Concord Township and William Penn‘s “Holy Experiment”
Concord’s role in the colony of Pennsylvania’s experimental idea of religious toleration is worthy of notice because although the idea was so innovative and daring in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the people of Concord seemed to have no difficulty in applying it. Even elsewhere in Pennsylvania, in the early 18th century, the idea did not catch on to the point where Catholics could freely and openly practice their faith unconcerned with interference from neighbors of other religious persuasions, as Catholics were able to do in Concord.
By 1729, when the Catholic mission station began at Ivy Mills, there were three places of worship within three miles of one another: Concord Friends Meeting, Saint John’s Concord, Episcopalian, and the beginnings of Saint Thomas the Apostle Catholic parish at Ivy Mills. Members of all three congregations were neighbors who worked side by side, without friction, for the good of all. The three-mile area of Concord where they worshiped grew into a “toleration triangle” where Concord residents showed by example that William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” could succeed.
Concord Friends Meeting , #117
on Concord Township’s Historic Resources Inventory
827 Concord Road
In 1681, King Charles II of England granted the territory of Pennsylvania to William Penn in lieu of cash payment for a debt owed to Penn’s father, the late Admiral Sir William Penn. A man of education and means, and a strong adherent of Quaker ideas, the younger Penn applied his faith, education and experience to the plan for the new colony. He called the enterprise a “Holy Experiment” because he wanted to put into practice his ideas of government, that all persons should be allowed to worship freely, and that “the government was to be based on justice, liberty and equal opportunity.” (1)
His ideas came from his own experience in England, where as a member of the Society of Friends he had witnessed and suffered himself the punishments and deprivations imposed on those who practiced religious faiths other than that of the established Church of England. Indeed, religious toleration was all but unknown anywhere in Europe. Pennsylvania would be different: all persons who believed in “one almighty and eternal God to be the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the world” and who “live peaceably and justly in civil society” were welcome, with no other religious requirement. (2)
Grounded in the Quaker conviction that all persons possess “that of God” within them, this unique policy of religious toleration, along with available fertile land, innumerable millsites, and ready access to ocean shipping, made Pennsylvania well known throughout England and Europe as “the best poor man’s country,” and encouraged thousands to make a new home here.
Some of those thousands found their way to Concord Township (founded 1683), where most of the “First Purchasers” settled on tracts of 100 to 500 acres. (A few “purchasers” were speculators, and sold their holdings to others later.) Most of the settlers, if not all, were Quakers, who first met for worship in private homes and at Chichester. But in 1686, Friends from Concord, along with others from Bethel, Aston, Chichester, and Birmingham, formed Concord Monthly Meeting. Among the founding members from Concord were members of the Collet, Hall, Hannum, Moore, Mendenhall, Newlin, Oburn, and Parke families.3 By 1697, Concord Meeting was held in a house on “Concord Hill” given for that purpose by John Mendenhall, but a brick meeting house was erected there in 1728. Partially burned in 1788, the building was rebuilt and enlarged that year, and currently both datestones can be seen.
Saint John‘s Concord Episcopal Church
#102 on Concord Township’s Historic Resources Inventory
576 Concord Road
William Penn established the colony of Pennsylvania in 1681 as a “Holy Experiment,” on his conviction of religious toleration, along with his equally firm principles of liberty, justice, and equal opportunity. In addition to Penn’s personal convictions, the colony was guided by King Charles’ requirement in Penn’s charter that “without any denial or molestation whatever” members of the Church of England could request the Bishop of London to send a “preacher . . . for their instruction.” Declaring the principle of religious toleration was one thing, establishing it and making it work, however, was another. It took some wrangling, particularly in the 1690s, before the principle was understood more fully.
During the 1690s, there was a movement underway among some Quakers in the colony, led by George Keith, to return to some Church of England tenets. Keith was expelled from the Society of Friends for acting upon those of his convictions contrary to Quaker ideals. He briefly formed a separate group, the Keithian Quakers, who accepted baptism among other beliefs and practices. Among the group were John and Margery Hannum of Concord, who were baptized in 1697. After Keith was ordained in England as an Anglican priest, he returned to the Philadelphia area, and conducted services in the Hannum home on Concord Road and elsewhere.
John Hannum (d. 1730) was a successful farmer who had been Township Constable in 1690, and who later opened the Buck Tavern at his home. In 1702, he and Margery donated one acre off the northwest corner of their hundred acre-property for St. John’s church. A plaque in the middle of what is now the cemetery shows where the first church, a 24′ x 36′ log building, stood. A brick addition was built onto the Log Church in 1769, and the log was replaced by stone in 1790. The present Greek Revival church building was erected in 1844.
The Reverend Evan Evans, first Rector of Saint John’s, traveled to England in 1707, and returned the same year with a pewter Holy Communion Service, a gift from Queen Anne to the parish. In addition to the Hannum name, other early family names in the records of Saint John’s are Brinton, Bullock, Faucett, Gest, Green, Nayle, Palmer, Pierce, Pyle, Sharpless, Tyson, and Willits.
It is notable that church records show that through the years donors to Saint John’s included not only church members, but members of Concord Friends Meeting (1686) and of the Catholic mission station at Ivy Mills (1729), the first parish in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Thus members of all three faiths, living and working within three miles of each other, brought to reality Penn’s dream of a harmonious, prosperous community based on religious toleration along with liberty, justice, and equal opportunity. (4)
Saint Thomas the Apostle at Ivy Mills Catholic Parish
#140 on Concord Township’s Historic Resources Inventory
109 Ivy Mills Road
In seventeenth century Europe religious strife was common. Dissenters from established churches were routinely subjected to punishments ranging from fines and imprisonment to the death penalty. England was no different: the established Church of England held the favored position and sought to bring everyone into its fold. Members of other religious groups escaped such harsh measures by emigrating. The Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock first fled to Holland. Puritans endured the hard voyage to the Massachusetts Bay colony, not to champion religious toleration, but to demonstrate that they could “purify” the Church of England in which they technically remained. Others found refuge in small enclaves on the Continent, or tried to stay out of harm’s way by staying silent.
William Penn, a member of the dissenting Society of Friends, had a different idea. Penn came to realize that the best way to show that a policy of religious toleration could result in a just and flourishing society was to establish a colony dedicated to that ideal. Granted the territory of Pennsylvania by English King Charles II in 1681, Penn began his “Holy Experiment.” He sought to apply his ideas that all persons should be allowed to worship freely, and that “the government was to be based on justice, liberty and equal opportunity.” (5)
Habits and convictions of centuries are not changed quickly. There were stumbles and misunderstandings in the earliest years. But by 1775, there were at least sixteen different faiths in the colony, serving persons from at least nine different countries, and only 35 percent of Pennsylvanians were English. (6) No other colony was as diverse or as welcoming, and Pennsylvania’s example was vital to the eventual inclusion of the ideal of religious freedom in the US Constitution. (7)
An important part of the story is what happened in Concord Township. Concord was founded in 1683, with “First Purchasers” settling on “plantations” ranging from 100 to 500 acres. Concord Friends Meeting was established in 1686, from a group that met first at Chichester. In 1702, Saint John’s Concord, Episcopal was founded. Meeting minutes and other sources tell the story of a thriving, harmonious community of farmers, millers, and merchants.
In 1729, Thomas and Elizabeth Willcox established a paper mill just downstream from the Newlin Mill on the West Branch of Chester Creek. Catholics, they opened their home as a regular stop for Jesuit priests from Maryland going to Philadelphia to minister to Catholics there. Because it was the first stop in what later became the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, that small community was its first parish.
Evidence shows that Willcox built a flourishing paper business, and became a respected member of the community in a way that would have been impossible in England or even New England, where lack of religious toleration would have excluded him from such an opportunity. The mission station at Ivy Mills served the parish until 1856, when the (now) old church of Saint Thomas the Apostle parish of Chester Heights was completed.(8)
Reviewed January 2022
1 Edwin B. Bronner, The Quakers: A Brief Account of Their
Influence on Pennsylvania (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania Historical
Association, 1986), 21.
2 Quoted in Bronner, 30-31.
3 Two-hundred and twenty-fifth Anniversary of Concord
Monthly Meeting of Friends (Concordville: [Concord Monthly
Meeting], 1911), 103-108.
4 Information sources: Henry P. Faucett, “The Start of the
English Church in Chester County” (n.d.) and “History of St.
John’s Church, Concord, PA 1702-1938” (1938); William E.
Hannum, “The Story of St. John’s” (1959); Robert P. Case,
Prosperity and Progress: Concord Township Pennsylvania,
1683-1983 Vol. I (1983)
5 Edwin B. Bronner, The Quakers: A Brief Account of Their
Influence on Pennsylvania (1986), 21.
6 Sally Schwartz, “A Mixed Multitude:” The Struggle for
Toleration in Colonial Pennsylvania (1987), 1-3.
7 J. William Frost, A Perfect Freedom: Religious Liberty in
Pennsylvania (1990), 1-3.
8 See Robert P. Case, Concord Township Pennsylvania,
1683-1983 Vol. I (1983) and Robert P. Case & Virginia M.
DeNenno, Concord Township Pennsylvania Vol. II (1998).