History of Philadelphia’s nickname, ‘City of Brotherly Love’

City of Brotherly Love, the favored nickname for the city of Philadelphia, is steeped in history. The name, Philadelphia, which means “brotherly love,” is an ancient name that can be found in the Bible’s New Testament. Late in the 17th century, Philadelphia’s founding father, William Penn, borrowed the name because its emotional meaning so represented his own philosophies and aspirations for his new urban center.

Penn, as a devout follower of the newly established Quaker religion, believed the city, from where his area’s government would stem, needed a solid name, one steeped in biblical history. So, in 1680, the “Quaker King,” as Penn had become known, blessed the settlement with a name taken from the Book of Revelation. Penn was so serious about his choice that he prayed God would find his decision, his “holy experiment,” acceptable at judgment day.

Philadelphia’s namesake is the ancient city of Philadelphia in Asia Minor, once located in Lydia, southeast of Sardis. It has been erroneously reported that Philadelphia means “city” of brotherly love. While the city has been nicknamed the “City of Brotherly Love,” the name, Philadelphia, is actually derived from the Greek words meaning brotherly love or more specifically, philos which means “loving” and adelphos which translates to “brothers”. The word, city, is not part of the derivation.

According to the Bible, Philadelphia so pleased the Lord, He makes special mention of it in Revelation 3:8:

I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name.

Keeping of the name of God was of utmost importance in Penn’s mind; naming Philadelphia after the city honored in the biblical passage would assure others (at least those living at the time) that God was to be honored above all else in this blossoming city.

Penn wanted his new city to exemplify his new religious beliefs. He wanted a place that was free from religious bigotry, an “open door” that would welcome settlers from all persuasions and walks of life, as brothers, no matter what their chosen religion. He wanted a place where fairness would reign, so he started with the local Indians.

Penn was ahead of his time as a political ambassador, and diplomat. He set a good first example by negotiating with the resident Indians. He never stole land from the Delaware Indians, including the land Philadelphia sat upon; he bought it and as a result ensured good brotherly relations with the local natives. In his writings, Penn suggested that others do the same:

Be tender of offending the Indians. . . To soften them to me, and the people, let them know you are come to sit down lovingly with them.

Penn was so much about fair play and brotherly love that he penned a basis for the New World government that has held even till today. “. . Frame of Government he implemented a democratic system with full freedom of religion, fair trials, elected representatives of the people in power and a separation of powers again ideas that would later form the basis of the American constitution.”

Perhaps, Penn believed that bequeathing his new city with a favorable biblical name would secure a kind of divine blessing into perpetuity. That might have been only wishful thinking, however; as a major metropolitan area in North America, Philadelphia does not do well in the rankings, falling to the very bottom of some categories, like Travel and Leisure’s “Attractiveness” category.

What’s more interesting to note, though, is that the father of the famous City of Brotherly Love could have used a brother’s loving hand towards the end of his own life. According to Penn’s biography, he died a pauper. “In fact, Penn would later be imprisoned in England for debt and, at the time of his death in 1718, he was penniless.”

Today, those visiting the Philadelphia area can spot the figure of William Penn from blocks away; his 37-foot statue sits atop Philadelphia’s City Hall. It’s a fitting tribute to the man whose work and whose writings are still honored among modern lawmakers and religious leaders, alike. It’s also fitting that his visage should oversee the handsome city that has become famous under its modern moniker, City of Brotherly Love.