History Trivia #4: Abolitionist Benjamin Lay

I’ve written before that American Quakers originally practiced slavery. I assumed the Quakers went on to adopt their famous role as abolitionists in a introspective fashion, with idealists in the community changing minds through debate and polite essays.

This was not always the case.

On September 19, 1738, a man named Benjamin Lay strode into a Quaker meetinghouse in Burlington, New Jersey, for the biggest event of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. He wore a great coat, which hid a military uniform and a sword. Beneath his coat Lay carried a hollowed-out book with a secret compartment, into which he had tucked a tied-off animal bladder filled with bright red pokeberry juice. Because Quakers had no formal minister or church ceremony, people spoke as the spirit moved them. Lay, a Quaker himself, waited his turn.

He finally rose to address this gathering of “weighty Quakers.” Many Friends in Pennsylvania and New Jersey had grown rich on Atlantic commerce, and many bought human property. To them Lay announced in a booming voice that God Almighty respects all peoples equally, rich and poor, men and women, white and black alike. He said that slave keeping was the greatest sin in the world and asked, How can a people who profess the golden rule keep slaves? He then threw off his great coat, revealing the military garb, the book and the blade.

A murmur filled the hall as the prophet thundered his judgment: “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.” He pulled out the sword, raised the book above his head, and plunged the sword through it. People gasped as the red liquid gushed down his arm; women swooned. To the shock of all, he spattered “blood” on the slave keepers. He prophesied a dark, violent future: Quakers who failed to heed the prophet’s call must expect physical, moral and spiritual death.

The room exploded into chaos, but Lay stood quiet and still, “like a statue,” a witness remarked. Several Quakers quickly surrounded the armed soldier of God and carried him from the building. He did not resist. He had made his point.

If you prefer the wild battle-preacher style of abolitionist, then you’re going to love Benjamin Lay. Preceding the archetype John Brown by over a hundred years, Lay’s story is a good reminder that the stereotype of the mellow Quaker is a stereotype. After all, early Quakers would march nude through town and ride horses into church to heckle clergy.

The anecdote above about Lay’s stunt at a Quaker meeting is from an excellent Smithsonian Magazine article on the man. I highly recommend it, but I’ll include a few choice excerpts here.

For nearly a quarter-century he railed against slavery in one Quaker meeting after another in and around Philadelphia, confronting slave owners and slave traders with a savage, most un-Quaker fury. He insisted on the utter depravity and sinfulness of “Man-stealers,” who were, in his view, the literal spawn of Satan.

He was notable for his physique. Benjamin Lay was a dwarf, or “little person,” standing just over four feet tall. He was called a hunchback because of an extreme curvature of his spine, a medical condition called kyphosis. According to a fellow Quaker, “His head was large in proportion to his body; the features of his face were remarkable, and boldly delineated, and his countenance was grave and benignant. …His legs were so slender, as to appear almost unequal to the purpose of supporting him, diminutive as his frame.” Yet I have found no evidence that Lay thought himself in any way diminished, or that his body kept him from doing anything he wanted to do. He called himself “little Benjamin,” but he also likened himself to “little David” who slew Goliath. He did not lack confidence in himself or his ideas.

When the Massachusetts Quakers, in an act of due diligence, asked Lay’s home congregation in London to certify that he was a Friend in good standing, the reply noted that he was “clear from Debts and from women in relation to marriage,” but added: “We believe he is Convinced of the Truth but for want of keeping low and humble in his mind, hath by an Indiscreet Zeal been too forward to appear in our publick Meetings.” Lay was disturbing the Quaker meetings’ peace by calling out those he believed were “covetous”—corrupted by worldly wealth. … He was disowned, or formally expelled, from two congregations in England.

When winter rolled in, Lay used a deep snowfall to make a point. One Sunday morning he stood at a gateway to the Quaker meetinghouse, knowing all Friends would pass his way. He left “his right leg and foot entirely uncovered” and thrust them into the snow. Like the ancient philosopher Diogenes, who also trod barefoot in snow, he again sought to shock his contemporaries into awareness. One Quaker after another took notice and urged him not to expose himself to the freezing cold lest he get sick. He replied, “Ah, you pretend compassion for me but you do not feel for the poor slaves in your fields, who go all winter half clad.”

“Benjamin gave no peace” to slave owners, the 19th-century radical Quaker Isaac Hopper recalled hearing as a child. “As sure as any character attempted to speak to the business of the meeting, he would start to his feet and cry out, ‘There’s another negro-master!’”

After he was tossed into the street one rainy day, he returned to the main door of the meetinghouse and lay down in the mud, requiring every person leaving the meeting to step over his body.

For two years Lay spent much of his time writing a strange, passionate treatise, All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. The book makes for odd reading—a mixture of autobiography, prophetic biblical polemic against slavery, writings by others, surreal descriptions of slavery in Barbados and a scathing account of his struggles against slave owners within the Quaker community. Lay knew the Board of Overseers would never approve his book, so he went directly to his friend, the printer Benjamin Franklin, and asked him to publish it, which he did in August 1738. It became a founding text of Atlantic antislavery, and an important advance in abolitionist thought. No one had ever taken such a militant, uncompromising, universal stand against slavery.

(N.B., Ben Franklin has a cameo in every 18th century biography.)

Lay became, in 1738, the last of a very few Quakers disowned for protests against slavery.

Lay lived simply, in “plain” style, as was the Quaker way, but he went further: He ate only fruits and vegetables, drank only milk and water; he was very nearly a vegan two centuries before the word was invented. Because of the divine pantheistic presence of God he perceived in all living things, he refused to eat “flesh.” Animals too were “God’s creatures.” He made his own clothes in order to avoid the exploitation of the labor of others, including animals.

EDIT: One more anecdote from another source:

… On another occasion [Lay] kidnapped a child and only returned him to his father when the authorities came to his dwelling place.  He said that this was an attempt to make people realize how African parents felt when their children were captured and sold into slavery.

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