Sep 15, 2008

Why Don’t We Know More About Our Pre-Founding Fathers?

by Joyce DiPastena

Thank you to Valerie Ipson, who substituted for me two weeks ago during my trip to Pennsylvania! Though I was sad, upon returning, to learn that Betsy Love has left our blog rotation, I am thrilled that Valerie has joined us and look forward to reading many more excellent posts from her in the future!

My first trip to Pennsylvania was quite an adventure. I traveled with my sister, who works for the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and was attending a Genealogy Conference in Philadelphia. While she was attending classes and workshops, I was pretty much on my own to explore this wonderfully historical city. If I were to try to share all my experiences with you, this blog would run several pages, so I’m only going to share one.

Except for two visits to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I spent most of my time in the “Independence” area of the city, soaking up the history of the founding of our nation…viewing the Liberty Bell, touring Independence Hall to learn about the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution Center to learn about…well, the Constitution of the United States. While there were a few brief references here and there to William Penn, who founded the colony named after him, it was the presence of Benjamin Franklin, a native of Philadelphia, that seemed to emanate everywhere.

My next to last day, I decided to visit the Christ Church burial ground, to see where Benjamin Franklin was buried. I took a picture and, as appeared to be a tradition, threw a penny on his grave. (After all, “A penny saved is a penny earned!”) I wandered about the grounds for nearly an hour, reading various grave marker inscriptions, and snapping photos of the markers of other signers of the Declaration of Independence. Towards the end of my self-tour, a groundskeeper told me that I “must be sure to visit Christ Church, also”.

I thought Christ Church would be nearby the burial grounds, but it turned out to be some walking distance away. While excited to find there the pews that had once belonged to Betsy Ross and her family, and another assigned to George Washington, I found myself a bit unnerved by the discovery that, not only had a number of people apparently been buried beneath the Church, but that these “Church worthies” had shiny engravings on the floor, marking their “places of rest”. Keep in mind that Christ Church still serves an active congregation on Sundays. I’m not at all sure that I would feel comfortable knowing that I was literally walking on the dead when I went to Church each week!

One of these church vaults belonged to a member of the Penn family, and so did one of the pews. But nowhere in the Church, or it occurred to me in the burial grounds, had I seen any grave markers devoted to the colony’s founder, William Penn himself. So I asked a tour guide who was hovering nearby, “Where is William Penn buried?”

His reply: “William Penn is buried in England,” followed by a slightly surprised, “No one’s ever asked me that before. All people ever want to know about are the founders of the American Revolution.”

He then launched into a rather earnest discussion of the vastly underappreciated William Penn. Mostly he dwelt on how Penn, a Quaker, had wanted to found a colony free of a prescribed religion, where people could worship “according to their own consciences.” (He may as well have been reciting the 11th Article of Faith to me!) As he talked, I thought, of course, about the miraculous way this country had been founded, laying the groundwork for the Restoration of the Gospel. I realized that, while I am familiar with the stories of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson and the founding of Rhode Island as a place of religious freedom (usually from talks in Church about events leading up to the Restoration), I have rarely heard William Penn’s name mentioned alongside theirs. Rarely? More like never, since although I was familiar with his name, I was not aware that his colony, too, had been established on principles of religious freedom.

My historical interests now roused, I asked the tour guide where I could find out more about William Penn. After all, the gift shops were filled with books about Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Adams. How could there not be at least one book among the shelves with a biography of William Penn? But the tour guide said there wasn’t, then added, “I wouldn’t even know what books to recommend. You’d have to Google ‘William Penn’ or look on Amazon to try to find something written about him.”

So, on returning home, I did indeed Google “William Penn”. Thus far, I have only read an article on him in Wikipedia, but that has been enough to convince me that William Penn is indeed a vastly underappreciated “Pre-Founding Father”. Not only did he influence America’s path towards “freedom of religion” (although his successors in Pennsylvania rejected his ideals for a time after his death), but he made significant other contributions later adopted or adapted by those who ultimately established our current constitutional form of government.

To quote a summary from the Wikipedia article:

“Among Penn's legacies was the unwillingness to force a Quaker majority upon Pennsylvania, allowing his state to evolve into a successful ‘melting pot’. In addition, Thomas Jefferson and the founding Fathers adapted Penn’s theory of an amendable constitution and his vision that ‘all men are equal under God’ in forming the federal government following the American Revolution. In addition to Penn’s extensive political and religious treatises, he wrote nearly 1000 maxims, full of wise observation about human nature and morality.”

Some of you may already know more about William Penn than I did. But if you are as uninformed as I, you can read about him at As for myself, I’ll be searching Amazon soon for a good biography of this great man!


  1. Sounds like a wonderful educational vacation. Thanks for sharing a small part of what you learned!

  2. Thank you for reminding us of an important person in our history, Joyce. I doubt he's mentioned in American History topics--such as they are--in elementary, middle, and high schools.

  3. Actually, when we homeschooled, we learned about William Penn. If I remember right, there was a chapter or more dedicated to him and his influence here in the US.

    Sounds like you might have an idea for a book!

  4. There are so many underappreciated pre founding fathers that we owe so much too. Thanks for bringing yet another to our attention. And I'm with Rebecca, write his story.

  5. Actually, Joyce, as I read your blog I kept thinking...go for it Joyce! Write a biography about William Penn...Thanks you for sharing your thoughts and insights. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.

  6. Hey Joyce, In England and all over Europe all of the really important people are buried either in the walls, floors or crypts of the cathedrals and churches. In Westminster they are literally, Bursting at the seams with dead people inside! I believe it is quite an honor to buried inside.


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