By Linda Hart Green
I grew up in a suburb of New Jersey just five miles from center city Philadelphia. At the time, no building could be taller than the top of William Penn’s hat. This was not a law carved in stone like the masonry building beneath it. The 37-foot bronze statue of the founder of the commonwealth stood on top of the grand City Hall, and urban legend said the purpose was to remind all who saw it of the principles of their founder.
These principles were religious freedom, right to a fair trial by jury, freedom from unjust imprisonment, and free elections.
On our way to the city, my father repeated these principles and the urban legend every time we crossed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, named in tribute to another famous personage in our area. We went to the city often for business and for pleasure. We did not plug in headsets and watch our own screens while riding in the car. I heard stories of William Penn and the persecution he received in England for belonging to the Society of Friends (Quakers). William Penn was kicked out of the University of Oxford for not following the dictates of Anglicanism and later charged with blasphemy for championing religious freedom and jailed twice. He received the largest land grant in the New World from the king, naming it Penn’s Woods. When the colony became a state, it was named Pennsylvania and considered itself a commonwealth, owing largely to its founding principles. Citizens were to keep the common good in high regard by looking up at the statue. When a new building, One Liberty Place, eclipsed the hat in 1986, citizens claimed it put a curse on the city’s sports teams.
Because these principles were firmly ingrained in me, I balk when I see them being challenged or violated outright in our time. I reject the influence of outside organizations attempting to impinge on religious freedom, mine and that of others. I feel outrage when elections aren’t free and fair. And even more so when they are free and fair but some try to discredit them. I feel dismay when the common good is not held in highest regard and when others seek to undermine it with self-interest in the guise of common concern.
I looked up in awe at the statue of William Penn on top of City Hall. It said to me, “This is who we are supposed to be. This is how we live together in the community.”
We don’t have a statue of William Penn on Amelia Island. I wish we did.
Linda Hart Green is Pastor Emeritus of Emmanuel Church, Ridgewood, New Jersey, and co-owner of Shady Ladies Art Studios and Gallery in Fernandina Beach. She holds an M.Div. and a Certificate in Pastoral Leadership Development from Princeton Theological Seminary.