A constitutional prototype celebrates 300 years William Penn's Charter of Privileges affirmed that residents of Pennsylvania should be free to worship as they saw fit.

Posted: October 28, 2001

Separation of church and state. Freedom of religion. Representative government.

Those were radical ideas 300 years ago, when Britain was still reeling from its religious civil war, France had recently expelled its Protestant population and, in the Pennsylvania Colony, Quakers still talked of the state executions of four of their brethren in the Massachusetts Bay Colony for practicing a "deviant" religion.

Which makes all the more remarkable a document signed this date in 1701 by William Penn.

Known as the Charter of Privileges, it is a historic constitution affirming that the residents of his new Pennsylvania Colony could worship as they chose.

The charter also decreed that there would be no established religion in "the Province of Pennsilvania," and affirmed the right of an elected assembly to meet and legislate as it chose.

"The Charter of Privileges was critical for the establishment of religious liberty and the model for a lot of other governments, including our own," says Robert S. Cox, manuscripts librarian at the American Philosophical Society, at Fifth and Walnut Streets, where Penn's charter is preserved.

Along with original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, the Charter of Privileges is "one of the four or five most important documents we have in our possession," according to Cox, who last week lugged the framed, ink-on-vellum document out of the society vault for inspection.

Beginning with his name in a massive, Gothic script, Penn, in the charter, declared that "I doe hereby Grant and Declare that noe person . . . shall be in any case molested or prejudiced . . . because of his or theire Conscientious perswasion or practice nor be compelled to frequent or mentein any Religious Worship place or Ministry contrary to his or theire mind."

The charter also established the right of an elected, unicameral Assembly to prepare bills, vote them into law, elect its own officers, and decide when and for how long it would be in session. The American Philosophical Society, which Benjamin Franklin founded in 1743, acquired the charter from a West Chester family in 1812. It was on display for three months this summer at the state Capitol in Harrisburg and at the Philosophical Society's museum at Independence National Park. Cox said that it is no longer on display and that there are no immediate plans for a new exhibit.

In its exhibition brochure, the society called the charter "the most famous of all colonial constitutions," and noted that many of the other colonies did not enjoy Pennsylvania's religious freedoms until the Revolution.

Still, the Charter of Privileges is an imperfect document by modern democratic standards, argues Evan Haefeli, a lecturer in the history department at Princeton University.

It extended its protections only to those residents who "confess and acknowledge one Almighty God," thus excluding non-monotheistic religions. Its lofty language nevertheless restricted government office to those "who professe to beleive in Jesus Christ the Saviour of the world," thus barring Jews. And with the recent return of a Protestant king to the English throne, Catholics were implicitly prohibited from serving in the colonial government.

"Penn didn't want to sign it," Haefeli said in a telephone interview last week. "He viewed the charter as a retreat" from his vision of the colony as an ecumenical utopia.

Penn, a wealthy aristocrat, had established the colony in 1682 as a haven for the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, but open to all faiths.

By 1701, however, many of Pennsylvania's established Quakers were growing fearful that Anglicans might try to establish themselves as the colony's official denomination, and drafted the charter for him to sign. Their goal was to ensure that Quakers could never be excluded from Pennsylvania government.

And 75 years later, Pennsylvania's refusal to establish an official religion helped set the model for the framers of the federal government "not to have an established church," Haefeli says. "It compelled religious freedom on a national level."

In 1751 the Pennsylvania Assembly commissioned a new bell for the statehouse, and most scholars believe the bell was intended to honor the charter. It was inscribed with the Jubilee proclamation from Leviticus 25:10: "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof," it reads.

That bell is now known as the Liberty Bell.

Peggy Morscheck, director of the Quaker Information Center at the American Friends Service Committee, argues that the charter was an extraordinary document for its age. "It has no equal," she said last week, as "the living embodiment of the separation of church and state . . . and for expanding the whole concept of participatory government."

The 300th anniversary of the charter would be worth noting in any context, she said, "but especially in light of the events of Sept. 11, it's something we as a nation need to lift up."

David O'Reilly's e-mail address is doreilly@phillynews.com.

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