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 Unfortunately, Penn’s vision was superseded by fears of war and prejudice during the American Revolution.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.