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Promise and Challenge of Religious Freedom

The significance of religious freedom in the founding of Pennsylvania can best be understood through an examination of the Jewish Petition to the Dutch West India Company, William Penn’s Charter of Privileges, Address to the Inhabitants of Philadelphia, and correspondence documenting the Philadelphia Bible Riots.

The Philadelphia area was home to several different Native American tribes and European settlers prior to William Penn’s arrival in 1681. A small Portuguese Jewish community living in the Dutch colony of the Pernambuco (in modern-day Brazil) petitioned the Dutch government in 1655 to allow more Portuguese Jews to settle in the area (modern-day Philadelphia). The petition predates William Penn’s Charter of Privileges (Charter of Liberties) that serves as the touchstone of religious freedom in Pennsylvania.

Penn’s Charter is one of the earliest documents to recognize the importance of a free conscious. Unfortunately, Penn’s vision was superseded by fears of war and prejudice during the American Revolution. 

The Revolutionary War sparked fear in the minds and hearts of many Philadelphians who questioned the commitment of prominent Quakers that did not take up arms against the British. The Address to the Inhabitants of Pennsylvania illustrates the hardship that Quakers underwent in practicing and living their faith as the war raged.

Like the Quakers, newly arriving immigrants groups who practiced their Roman Catholic faith were attacked throughout the city in the mid-nineteenth century. Volunteer organizations around the city attempted to protect the people, the churches, and the right of religious freedom as William Penn intended in 1701.


17th century

18th century

19th century

Ethnic history

Government and civics




Big Ideas

Pennsylvania History

US History

Essential Questions

  • How does continuity and change within Pennsylvania history influence your community today?

  • How has social disagreement and collaboration been beneficial to American society?


  • Compare patterns of continuity and change over time, applying to religious freedom.

  • Contrast the role groups and individuals from Pennsylvania played in the social, political, and cultural development of religious freedom in the U.S.

  • Interpret the complexities of religious freedom in times of war and domestic strife.


  • Analyze primary sources for accuracy and bias in the study of religious freedom in the history of Pennsylvania.

  • Apply the theme of continuity and change to the struggle for religious freedom in the history of Pennsylvania.

  • Identify the historical figures, organizations, and events that shaped the struggle for religious freedom in Pennsylvania.

Background Material for Teacher

The unit and lesson plan are a part of Preserving American Freedom, which presents and interprets fifty of the treasured documents within the vast catalog of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. In this project, documents are digitized with transcriptions and annotations, as well as with other use- friendly elements, that will help both teachers and students to better understand the materials in the lesson.

The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia has several essays on various people, events, and organizations that played a role in the history of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the United States.

HSP is home to the Papers of Penn Family.  Its finding aid also may provide some background.

End of Unit Assessment

A variety of traditional assessment styles can be applied to these readings. Traditional assessments can include a variety of quizzes (multiple choice or fill in), an essay, or a short paper highlighting all three documents. Primary sources may also be incorporated into a larger paper, student presentation, or class discussion led by student based questions. An alternative for those students who are unfamiliar with primary sources may be assessing notes taken during the reading to be used later as an open-notebook quiz.

To fulfill writing core standard  CC.8.6.11-12.A, one option could be to have students imagine that William Penn was alive during the Revolutionary War and the Kensington riots. Using evidence from documents in the unit, write a newspaper editorial from the viewpoint of William Penn responding to either the detainment of the Quakers or the riots of 1844.


Plans in this Unit

The Promise and Challenge of Religious Freedom, 1655 - 1844

Grade Level

High School

Standards/Eligible Content







PA Core Standards




The Freedom Teacher Fellow was funded through a Bank of America grant for the digital history project Preserving American Freedom.

About the Author

This unit was created by David Reader, HSP's Freedom Teacher Fellow in the summer of 2012.  David is a social studies teacher at Camden Catholic High School.


Unit Plan

William Penn's Charter of Privileges

Unit Plan

Exploring Nativism in Pennsylvania

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