William Penn, the celebrated founder of Pennsylvania, was born in London on the 14th of October, 1644. He was the only son of Sir William Penn, a naval commander of distinction, first during the Protectorate of Cromwell, and afterwards in the service of Charles the II, from whom he received the honor of knighthood. His health having suffered from his active duties, 'Admiral Penn retired from service in 1666, although then only in the forty-fifth year of his age. His wife, the mother of William Penn, was the daughter of a merchant in Rotterdam.
Penn received his preliminary education at Chigwell, in Essex, near his father's country residence. From Chigwell school he was removed, at twelve years of age, to a private academy in London; and having made great progress in all the usual branches of education, he was entered, at the age of fifteen years, as a gentleman commoner at Christchurch, Oxford. At college he is said to have been remarkable not more for his sedateness and attention to study, than for his extreme fondness for all athletic sports. His first bias, too, towards the opinions of that religious sect of which he became afterwards so distinguished an ornament, the Society of Friends, was produced at this period of his life. It was the effect of the preaching of one Thomas Loe, once a member of the university of Oxford, but who had embraced the doctrines of the Quakers, and was now a zealous propagator of the same.
Serious and thoughtful from his childhood, young Penn was strongly impressed by the views of religious truth which Loe inculcated; and the consequence was, that he and a few of his fellow-students who had been similarly affected, began to absent themselves from the established worship of the university, and to hold private meetings among themselves for devotional purposes. For this breach of the college rules a fine was imposed upon them by the authorities of the university. Neither Penn nor his associates were cured of their disposition to nonconformity by this act of severity they still continued to hold their private meetings, and naturally became more zealous in their views as they saw those views prohibited and discountenanced. Their zeal soon manifested itself in an act of riot. An order having been sent down to Oxford by Charles II that the surplice should be worn by the students, as was customary in ancient times, Penn and his companions were so roused by what they conceived a return to popish observances, that, not content with disobeying the order themselves, they attacked those students who appeared in the obnoxious surplices, and tore them off their backs. So flagrant an outrage on college discipline could not be allowed to pass without severe punishment, and accordingly Penn and several of his companions were expelled. As may be conceived, Admiral Penn was by no means pleased when his son returned home with the stigma attached to him of having been expelled from college; nor was he more satisfied when he learned the cause. Himself untroubled with any such religious scruples as those which his son professed, he could not make any allowance for them, but, on the contrary, insisted that he should give them up, and live as any young gentleman of good family and loyal principles might be expected to do. The young man meeting his father's remonstrances with arguments in self defense, the hasty old admiral turned him out of doors.
Through his mother's intercession a reconciliation soon took place; and the admiral determined, as the best means of finishing his son's education, and possibly of curing him of what he considered his over-religiousness, to send him to spend a year or two in France. Penn accordingly left England in 1662, and was absent on the continent till 1664. On his return to England, his father was much pleased to find him so polished in demeanor and manners, and did not doubt but his intention in sending him abroad had been in a great measure fulfilled. By his advice Penn became a student of Lincoln's Inn, where he continued till 1666, when his father sent him over to Ireland to manage his pretty extensive estates in the county of Cork. In this commission he conducted himself entirely to his father's satisfaction, residing sometimes on the estates themselves, sometimes in Dublin, where he had the advantage of mixing in the society attending the court of the Duke of Ormond, lord-lieutenant of Ireland, and his father's friend. While attending to his business in Ireland, however, a circumstance befell him, which might have induced his father to have acted differently, could he have foreseen it. Being accidentally one day in Cork, he heard that Thomas Loe, the person whose preaching had so deeply affected him at Oxford, was to address a meeting of Quaken in that city. Penn could not think of losing the opportunity of again seeing and hearing his old friend, and accordingly he entered the place where Loe was to preach. He took his seat, and had waited for a few minutes, when the preacher rose, and commenced his sermon with the following striking words There is a faith which overcometh the world; and there is a faith which is overcome by the world.' The words, and the sermon which they introduced, seemed adapted to his own case. Had not his faith been one which had been overcome by the world? and was it not, therefore, a weak, poor, and useless thing? Such was the force of this reflection, strengthened as it was by intercourse with Loe, that he resolved from that day to devote himself to the service of religion, and to adhere to the sect whose principles he respected most. In short, from that time Penn became a professed Quaker.