William Penn's Legacy

Sometimes life and history bring quirky juxtapositions. As you may know, PHMC adopts an annual theme to help focus attention on Pennsylvania’s rich (and wide-ranging) history and heritage. For this year, the theme is religion. Or to be more precise, “William Penn’s Legacy: Religious and Spiritual Diversity.” I spent a pretty good chunk of Tuesday afternoon pulling this blog post together and writing about how the theme relates to the Trails of History. So I thought it was pretty cool when that evening’s episode of CBS’s NCIS (I’m eclectic, what can I say?) included an impromptu lecture by Dr. Mallard (during an autopsy, of course), who described William Penn’s influence on the U.S. Constitution. Nice to see history getting some play in the mainstream (lots more people watch NCIS than, for example, read Trailheads—shocking, but true).

As the year progresses, we’ll be rolling out a special theme website, programs, exhibits, and articles in Pennsylvania Heritage magazine. Trailheads will report on those developments as they shape up. For now, though, let’s take a look at a few offerings already out on the Trails of History.

PHMC/Pennsbury Manor

No discussion of William Penn is complete (Trails-of-History-wise) without mention of his American home, Pennsbury Manor. The current manor house is a reconstruction, but it (along with outbuildings, gardens, and exhibits) provides the setting for a wealth of insights into Penn’s plans and designs for his “Holy Experiment.” Religious toleration was one of the cornerstones of Pennsylvania’s founding, although it was not as simple as we sometimes think. This year’s theme aims to celebrate Penn’s legacy while exploring the complexities of religious freedom both in the past and for those of us in the 21st century. Helping visitors understand the intricacies is something the folks at Pennsbury have been doing for a long time.

PHMC/State Museum of PA, photo by Don Giles

A new temporary exhibit at the State Museum of Pennsylvania ties in beautifully with the 2011 theme. When Gov. Tom Corbett wanted to use William Penn’s 1698 family bible for his inauguration ceremony (the bible was also used by Gov. Richard Thornburgh), the object was placed on loan to the State Museum by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (the bible was given to HSP in 1874 by the subscribers to the Penn Papers). The exhibit, open through March 27, also features the 1682 Great Law, a series of statutes that includes Penn’s direction that Pennsylvania would have no official religion (one of the influences Ducky was talking about). Closer to Charter Day (March 13), Penn’s bible and the Great Law will be joined on exhibit by the original Charter of Pennsylvania, by which King Charles II granted William Penn the land that became our Commonwealth.

PHMC/Ephrata Cloister

The absence of an official church resulted in a great variety of religious practice here, evidence of which dots the Pennsylvania landscape. Ephrata Cloister and Old Economy Village embody the attraction that Pennsylvania held for Europeans whose religious views diverged from the established order. Visitors to these sites experience the built environment, the material culture, and the traditions of groups who lived and worshipped peacefully outside of the dominant religious denominations.

For more on the State Museum exhibit and perceptions of William Penn, check out this article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.


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