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Fearless and Fiery

Benjamin Lay (1681–1759) was an abolitionist, a vegetarian, and an innovator of direct nonviolent action tactics before any of those terms existed. Writing a century after Lay’s death, John G. Whittier described him as “the irrepressible prophet who troubled the Israel of slaveholding Quakerism, clinging like a rough chestnut-burr to the skirts of its respectability and settling like a pertinacious gad-fly on the sore places of its conscience.”

Attention has recently been drawn to Benjamin Lay due to the critical and popular acclaim of a new biography by Marcus Rediker, The Fearless Benjamin Lay (Beacon Press, 2017). Rediker delivered the History Department's 2017 James A. Field Lecture in October.

Lay wrote one of the earliest anti-slavery tracts published in North America, All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates in 1737 (printed by Lay’s good friend Benjamin Franklin). He became particularly known for his theatrical demonstrations confronting slaveholding fellow Quakers (more on this below). He also engaged in personal boycotts of any products that relied on slave labor for their production. Refusing to wear cotton or even wool, Lay wore flax garments of his own devising. Lay was also known to leap up and flee the table of a host upon learning that there was slavery in the household, declaring, “I will not share with thee the fruits of thy unrighteousness.”

Lay’s sympathies extended to the animal kingdom. He subsisted almost entirely on fruits, vegetables, and water.

Lay cut a distinctive figure, at about 4 1/2 feet tall with a hunched back, narrow limbs, and an enormous white beard. If some of his contemporaries were tempted to compare him, based on his appearance, to a troll, this impression may have been reinforced by Lay’s decision to live in a cave—with some accommodations, of course, including an extraordinary library of some 200 volumes.


The Bladder of Blood

The most famous anecdote about Benjamin Lay occurred in Burlington, N.J., in 1738 at the Quakers’ annual business meeting (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting). He boldly addressed the group, criticizing the hypocrisy of Quaker slaveholders:

Oh, all you negro masters, who are contentedly holding your fellow-creatures in a state of slavery during life, well knowing the cruel sufferings those innocent captives undergo … especially you, who profess to do unto all men as ye would they should do unto you … you might as well throw off the plain coat as I do—

At this moment, Lay threw off his Quaker plain cloak, revealing a military uniform beneath it to the assembled peaceable gathering. The crowd gasped. Lay continued:

... It would be as justifiable in the sight of the Almighty, who beholds and respects all nations and colors of men with an equal regard, if you should thrust a sword through their hearts, as I do through this—

Here, Lay plunged a sword into his stomach, spraying blood all over the crowd! The crowd erupted in an uproar! Ladies fainted!

Of course, that wasn’t quite what had happened. In preparation for the stunt, Benjamin Lay had concealed a bladder of pokeberry juice in a book. It was into that bladder that he plunged the sword, and only pokeberry juice that sprayed the crowd. Lay was unharmed.

On realizing what had happened, the people ejected Benjamin Lay from the building, laying him out on the doorstep. Lay chose to remain there for the rest of the day, forcing all the participants to step over his prone body as they exited.


The Smashing of the Teacups

Another oft-recited story occurred in 1742, also coinciding with the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Lay occupied a stall in a heavily trafficked market in Philadelphia, laid out his late wife’s set of teacups, and began systematically smashing the crockery. A crowd gathered, shouting at Lay to cease the destruction, offering to take or purchase the perfectly good china. When Lay continued about his task unmoved, a young man from the crowd bodily lifted the diminutive man and removed him from the scene, allowing the gathered crowd to seize the remainder of the crockery.

A newspaper account at the time described his purpose as a “publick Testimony against the Vanity of Tea-drinking.” Lay’s aversion to tea was primarily a concern about the sugar used to sweeten it, grown with slave labor under abominable conditions.

Two hundred years later, Philadelphia Suburban Water Co. illustrated the incident. The facsimile in this case is from a July 1949 issue of the Swarthmorean newspaper.


The Kidnapping

Benjamin Lay’s neighbors held slaves, despite Lay’s frequent censures and cajoling. One day, he persuaded the neighbors’ 6-year old son to his home and amused him there all day. As evening came, the boy’s parents became extremely concerned. Lay noticed them running around outside in a desperate search, and he innocently inquired about what they were doing. When the parents explained in panic that their son was missing, Lay replied:

Your child is safe in my house, and you may now conceive of the sorrow you inflict upon the parents of the negroe girl you hold in slavery, for she was torn from them by avarice.


Sarah Lay

Benjamin Lay’s wife, Sarah Lay, was notable in her own right. She was a recorded minister in the Society of Friends, meaning she was recognized for her spiritual gifts and traveled to represent her home congregation at diverse Quaker meetings not only in the region but also crossing the Atlantic. Although Benjamin was disowned from the Society of Friends, Sarah remained a member in good standing her entire life.

Sarah Lay did not come from a Quaker family, having been born around 1677 to a plaster craftsman named John Smith in the Deptford district of London. She joined the Society of Friends as a young woman. She probably met Benjamin Lay when he was working as a sailor and came to Deptford Monthly Meeting. Like him, Sarah was small in stature and exhibited curvature in her spine.

There are few records of Sarah Lay, but those records suggest that she and Benjamin had a happy marriage and that she supported his anti-slavery views (if not his tactics). When she died in late 1735, Abington Monthly Meeting issued a laudatory if somewhat restrained memorial.

The pious Sarah was “not ensnared by so worldly a fashion as the bonnett,” according to historian of Quaker costume Amelia Gummere. She would have worn a cap, similar to the one displayed in the glass case in the photo (although somewhat larger—this is a child’s cap).


Benjamin Lay’s Body

Accounts of Benjamin Lay always include descriptions of his physical form. Lay’s eccentric views and dramatic ways of expressing them caused Lay’s detractors to conclude that he was twisted both in mind and body.

Recently, new attention has been focused on Benjamin Lay’s body through the lens of disability studies. Scholar Nathaniel Smith Kogan has argued that Lay’s disability not only caused him to empathize with enslaved people, but also empowered him to advocate for them and even influenced his rhetorical strategies when doing so.

As black African bodies were considered inferior to white European bodies and therefore subject to brutality, Lay perceived that his nonconforming body was also considered inferior. Since he was already marginalized, Lay was able to employ radical tactics because he did not fear being ostracized any more than he already was. Kogan further argues that Lay developed rhetorical strategies based on his disability, noting that All Slave-keepers ... Apostates is full of language about bodies, pain, and stature that related to the physical and figurative conditions of enslaved persons but would also have alluded to Benjamin Lay’s personal form.


Lay’s Anti-Slavery Legacy

Benjamin Lay was not the first Quaker to speak out against slavery, nor was he the last.

George Fox (1624–1691), considered the founder of Quakerism, preached kindness toward enslaved Africans and Indians in the 1650s, and indicated that their servitude should not be perpetual.

In 1688, four Pennsylvania Quakers from Germantown Meeting (now part of Philadelphia) wrote the first organized protest against slavery in the Americas.

Quakers Anthony Benezet (1713–1784) and John Woolman (1720–1772) were two of the most important early anti-slavery advocates in the Society of Friends and in Colonial America. Benezet founded the first anti-slavery society, the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, in 1775. Woolman traveled thousands of miles to visit individual Quakers and convince them of the evils of slavery. His essay “Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes” bears marked similarities to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s epistle when it finally took a stance against slavery in 1754.

When Benjamin Lay learned, in 1758, that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting had finally banned buying and selling slaves, denouncing slavery unequivocally, he purportedly exclaimed, “Thanksgiving and praise be rendered unto the Lord God … I can now die in peace!” He passed away the following year.

FHL's Benjamin Lay Exhibit