Dates like July 8th, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was first read out loud to the people of Philadelphia (notice it took a few days for the 56 signers to share their work with the people). Again in September of 1787, when our ever-changing Constitution was pasted, giving us the laws that still rule our land—the longest surviving Constitution in history.
It is often thought the Liberty Bell was cast for the Declaration of Independence. Makes sense; Liberty…Independence. But the reality is that the bell had already been hanging over Independence Hall (originally Pennsylvania State House) since 1751, some twenty-five years before it rang out in 1776. Naturally, this is not known as the “prophetic bell”…admittedly, it would be a cooler name. So what Liberty was being proclaimed to all the inhabitants from this bell all those years?
The story begins, as they often do, in the Tower of London (I kid, what a horrible start to any story). A young, devoted Christian named William Penn was locked in the most infamous prison in the world for participating in Christian activities in 1670. He was the son of an Admiral, whose personal friend was King Charles II. While William was in prison, his father died. Because his son was in prison and showed no sign of giving up his faith, Admiral Penn made arrangements with the king for his son. William was given a tract of land in the New World as his inheritance.
William specifically asked for this tract of land to be used as a refuge for religious freedom for all creeds. You see, he had spent over 10 years in and out of prison for proclaiming the Gospel he found in God’s word to people all over London. He understood what it was like to be muzzled for the Truth. He wanted the freedom to worship as he saw fit.
Therefore, Penn was on a ship in 1681 towards the New World. The tract of land given to William is what we know today as the state of Pennsylvania (Penn-after his father and Sylvania- “wooded land”).
As the son of the acclaimed Admiral and nobleman, William was very well educated and diplomatic. Upon arrival to the new world in 1682, he formed Philadelphia and paid for the land to the local Native Americans (he even signed the treaty, “I am your loving friend, William Penn.”). But with any new colony, there was a need for a government system to be established. He established the Charter of Privileges in 1701.
The Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges established property rights, religious freedom, and still acknowledged King and Country over the colony. The intent was to also establish how citizens should rule in Pennsylvania. One expert is particularly intriguing as one looks at the argument for “religious freedom” today compared to how it was originally intended to look according to this document:
“No person or persons inhabiting in this province or territory who shall confess and acknowledge our Almigty God and Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World; and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under civil government, shall be in any case molested or prejudiced in his or her person or estate…And that all persons who also profess to believe in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, shall be capable to serve this government in any capacity, both legislatively or executively.”
It would be nearly impossible today to imagine a document with this kind of jargon this would pass at any level of state or federal level. Yet, this was state-level the pre-cursor to the Constitution, in the state where most of America was born. And this was no passing document. It was valid until 1776, when Pennsylvania became a part of a new country, the United States of America.
In fact, this was such an amazing and revolutionary document that to commemorate the Charter’s 50th anniversary in 1751, the Liberty Bell was commissioned to honor the liberty and freedom that was proclaimed in a document written by William Penn. A man who truly understood what it meant to proclaim liberty after being muzzled by a government who did not allow him to preach the Gospel.
So the next time you see a history special debating when the crack came to the bell (scholars all debate when it officially cracked first…but most will agree the big crack we see today is the result of repairing a much smaller crack), think about how one man’s life truly had such a ripple effect on the foundation of America.
William Penn was not there to sign the Declaration of Independence or to give his input into our Constitution. But if George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were our Founding Fathers, then William Penn was our patriarch of America and America’s governing system.
Couple of notes:
I have heard an argument is that the liberty was not for ALL the inhabitants, i.e. women and slaves. Being a woman, I am grateful for the 19th amendment (and if you don’t know what that is, then you shouldn’t be arguing about women’s rights). But for the part of both slavery freedom and women’s rights, one should know that the 19th century abolitionists and 20th century suffragists often cited the Liberty Bell for their cause of freedom for all inhabitants! The truth of what the Bell stood for never changed, but man’s interpretation has.
The full scripture of Leviticus 25:10 has to do with the Year of Jubilee, the 50th year in which all debts were forgiven by the Law. The Liberty Bell commemorates the full story of not only the 50th year of the Charter of Privileges, but that with Christ we have a constant Jubilee with the debt of our sins forgiven.
For the full story of William Penn and his adventures…as well as other Founding Fathers, a good resource is In God We Trust by Stephen McDowell
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