The Fearless Benjamin Lay

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For years I taught a high school local history course, Philadelphia and Bucks County.  My Teaching Social Studies course at Holy Family College was sprinkled with local history material. For several years I wrote a local history column for the Yardley News.  My personal library has hundreds of books related to Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and Bucks County history.  And when I travel I like to read local books.  Although I am trying to limit the number of books I buy, it’s still hard to resist new local books.

EA0CB15E-2B17-42FB-B425-920F954086E3I recently ordered “The Fearless Benjamin Lay: the Quaker dwarf who became the first revolutionary abolitionist,” by Marcus Rediker.  I sometimes told a story about Lay in my classes.  Rediker opens his book with the same story.  Lay enjoyed shock theatrics with his protests. In 1738 he attended Burlington, NJ Friends meeting.  He stood up and began to condemn slavery, particularly railing against Quakers who kept slaves or profited from the slave trade.  He invoked God and the Bible.  Drawing a sword, he plunged it into a Bible that he held aloft.  Blood spurted from the Bible wound.  Lay had carved out the Bible and inserted a bladder filled with red pokeberry juice.  Rediker provided more details, Lay, a pacifist, wore a military uniform.  He proclaimed that the Almighty God respected all people “rich and poor, men and women, white people and black alike.”  The meeting broke into chaos and several Quakers lifted the calm Benjamin and carried him from the meeting.  He had made his point; he did not object.

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Benjamin Lay would continue his guerilla war on slavery, particularly a war on Quakers who practiced, condoned or supported it.  Benjamin was born in England where he had become a Quaker but his strong anti- slavery stance distanced him from other members of his hometown and London meetings.  When he asked for papers testifying to his character to take with him to America, he was refused.  He left for the colonies anyway, eventually settling in Philadelphia and later Abington.

His theatrics continued and he was thrown out of both Philadelphia and Abington Meetings.  Benjamin lived a simple life.  Over the years he was a shepherd, sailor, glove maker and book seller.  He had little formal education but he read extensively, of special interest were the writings of early Quakers. His radical abolitionist position was formed after witnessing the horrors of slavery in Barbados.   Rediker labels him an antinomian, a belief that the law, the formal church, does not determine morality, the spirit in each individual did. Benjamin published a book, “All Slave-keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates,”  however, it was somewhat disorganized, almost a commonplace book of slavery.  Another Benjamin, Franklin, published it.

Benjamin suffered ridicule throughout his life due to his short, deformed body.  He became a vegetarian, animal rights advocate, he made his own clothes from flax which he grew.  He married but his wife died early. He never stopped his crusade to end slavery in the Quaker community and his unrelenting approach antagonized (intentionally) the wealthy Quaker elite.    His final home was in a cave in Abington.   When he died there in 1759, he was buried in the Abington Friends School cemetery in Jenkintown.  Rediker spoke of Lay and his legacy in April 2018 when Abington Friends unveiled a grave marker for Benjamin and Sarah Lay. I’d like to visit the cemetery and cave some day.

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Lay probably inspired later abolitionists. Rediker mentions Anthony Benezet and John Woolman.  I like to imagine Benjamin Lay, radical activist, today, defending the rights of not only the descendents of slaves but all people of color. He’d defend Muslims, Jews, and other persecuted minority religions.   He’d be vigorously defending the rights of immigrants and pleading compassion for rufugees.  He’d champion the rights of women, the handicapped, and those in the gay-lesbian community.   He’d demand fair equal treatment for the poor, middle and working class.  He’d speak out against tax cuts and special privileges of the usually white, wealthy, typically male, elite in American society, be they Democrat, Republican, conservative or liberal.  He’d condemn corporate greed, the destruction of the environment, and the exploitation of animals.  He’d support quality health care and education for all.

Reality check: one person, one Benjamin Lay can’t be expected to do all that, certainly not alone.  Each of us need to be inspired by the Benjamin Lays in our society.  I think they exist.  We need to look for them; recognize them.  The plain people, even dwarfs, sometimes outspoken, maybe theatrical but those who model revolutionary activism.

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