Marking 300 years from the death of William Penn is a new biography about his life. William Penn: A Life by Andrew Murphy takes a fresh approach to explore the extraordinary life of the second generation Quaker, William Penn. Seeing a void in the biographical space, Andrew Murphy sets out to tell the story of William Penn from all aspects of his life. This he accomplishes well showing the complexity and contradictions of the 17th Century social reformer and founder of Pennsylvania.

Of all the early Quaker pioneers William Penn is remembered most fondly in retrospect, though this was not universal at the times in which he lived. As a gentry convert to Quakerism, William Penn occupies an in-between space opening royal doors of consideration for the derided Quaker dissenters. Coming to prominence as an advocate for religious tolerance, Penn came close to bankruptcy as setting up his new colony, his Holy Experiment, took its financial toll. His second wife Hannah Callowhill Penn took the reins steering Pennsylvania for nearly 14 years going into the 18th century during Penn’s later years as he suffered a series of strokes.

A great amount of mythology remains in the legacy of Penn. This has left many people wondering where the truth lies. Murphy skilfully unpacks each myth by going back to the original source documents. Several new pieces of information have emerged since the previous biographies and these shed new light on the motivations of Penn at key points in his life.  A worthwhile scholarly read, William Penn: A Life is accessible for a range of readers interested in knowing more about the progressions throughout William Penn’s life. Highly recommended for a read on a cold winters’ night.

William Penn: a life by Andrew Murphy is published by Oxford University Press (2018). ISBN 9780190234249

Garry Duncan, New South Wales Regional Meeting


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