Saints and Sinners – Wednesday 14th October

William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, 1718

Acts 27.1-26 (New International Version)

When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment. We boarded a ship from Adramyttium about to sail for ports along the coast of the province of Asia, and we put out to sea. Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with us.

The next day we landed at Sidon; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs. From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us. When we had sailed across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board. We made slow headway for many days and had difficulty arriving off Cnidus. When the wind did not allow us to hold our course, we sailed to the lee of Crete, opposite Salmone. We moved along the coast with difficulty and came to a place called Fair Havens, near the town of Lasea.

Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Day of Atonement. So Paul warned them, ‘Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.’ But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. Since the harbour was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbour in Crete, facing both south-west and north-west.

When a gentle south wind began to blow, they saw their opportunity; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the ‘North-Easter’, swept down from the island. The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure, so the men hoisted it aboard. Then they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Because they were afraid they would run aground on the sand-bars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.

After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: ‘Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, “Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.” So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.’


Today we remember the life William Penn, an early member of the Religious Society of Friends in England (the Quakers), and founder of the first colony of Pennsylvania.

William was born in London into a wealthy and educated naval family in the mid 17th Century. He was expelled from Oxford University shortly after he began because he refused to attend compulsory Church of England services, as it was around this time that time that Penn heard the Quaker missionary, Thomas Loe, speak and Penn was clearly impressed by him.

During his life William’s beliefs led to him being in trouble with the law, and spending time in jail. During one of his trials Penn’s skilled arguments led to the outcome that juries should have the right to come to independent decisions. This set a precedent which is still in force today and is, perhaps, one of Penn’s greatest legacies.

In 1682 Penn travelled to America, and in the two years he was there founded a colony where the Quaker ideals of religious freedom, equality and democracy could be explored and practiced safely. This colony later became what is now known as the state of Pennsylvania and much of Penn’s work became influential in the drawing up of the American constitution nearly a century later.

On his return to England Penn also worked hard to bring about religious freedom, the culmination of which was the ‘Act of Toleration’ which enabled Quaker and all other religious groups, other than the state church, to worship openly.

However, the later years of Penn’s life were difficult. He had made poor judgements in selecting his staff and successors in America, with many proving untrustworthy. Although Penn returned to America briefly, he became discouraged by what he referred to as his ‘Holy Experiment’ and had to return to England to sort out his difficult financial affairs. After a prolonged period of ill-health, William Penn died in 1718 and was buried in the ground of Jordans Meeting House in Buckinghamshire.

In our reading this morning we heard of Paul’s travels by boat, like Penn setting out to new lands and new places. Also like Paul, Penn faced persecution and opposition, even imprisonment, for what he believed in.

As a Pharisee before his conversion, the apostle Paul had been part of the powerful religious system and, like Jesus before him, Paul, like Penn, was not afraid to challenge the system. Paul and Penn undertook some incredible work and did some amazing things.

Now, with my limited knowledge of his life, I might be doing Penn a disservice, and I apologise if I do, but as I read his story I was struck by the fact that although understandably disillusioned with the established church Penn’s life seemed to become more and more focussed on his aims and goals (however good they were), and doing things his way, and in his strength. But, as I reflected on the life of Paul, I was struck by the fact that although Paul had similar reasons, if not stronger, for holding ‘religion’ to account, throughout his ministry his motivation remains his relationship with Jesus.

Penn undoubtedly had just cause to rebel against much of the enforced power of the established church. There are times when you and I can, and must, hold the fallible human religious and political structures to account. As we rightly call misuse of power to account we must, I believe, seek to ensure that we centre this on our relationship with Jesus, Jesus who is perfect justice, mercy and love.

It is as we do so that we will often recognise that the change we desire needs to begin within us first. It is as we do so that we will begin to seek recognise and seek God’s justice and his loving boundaries, rather than trying to do so in our own way and in our own strength.

And it is as we do so that we and others will know God’s perfect and life-giving freedom, which seeks to bring life, justice and freedom to all. It is a freedom with which, unlike religion and structures, we can and will never become disillusioned.

Although, at times it would appear that Penn lost sight of his Jesus relationship, and although you and I do too, Penn’s story and particularly his legal reforms remind us that God’s grace is at work in and through our human weaknesses.

Steve Beck
Associate Hub Leader
(North East Hub)