In the 1680s English Quaker William Penn established Pennsylvania through purchases and treaties with Native Americans. Like other British colonies on the continent, Pennsylvania attracted immigrants from the many rural households pushed off the land in Britain. What made Pennsylvania different was Penn’s extraordinary policy of religious toleration. He created a haven not only for Quakers but also for other dissenting groups persecuted in Europe. The “holy experiment” attracted immigrants from England, Germany, Ireland, France, and elsewhere. Pennsylvania became the most populous of the colonies.
Philadelphia’s skyline, as seen from New Jersey, shows some of the varied religious institutions of the city. This engraving helps the viewer to find an Anglican church (1), a Presbyterian church (4), a Dutch Calvinist church (5), and a Quaker meeting house (6). Also in the city were Old Swedes’ Lutheran and St. George’s Methodist churches.
Quakers, or the Society of Friends, adopted a plain life and style of dress, as seen in this Quaker woman’s bonnet. Their commitment to individual conscience, pacifism, and opposition to hierarchy made them radicals of their day. They met with persecution in England and most British colonies. Massachusetts Puritans even hanged several Quakers for preaching around 1660.
Associating for Improvement
This plaque marked a Philadelphia building as insured by the Contributionship, a fire insurance association founded in 1752. Its design expressed the principle behind that organization: a joining of hands for mutual aid. Influenced by Quaker conscience and Enlightenment ideals of civic improvement, Philadelphians became renowned for forming many educational, fraternal, public service, and craft organizations.
Baptism in the Schuylkill
This engraving shows an adult baptism in the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. On the shore, a minister preaches to a group of believers. Baptists were one of the evangelical Protestant groups that flourished in the Great Awakening of the 1740s and after. Their unorthodox beliefs—especially the banning of infant baptism—made them unwelcome to religious establishments in New England and the South.
Conflict Over the Backcountry
Conflicts of interest led rural Scots-Irish to mount an armed march toward Philadelphia in 1764. Farming on contested lands, many resented Quaker refusal to raise a military against Native peoples. Here, Native Americans and Quakers ride on the backs of suffering Scots-Irish and German immigrants.
Germans in Pennsylvania
German immigrants founded Germantown near Philadelphia in 1683, but large-scale German immigration came in the next century, when wars and religious intolerance displaced many from Europe. Separatist sects found acceptance in the colony, including Moravians, Mennonites, and Amish. Germans became the largest non-English group in colonial Pennsylvania. They established German-language newspapers and schools and only gradually became engaged with political affairs of the colony. Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin expressed an ambivalent view of these immigrants. He admired their industry but worried that they introduced an “alien” element to the colony.
Philadelphia’s impressive public building housed the colonial legislature and courts. Quakers dominated the Pennsylvania government even after immigrant Germans and Scots-Irish outnumbered them in the 1750s. The Quakers lost power with the American Revolution, when the Pennsylvania statehouse would become known as Independence Hall.
This stove plate from 1748 shows some of the distinctive German decorative elements that would persist in Pennsylvania. The inscription comes from Luther’s version of Psalms 65:10, “God’s well has water in plenty.” The initials on it may identify maker and place of manufacture.