Benjamin Lay, Quaker and Abolitionist Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Benjamin Lay, Quaker and Abolitionist

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This is the story of Benjamin Lay (1682?-1759), the vertically-challenged colonial activist, and how he shamed the Quakers in 18th-Century America out of slaveholding1.

The diminutive Lay - vegetarian, pacifist, eco-friendly farmer, antislavery activist - was a pioneer in the 18th Century, when most people took the sort of things he objected to for granted. It took persistence to argue that it was wrong to abuse one's fellow man for gain, or to take advantage of animals. Lay had lots of persistence - and, in the case of the Quakers and slavery, it paid off.

The saga begins in Colchester, England, where the Quakers in the Two-Week Meeting2 were really unhappy about this short, argumentative sailor. Benjamin Lay, a gadfly to the human conscience if there ever was one, spread unhappiness wherever he went.

Unhappiness in Colchester

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, Quakers were alarmingly forward-thinking religious people with egalitarian ways – they respected women, for example, and let them speak in public, which even in the mid-19th Century was considered an immoral practice by almost everyone in Western civilization. Quakers worshipped 'in silence', which does not mean they were quiet. What it means is that they had no formal service, no singing or preaching. They waited until someone had something to say. In the early days, they had a great deal to say, mostly about social ills that needed to be changed. This was called a testimony. These outspoken testimonies made Quakers unpopular, and were among the reasons why King Charles II had been willing to part with so much land in Pennsylvania just to get most of them out of the kingdom.

Even these contentious, progressive, and allegedly tolerant people couldn't stand Benjamin Lay.

Benjamin Lay, 4'7" tall (1.40m), was a former merchant seaman who had settled down in Colchester with his bride Sarah Smith of Deptford, who was about the same size as he was. Both of them were 'birthright Quakers', that is, born into the group. The Quakers liked Sarah, and made her a minister. They didn't like Benjamin, and kept temporarily expelling him from the meeting. His ideas were too progressive, he was eccentric in the extreme, and he wouldn't stop talking about what was wrong.

Finally, they asked him to leave.

Unhappiness in Barbados

About 1718, Benjamin and Sarah Lay moved to the island of Barbados, where Benjamin opened a shop. Barbados at that time was an island paradise for the right sort of people. If you were English, you could look forward to a languid existence of enjoying fresh fruit and balmy shoreline breezes, while kidnapped Africans and transported Scotsmen worked in the cane fields for the rum you were sipping.

Oddly, Benjamin Lay did not take to this life. Instead, he fed hundreds of starving slaves on their day off, telling them Bible stories while their betters were at church. Nobody was happy. The slaves were unhappy because they were starving in spite of all their hard work, and being beaten on a regular basis, Lay and his wife were unhappy because they couldn't stop the brutality on their doorstep, and the Barbadian planters were unhappy because they thought the fellow the slaves affectionately called 'the little backararar [white] man' was going to stir up a slave revolt.

They asked him to leave.

Unhappiness in Philadelphia

When Benjamin Lay and his wife moved to Philadelphia in 1731, you would think he would enjoy life in the second-largest city in the British Empire. It was clean, it was modern, and it was very Quaker. Surprisingly, he didn't. He disapproved of all the luxury and excess and moved out of town to a community called Abington, where he built a home for himself and his wife, a sort of artificial cave in which he kept his collection of 200 books, grew fruit and flax, and kept bees. The farm was humble but self-sufficient, and there was a Quaker meeting nearby he could torment.

Slavery was not all that Lay hated. He hated – and fought against – any form of human activity that he considered unfair. This included killing animals. He grew flax and made his own clothing. He wore no leather. He wore no cotton, because cotton was made with slave labour. He used no dye, because indigo came from slave labour. He did not smoke, drink rum, or drink tea – all products of slave labour. He not only thought this was right, he thought this was important – and he never stopped telling people this.

From his cave stronghold in Abington, Lay made forays into Philadelphia and environs. To get out his message, he used a technique that he learned from the prophets of the Old Testament – a mixture of street theatre and modern advertising that grabbed public attention long enough to get the point across. For example, he stood in the snow with one bare foot and waited for people to pass by on their way to meeting. When they warned him that he would catch his death, he chided them for not being concerned about the hundreds of thousands of suffering slaves. He broke expensive tea cups on the street, so people would ask him why. He broke clay pipes in front of people.

His most dramatic performances took place indoors. In 1738, he caused a major scandal at the Yearly Meeting, which was being held in Burlington, New Jersey. He claimed the floor, declaiming that those assembled were all hypocrites, and should throw off their Quaker garments, as he would now do. He threw back his long cloth coat. Underneath, he was wearing a military uniform – anathema to Quakers – and a sword. With the sword he slashed at a book, which he had previously hollowed out and filled with pokeberry juice. As the bright red juice splattered over the horrified Friends, Lay told them they were doing the same – plunging a sword into the heart of the Bible, spilling the blood of innocents.

They asked him to leave.

More Unhappiness

Lay did not confine himself to annoying Quakers – he was an equal-opportunity pest. He often appeared as an uninvited guest speaker at other Christian gatherings, glaring the pastor out of countenance and then lecturing them all about their slaveholding. His best ally, though, was not a religious man: Dr Benjamin Franklin, sage, philosopher, and most importantly, printer.

In 1737, Lay brought Franklin a manuscript of his – he was forever writing pamphlets, about 200 of them all told. Franklin was doubtful, as Lay was not exactly a professional writer, but Lay told him to put the text in any order he pleased. The book, entitled All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates, was a heartfelt, almost stream-of-consciousness work that set forth the reasons why slavery was unethical, unbiblical, just plain wrong, and would land the practitioner in trouble with the Almighty.

Franklin didn't ask him to leave.

Franklin not only printed the work, but was one of Lay's friends. He visited him in his cave home, along with Pennsylvania's governor Richard Penn. Most of the Quakers, especially those with slaves, might not be talking to him, but Lay was influencing their children, who came around to visit the tiny couple and stayed to learn.

Another person who learned from Lay was John Woolman. Woolman was so convinced of the evils of slavery that he rode a 1,500-mile (2,400km) round trip to North Carolina just to tell the other Quakers about it. His persistence in discussing this problem, though not as dramatic as Lay's object lessons, was a major contributing factor to the Quakers' premature abolitionism3.

Peace at Last

All this speechifying and annoying of neighbours paid off. At the 1758 Yearly Meeting – long before anyone else was taking this issue seriously – the Quakers decided that slavery was wrong. They delegated John Woolman to head a committee to talk all the slaveholding Quakers out of slaveholding.

Or else they would ask them to leave.

When Benjamin Lay was told that his more than 20 years of advocating had paid off, the frail, little old man stood up and thanked God, saying that he could now die in peace. He did, less than a year later – but the cause he'd espoused from his home-made cave lived on. Not long after, another Quaker, the educator Anthony Benezet, founded the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, which in 1784 became the Philadelphia Abolition Society.

Benjamin Franklin was the group's president.

Further Reading

If you'd like to read what Benjamin Lay wrote, there is an online version of his book available.

1The correct term for this antisocial activity is 'slaveholding'. Current thinking is that it is not actually possible to 'own' another human being.2Presumably this meeting took place every two weeks. Quaker meetings were named either for their location, such as Deptford Meeting, or their periodicity, such as Monthly Meeting, or Yearly Meeting.3Which, like the 'premature antifascism' of the 1930s, could get you in political hot water.

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