Pennsylvania became the 2nd State to join the Union, DECEMBER 12, 1787. The Continental Congress had met there, the Declaration of Independence was signed there, and the Liberty Bell was rung there. The Continental Army spent the freezing winter of 1777 at Valley Forge there. In 1787, the Constitution was written there, and from 1790-1800, the United States Capitol was there.
Pennsylvania was originally given by King Charles II in 1682 to William Penn, the Quaker dissenter who was son of the famous Admiral Sir William Penn. William Penn considered Pennsylvania a “Holy Experiment” where Christians of different denominations would live together.
Contrary to most other colonies which permitted only one denomination of Christians, Pennsylvania allowed any person who acknowledged “one Almighty God” to “fully enjoy his or her Christian Liberty,” as written in the colony’s first legislative act, The Great Law of Pennsylvania, December 7, 1682:
“No person . . . who shall confess and acknowledge one Almighty God to be the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World . . . shall in any case be molested or prejudiced for his, or her Conscientious persuasion or practice . . . but shall freely and fully enjoy his or her Christian Liberty without any interruption.”
The oldest church in Pennsylvania is Old Swedes’ Gloria Dei Church, begun by Lutheran missionary Johannes Campanius in 1646 among Swedish and Finnish settlers. Between 1700 and 1750, Britain’s laws against dissenters drove from Scotland and Ireland some 200,000 Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, most of whom settled in Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley and the Western Pennsylvania counties of Lehigh, Bucks and Lancaster. In 1706, the first meeting of Presbyterian leaders in America was held in Philadelphia by Rev. Francis Makemie. Beginning in 1720, German and Swiss settlers known as New Baptists, or Dunkers, began arriving in Pennsylvania, along with Anabaptists, Mennonites and Amish.
These were followed by Schwenkfelders, from the Germany’s Rhine Valley, Alsatia, Suabia, Saxony, and the Palatinate. Between 1730 and 1740, Lutheran Reformed Congregations were formed. In 1731, the first English speaking Catholic church in the world since England’s Reformation two centuries earlier was St. Joseph’s, founded in Philadelphia by 22 Irish and 15 Germans. In 1739, German Moravians, or Church of the Brethren, settled Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, having previously been in Georgia, and worked with Native American tribes.
In 1740, several Jewish families organized Pennsylvania’s first congregation, Mikveh Israel, building their first Sephardic synagogue in 1782. The first Ashkenazic Synagogue, Rodeph Shalom, was built in 1795.
On December 12, 1747, in response to French and Spanish privateers raiding America’s coast, Ben Franklin published a Proclamation for a General Fast in the Pennsylvania Gazette, approved by Pennsylvania’s Colonial Council:
“As the calamities of a bloody war, in which our nation is now engaged, seem every year more nearly to approach us . . . we have, therefore, thought fit . . . to appoint . . . a Day of Fasting & Prayer . . . that Almighty God would mercifully interpose and still the rage of war among the nations & put a stop to the effusion of Christian blood.”
Just over two months after the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin, President of the Pennsylvania’s Constitutional Convention, signed the State’s first Constitution, September 28, 1776. Considered “the most radically democratic Frame of Government that the world had ever seen,” it stated in Chapter 2, Section 10:
“Each member of the legislature, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration: ‘I do believe in one God, the Creator and Governour of the Universe, the Rewarder of the good and Punisher of the wicked, and I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine Inspiration.’”
In 1824, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, in Updegraph vs. Commonwealth, acknowledged a 1700 law still in force which imposed a penalty upon any who “willfully, premeditatedly and despitefully blaspheme, or speak lightly or profanely of Almighty God, Christ Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or the Scriptures of Truth.”
Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn had written to Czar Peter the Great of Russia, July 2, 1698, as Peter had visited Penn in England ten years earlier:
“Know, great Czar . . . ’tis in this kingdom of England that God has visited and touched the hearts of a people, above forty years ago, by the holy light and grace of his Son and our Saviour Jesus Christ . . . to worship God, who is a Spirit, in and by his own Spirit . . . If thou wouldst rule well, thou must rule for God; and to do that, thou must be ruled by Him.”
The Moral Liberal contributing editor, William J. Federer, is the bestselling author of “Backfired: A Nation Born for Religious Tolerance no Longer Tolerates Religion,” and numerous other books. A frequent radio and television guest, his daily American Minute is broadcast nationally via radio, television, and Internet. Check out all of Bill’s books here.
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