William Penn Is Making a comeback — And Quakers Aren’t Going to Like It

[Note: the headline above needs some clarification: actually it’s liberal Quakers who aren’t likely to welcome Penn’s comeback; many others may cheer. More on that below.]

May I have your attention, liberal Quakers? The effort among some of you to expunge William Penn from our Friendly pantheon because he owned slaves has in many  ways been a big success: his name has been scrubbed from the rooms, building & events you frequent; his writings downplayed or ignored, and the search for replacement paragons, and even a replacement history, is underway.

But if one were to look beyond the increasingly narrowed liberal horizon, one might catch sight of a novel phenomenon: beyond it, especially in (of all places) the former Quaker stronghold of Pennsylvania: William Penn is being exhumed, dusted off, and readied for a comeback.

In fact, the comeback tour is underway, and would be close to center stage in the Keystone State, but for the vagaries of the recent election. But that, as we shall see, might turn out to have been merely a bump in the road.

The new William Penn is not the onetime venerable pillar of liberal Quakerism. Rather, he’s meant to be the mascot, the icon, indeed the (reinterpreted) prophet of the almost-risen land of CNP, that is, Christian Nationalist Pennsylvania. (And then America. And maybe the world.)

Yes, liberal Friends, if you don’t want William Penn anymore, there are others, such as Doug Mastriano & Co., who do.

[Doug Mastriano was the Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor in the 2022 election. He lost to Josh Shapiro by fourteen-plus percent. A wide margin, indeed; but that is not the end of the story.]

Even more, this new Penn is being promoted by a crusader who was also running this fall, but not on the ballot, and hence was not defeated.

Abby Abildness, pointing the way — Penn’s way.

Permit me to introduce you to Mrs. Abby Abildness, the Joshua to this new Pennsylvania Moses.

Abby Abildness lives near Hershey, PA, and has worked at the Hershey-Penn State Medical Center. She now heads a freelance ministry she calls Healing Tree International (HTI).

Abildness believes in prayer, healing prayer, and says she knows of many apparently miraculous prayer-induced healings. Yet HTI also overlaps with her political beliefs, which in recent years have focused on two figures: Donald Trump, and Doug Mastriano.

Abby Abildness interviews Doug Mastriano, and they talked at length about Penn and his “Sacred Challenge” for the “Seed of a Nation.”

She also believes in William Penn. In a 2018 podcast, she told of a 2008 visit to the Pennsylvania state capitol, when a woman artist “took me around to see all the art [40-plus murals] and there’s over 60 scriptures on the walls of the capital mixed in with this art.”

These murals, by a woman artist, Violet Oakley (1874-1961) depict  in a sumptuous, pre-raphaelite/decadent style, the official story of William Penn’s religious conversion and founding of the Pennsylvania colony, as “the seed of a nation.” It was to be an example for peace and religious liberty for all the other nations; and the murals are accompanied by many Bible quotations.

“And as she showed me that, ” Abildness said, “I started to realize there’s revelation. It’s hidden in plain sight. The legislators don’t realize it, the people working at the capitol don’t realize it.

But there’s a message on the walls, and so I started taking people on tours. I’m like, ‘Look at what’s here on these walls,’ you know, just going around.

And it probably culminated just a just a few years ago when a legislator said, ‘Give us a tour,’ and so I took the legislators on the tour of the capital. And it was stunning. Even though they worked there, they didn’t know the message on the walls. . . . I know that we carry same belief that that is available, and that we should engage that and see what’s going to change in our nation through that.” (From areyoureal.org, Podcast #9, 2018)

She’s been repeating what she calls “Penn’s Sacred Challenge” from the murals to all and sundry, and organizing prayer circles with “influencers” ever since. ” In her view, Penn’s vision was for Pennsylvania to be a biblically-based, utopian model for peace and religious liberty for all the other nations. This was a divine calling, which Abildness has taken up.

Indeed, her two living political favorites fit seamlessly under Penn’s broadbrim in her mission to the world. (Trump may not yet be aware of this destiny, but Mastriano is.)

On its website, HTI claims to be the hub of a prayer-and-influence network with centers in 88 countries, and says

Healing Tree International is committed to bringing global solutions to heal and restore the God-ordained destiny of people and nations in collaboration with affiliate networks.

These “global” claims may be more aspirational than actual. The CauseIQ.com nonprofit directory description for HTI lists a 2021 budget of $228,000, supporting a staff of one, and a rather more modest purpose, “To provide mission trips and ministry.”

What kind of ministry trips? I only found mention of one, in a 2021 fund appeal, but it was indeed a memorable journey for her, to Brazil:

World Prayer Network weekly briefings and prayers led to a trip to Brazil to meet Latin American Coalition leaders and Brazilian President Bolsonaro (who had to wear a bullet proof vest to speak to us.) He was strengthened in his resolve to lead his nation to God’s destiny for them. He let us know he desperately needs our prayers and support to survive persecution and assassination attempts. This was a stark reminder to believers about the need to support godly government leaders in the intense battle for faith.

[Bolsonaro, known for far-right policies including plunder of the Amazon rainforest, was defeated in an October 30 2022 presidential election. As of November 21, however, he had not conceded defeat, and some of his followers have mounted repeated road blockades and called for the Brazilian army to stage a coup to keep Bolsonaro in power after his term expires at the end of December.]

In December 2020, Abildness also led what’s called a Jericho March around the state capitol in Harrisburg, protesting Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. Through a bullhorn, she promised the many marchers that God had announced He would intervene decisively when they finished, to overturn the outcome.

That didn’t happen, though, and the Jericho Marches moved on to the U. S. Capitol at the beginning of January, with results familiar to all.

While Abildness was all in for Mastriano’s race for Pennsylvania governor, she is still active with other groups. She repeats her Penn Sacred Challenge everywhere, as a forecast of the “God-ordained destiny” of a utopian network of theocratic states she sees ready to emerge, with Philadelphia serving them as something between Jerusalem and the Vatican.

Moreover, the “religious liberty” there, which she says Penn pioneered, has been revised into the kind of “religious liberty” of the Dobbs decision, the “Don’t say gay” bills, the guns everywhere laws, anti-vaxxerism and targeting trans folk and same sex marriage. For starters.

Abildness has turned her oracle into a formal-looking proclamation, with many “Whereases”, and the HTI website solicits signatures on it.

Last July, she organized a press conference/rally to present the proclamation at the State capitol, and Mastriano was on hand. She also had aYouTube interview with him which likewise features it: Mastriano knew the plan and most of its key Penn quotes.

Mastriano truculently (but unconvincingly) rejects the “Christian nationalist” label. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that he “has said he does not identify as a Christian nationalist, telling the New Yorker last year, “Is this a term you fabricated? What does it mean and where have I indicated that I am a Christian Nationalist?”

Yet to Philip S. Gorski, a sociologist at Yale and coauthor of The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy, Mastriano is perhaps the “most purely distilled version of a Christian nationalist politician I’ve run across. . . . It’s really quite radical stuff,” Gorski said. “This is increasingly people who are using metaphors of warfare and violence and, you know, in some cases are readying themselves to engage in actual violence for the sake of their political and religious visions.”

After Mastriano’s landslide defeat in November 2022 (and Trump’s ongoing legal travails), will Abildness now reconsider her sacred challenge?

I doubt it. There will be more elections, Trump is already running in the next one, and the Christiam nationalist movement in Pennsylvania, despite midterm setbacks, has by no means gone away. For instance, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported last year that Pennsylvania had 23 active militia groups, among the most of any state, plus two units of the Ku Klux Klan.

Further, after 340 years, there’s still no sell-by date  on Penn. He could be deployed indefinitely as their mascot and poster boy (elder?).

In Penn’s day, and for many generations afterward, his writings stood as a vigorous, clear, anti-theocratic religious witness; but in this new garb, they include many quotes which can be Orwellized into pro-theocracy memes.

Besides, Mastriano (among others) insisted, at a QAnon-friendly “Patriots Arise” conference in Gettysburg, according to the New York Times,  “The separation of church and state was a ‘myth’ . . . . ‘In November (2022) we are going to take our state back, my God will make it so.’” (By the way, Abby Abildness also spoke at the same event.)

Patriots Arise, the Communist Democrats are here and must be overthrown. Mastriano is second from left in the top row of speakers, Abildness is third from left in the bottom row.

Allen & Francine Fosdick, its hosts, describe the origin of their QAnon-friendly “Patriots Arise” events this way:

Allen and Francine founded Up Front in The Prophetic Radio back in 2008 with a mission to bring forth truth to all realms of Government, Business, Education, Family, Wellness and so much more.. . .

Then, on November 3rd 2020, the unthinkable happened, the election was stolen! Now the Democratic/Communist Party USA has appointed a 77-year old dementia-addled white collar criminal, Joe Biden, to pick up where Hussein Obama left off.

Believe it or not, Nov. 3rd was about one thing and one thing only: Communism vs free market capitalism and freedom and liberty for all Americans.

Was there a plot all along to bring down America and steal it’s sovereignty and bring us to the Great Reset ( NWO)? Absolutely!”

“Great reset” and “NWO” (New World Order) are now QAnon-associated phrases. Such a repackaged rightwing Penn will likely be music to the ears of many in the evangelical “Friends churches”, which tend to be of a similar cultural/political outlook. (If they have the U.S. flag and the so-called “Christian” flag flying outside— or often inside— that’s a tell.)

But just in the past few weeks, there’s been a new wrinkle: a post-election schism has erupted among the charismatic/prophetic “constituency,” over a declaration by some prominent “prophets” which strongly disavows the widespread talk and “prophesies” of violence and civil war to establish this “new reformation” that has echoed across the movement since at least Trump’s 2020 defeat:

WE REJECT as unbiblical the belief that America is a uniquely chosen nation, similar to Old Testament Israel being the chosen nation of God. . .

WE ALSO RECOGNIZE that there is a dangerous and unhealthy form of “Christian nationalism,” one that speaks of a potential Christian uprising against the government or hints at the use of force to advance God’s kingdom.

WE CATEGORICALLY AND UNEQUIVOCALLY DENY any affiliation with or connection to that form of Christian nationalism.

Because WE BELIEVE that God made one human race expressed through different ethnicities and races, all of which deserve dignity and respect as His image bearers, WE REJECT all ideologies and movements claiming ethnic or racial superiority.

WE DENOUNCE calls to violent, armed resistance in the name of Christian nationalism or as an alleged means of advancing the cause of the gospel.

WE REJECT the triumphalist, top-down, take-over of society as part of a so-called “dominion mandate,” also noting that we do not know of any major Christian movement that espouses such a top-down, take-over mentality.

Hundreds of evangelists and self-described seers have signed on to this anti-violence statement; but many others have not. Among the several hundred signers listed on its website, I found neither Abildness nor Mastriano’s name.

{There’s more. Read it all here.)

But maybe they’ll, um, see the light. After all, In their video interview, Mastriano quotes Penn’s counsel to Abildness, “Let us see what love can do.”

I wonder if the liberal Quaker Penn banishers will give a hoot about any of this. They ought to: in Penn there are 340 years worth of —in plain worldly language— overwhelmingly positive branding for Quakers and the liberating aspects of our testimonies.

Christian nationalists now want to turn him and them  into their opposite.  Doesn’t that merit at least a shrug? A Tik-Tok video? Or maybe something more serious, something on behalf of what used to be called the “Reputation of truth.”

We can’t stop Abildness, Mastriano & their ilk from distributing their Penn perversion; free speech is still a thing. But liberal Friends could stand up and answer them, for ourselves and our heritage.

And don’t even think this is a plea for Penn to be whitewashed. I look at it as restorative justice. Penn had his faults; but a theocrat he never ever was. An effective rebuttal can tell the truth about Penn’s slaveowning, and its evil. Then tell the rest of his story, which includes a whole lot more, most of which is liberating at least in potential. (Abildness is right about the reach of that potential, if dangerously wrong as to what it’s really about.

That potential, if imperfect and halting at the beginning, soon bore real fruit early. For instance, Pennsylvania in 1780 was the first among the new United States to abolish slavery within its borders. Before that, Penn had spent decades defending it from royal takeover attempts, which would have brought in an official religion as oppressive as the theocracy Mastriano & Co. (including their allies on the Supreme Court) are peddling.

In sum, they would take what Penn, however imperfectly, wanted to pull up the “seed of a nation” that strove to do what was just and wise, and replace it with a toxic invasive weed.

It’s not just that Penn deserves better. We, and our children do too.


10 thoughts on “William Penn Is Making a comeback — And Quakers Aren’t Going to Like It”

  1. Meanwhile, those who purged William Penn are likely to own slaves TODAY, and benefit directly from Black African slave labor. Every electric vehicle drips the blood of Black African child slaves from its battery. Every cellphone and computer has the mangled flesh of Black African child slaves, and a war that has so far killed SEVEN MILLION people behind it.

    Worse, every share of stock in my pension funds means I own Ford, Tesla, Samsung, Apple, HP, Dell, Amazon, etc. and I depend for my retirement on slave labor.

    Every Quaker pension fund, and funds administered by Friends Fiduciary, and endowment funds and restricted gift at Quaker institutions, schools, and colleges depend upon Black African slave labor.

    I refuse to attend any so-called “anti-racist” training sponsored by Quakers unless they spend time working on the slaveholdings of Quakers TODAY.

    As for Penn? In comparison, he comes out smelling pretty good.

    1. Are the “godly patriots” going to do away with the military since William Penn was a pacifist? Somehow I am sure they will find a way around that.

  2. Chuck,
    Glad you are taking up the cause of Penn’s reputation. As to the debacle of “call out” culture, please see Ryan Grims’ article in The Intercept in June, 2022. As to the moral assessment, people who persist in using fossil fuels are causing more lasting harm than those who relied on slaves to do their bidding. God help us if we are to be judged by our own descendants.

    1. Hi Keith, I read, excerpted & wrote about Ryan Grim’s fine piece. I hope his work made as much impact on some others as it did on me.

  3. https://www.inquirer.com/philly/opinion/inquirer/20101220_Slavery_stained_some_unlikely_founders__too.html

    “To some degree, Penn recognized the injustice of slavery. At one point, he proposed that slaves in Pennsylvania be freed after a certain period of bondage. He suggested the creation of a township, called Freetown, where they could live, but the Pennsylvania Assembly rejected the idea. In an early will, Penn freed his slaves upon his death,”

    1. Hmmm. The early will, and its manumission provision, is mentioned in Murphy’s Penn bio. A later revision is also identified, from which the provision was deleted. What about his final will? No mention of that in Murphy. Why was manumission left out of the revised will? I discount the idea that Penn had become a big supporter of slavery. Rather, I think it had more to do with Penn’s debts, which increased & became more intractable as the years passed. As “property,” the enslaved workers could well have been seen as items to be involved in settling debts after death. That was often the case with estates in those days, whatever we think of that now.

    2. Manumission was in an early will, but removed from a later one, and I don’t know if it was in or out if his final will. Penn died insolvent (aka bankrupt), and his widow Hannah sorted out the estate. I’ve not seen details of it.

  4. I hope that Abildness and company have read “No Cross, No Crown”.
    I am always saddened when I hear such nationalistic talk by the (so called) Christian right. Not so much should they consider “What Would Jesus Do” (WWJD) as “What DID Jesus Do ” (WDJD) ?

  5. We Quakers could join with the Baptist Joint Committee to defend the first meaning of religious liberty. They were on Capitol Hill before Quakers were, defending freedom of religion as freedom from being told by anyone how to worship god.

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