History Trivia #6: William Penn Slandered: Jesuit and Deceased?

I’m reading an article, A Vindication of William Penn by Philip Ford, and Other Papers Relating to the Settlement of Pennsylvania by Frederick Stone. William Penn spent much of his life having religious debates and made many enemies. The article says he was slandered (I assume they mean libeled) by enemies in England shortly after he sailed for America in 1682, hence the need for vindication by his agent Philip Ford. The two chief slanders were that he was A) dead and B) Catholic. When Penn finally heard these claims, he seems to have found them equally annoying. To quote the article:

After [Penn] had sailed, many idle rumors, prejudicial to his character as a man and detrimental to his interest, were circulated. It must have been about this time that a scurrilous pamphlet appeared, entitled The History of William Pen’s Conversion from a Gentleman to a Quaker. Or a Stop to the Call of the Unconverted. To the poor, trapan’d, simple deluded People in Pennsylvania: Dated the 15th. Day of the Month Abib, in the first Hegira or flight of the Prophet Pen to his Sylvania.  [Stone 176]

It was also reported that he was dead, and that he had died professing faith in the Church of Rome. These stories gained so wide a circulation that his agent published the following in the London Gazette of January 15, 1682-3,

Whereas there is a Report spread abroad of the Death of William Pen, Esq., Proprietary of Pensilvania, to the great prejudice of his Affiars; These are to give Notice, That there is no manner of ground for it, the last Ship that came from thence having brought letters from him, which left him in perfect health, as any Person may be further satisfied by Mr. Philip Ford in Bow-Lane London.

When Penn heard the rumors, he wrote,

“Some persons have had so little wit, and so much malice, as to report my death, and to mend matters, dead a Jesuit, too. One might have reasonably hoped, that his distance like death would have been a protection against spite and envy… However, to the great sorrow and shame of the inventors, I am still alive, and no Jesuit, and I thank God very well.”[Stone 177]

Here are my thoughts.

First, to add some context to the claims of Penn’s Catholicism, one of the prime tensions in English life from roughly the founding of the Church of England in the 1530s through the Glorious Revolution in the 1680s was whether England would be Catholic or Protestant. The reigning religion always feared that the other was conspiring to steal the throne, so both tended to preemptively abuse the other. Meanwhile, many Protestants felt the legally-sanctioned Protestant church, the Church of England, was still too Catholic. One group of radical Protestants, the Quakers, were as un-Catholic as possible. But their radical behavior was such a headache that many mainstream Protestants honestly believed Quakers were secret Catholics (i.e., traitors). Laws designed to persecute Catholics were often used to persecute Quakers. William Penn was a Quaker who worked hard to convince people that Quakers weren’t Catholic, so calling him a Catholic was a particularly personal attack.

Second, I like how absurdly petty, almost Count Olaf-esque, it is to start a rumor that your opponent is dead (I suppose it’s more likely to go unchallenged if your opponent just set out to sea in the age of sail). I swear I’ve heard several cases of this tactic used before, but the only instance I can recall was from an episode of Drunk History about the Election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (see it here). As described in the episode, candidate Jefferson told the press that Adams was a hermaphrodite. In response, candidate Adams told the press that Jefferson was dead.

Third, I believe I’ve said before that I enjoy how old pamphlets often had multi-clause or even multi-sentence titles. I especially enjoy how the extra length was often used to add as many insults as possible. And it’s a fun reminder that spelling used to be a contact sport.

Fourth, the title of the first pamphlet taught me three new words: trapan, Abib, and Hegira.

Trapan, as a verb, means to entice or trap. I assumed it had something to do with trepanning, an old medical procedure that involved drilling a hole in someone’s skull, which would make “trapan’d” a good insult if you wanted to call someone brain-damaged. However, I believe the two are unrelated.

Abib was the original name of the first month of the Jewish ecclesiastical year, corresponding nearly to the Gregorian April. It’s use here is a little surprising. No doubt Christian scholars have always studied Judaism. However, I assumed 17th century English Christians would have considered this a niche intellectual interest, and that the reading public in that era was at best dismissive towards Jewish customs. Yet here a pamphleteer used the Jewish calendar.

Hegira* was even more surprising. Hegira in Arabic means migration or departure, and it usually refers to a particular event in Islamic history when Muhammad fled Mecca for Medina in 622. Muslims consider this the start of the Islamic calendar. I was surprised that 17th century English audiences were so familiar with Muslim history. Then I read further into the word, and I discovered “By the mid-18th century, English speakers were using hegira for other journeys, too-especially arduous ones.” So perhaps this pamphlet was an early instance of using Hegira in the generic sense of a tough journey. But then I remembered the end of the title, “-or flight of the Prophet Pen to his Sylvania**”. That sounds like a clear reference to the original meaning, Prophet Muhammad fleeing to Medina, which again raises the idea that English religious debates in the 1600s used Muslim historical references.

Between Abib and Hegira, I’m led to believe that it was fashionable among intellectuals of time to reference ideas from other Abrahamic faiths. But was this only true when the goal was to insult the subject? Did authors reference non-Abrahamic religions?

*The word has several English spellings now, such as Hijra, but Hegira was the original translation from Arabic to Medieval Latin.

**I don’t know whether the author was aware, but calling Pennsylvania “his Sylvania” works as yet another insult. William Penn didn’t want to call his new province Pennsylvania, but King Charles II insisted, claiming that it honored Penn’s father, also named William Penn. The younger Penn was annoyed at the criticisms he received when people assumed he arrogantly named the province after himself.

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