' unscriptural and imaginary satisfaction, let all know this, that I pretend to know no other name by which remission, atonement, and salvation can be obtained, but Jesus Christ the Saviour, who is the power and wisdom of God. As for justification by an imputed righteousness, I still say that whosovever believes in Christ shall have remission and justification, but then it must be such a faith as can no more live without works than a body without a spirit; wherefore I conclude that true faith comprehends evangelical obedience, and here the same Doctor Stillingfleet comes in to my relief by a plain assertion of obedience, viz. 'Such who make no other condition of the gospel, but believing, ought to have a great care to keep their hearts sounder than their heads."

This tract seems to have given satisfaction, and soon after its appearance he was released from the Tower, after having been a prisioner there for nearly nine months.

In a fragment of Penn's autobiography, preserved in his own handwriting in the archives of the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia, and published in the memoirs of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, (Vol. III., Part II., ) we find the following memoranda relating to this portion of his life:

"The first time I went to court after I had embraced the communion I am of, was in '68. The business that engaged me was the suffering condition of my Friends in several parts of this kingdom, the cause of it tenderness of conscience, no evil fact. Those in company with me were George Whitehead, Josiah Coale, and Thomas Loe. The person went to was the Duke of Buckingham; but an application at that time did not answer our expectation, tho' in his own inclination he favoured liberty of conscience.

"The second time I went to court, was the same summer, and upon the same errand, in company of G. Whitehead and Josiah Coale. We addressed ourselves to Sir Henry Berwick, then Secretary of State, with whom our business had no better success than before. I was much toucht with the sense of our Friends' may and great hardships and the more for that they were inflicted in a Protestant country, and came from Prostestant hands, and could not but think the severities they lay under, for mere conscience to God, must necessarily bring the very Protestant religion under scandal abroad. Being Protestants in all those points wherein the very church of England might claim that title, and whose main point was a strict and holy life, this made it seem reasonable and requisite to me to make their sufferings and them better known to those in authority; charitably hoping that if they would give themselves the leisure to be truly informed of both, they would afford them better quarter in their own country, than Stocks, Whips, Gaols, Dungeons, Praemunires, Fines, Sequestrations, and Banishment, for their peaceable dissent in matters relative to faith and worship; and accordingly I had framed a scheme to myself for that purpose. But it so fell out, that towards the close of that year I was made incapable of prosecuting the resolution I had taken, and the plan I had laid of this affair, by a close and long imprisonment in the Tower of London, for a book I writ called the "Sandy Foundation Shaken,' occassioned by some reflections upon us and our principles by one Tho. Vincent, a dissenting minister, because some of his congregation inclined to be of our persuasion.

"[That which engaged the Bishop of London to be warm in my persectution, was the credit some Presbyterian ministers had with him, and the mistake they improved against me, of my denying the Divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.]

"I was committed the beginning of December, and was not discharged till the fall of the leaf following; wanting about fourteen days of nine months.

"As I saw very few, so I saw them but seldom, except my own father and Dr. Stillingfleet, the present Bishop of Worcester. The one came as my relation, the other at the King's command, to endeavour my change of judgement. But as I told him, and he told the King, that the Tower was the worst argument in the world to convince me; for whoever was in the wrong, those who used force for religion never could be in the right — so neither the Doctor's arguments, nor his moving and interesting motives of the King's favour and preferment, at all prevailed; and I am glad I have opportunity to own so publicly the great pains he took, and humanity he showed, and that to his moderation, learning, and kindness, I will ever hold myself obliged.

It is said that Penn's discharge from the Tower, came from the King, through the intercession of his brother, the Duke of York, who afterward took the title of James II.

This kindness on the part of the Duke, and his continued favour after he became King, produced in the mind of Penn a sentiment of gratitude, and a strong personal attachment, which continued through life, and subjected him to groundless suspicion and persecution, after the fall of his royal patron.

Information on this page provided by James Quinn. Visit Gwynedd (Pennsylvania) Friends Meeting.