The Fearless Benjamin Lay

photo credit: Wikipedia, Benjamin Lay

When you think of the abolition of slavery in the United States does the name John Brown come to mind?  Most probably.  What about Benjamin Lay?  No?  Didn’t come to my mine either, until I heard a program on BYU Radio, Thinking Aloud, January 18, 2018.

The host, Marcus Smith speaks with historian, Marcus Rediker about his book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist.

Benjamin Lay was a 20th Century man born in the year 1681 in Colchester, England.  He was raised a Quaker and so learned to have a pure belief in Christ’s love of all mankind.  His anti-slavery beliefs were increased when in 1718 he moved to Barbados as a merchant.  He saw a man commit suicide rather than be hit again by his owner.  In 1731 he emigrated to Abington, Pennsylvania, United States.

He lived in a cave, drank only milk and water and wouldn’t wear or eat anything made from the loss of animal life or provided by slave labor.  He made his own clothes and grew his own food.

He had Kyphosis or hunchback and his arm were as long as his legs.  What he lacked in stature, he was just over four feet tall, he made up for in bravado.  He was very verbal against slavery, capital punishment, the prison system and the wealthy (and as he saw it) hypocritical Pennsylvania Quaker elite (especially the slave owners).  He not only spoke out at every opportunity but he published over 200 pamphlets expressing his views.  Not only was he verbal, he demonstrated against slavery.  One winter, while standing outside a Quaker without a coat and with bare feet, he told passersby that slaves were made to work outdoors in winter dressed the same.  He briefly kidnapped the child of slaveholders to show how Africans felt when their relatives were sold overseas.  His most remembered act was at the 1738 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Quakers.  Everyone who was anyone in Quaker circles was there.  He dressed as a soldier (Quakers are generally pacifists) and loudly preached against slavery.  After quoting Bible scriptures stating equality under God, he plunged a sword into a Bible containing a bladder of blood-red pokeberry juice, spattering it over the nearby people.

Popular opinion of him changed from annoying loudmouth to an inspiration to follow.  Abolitionist Quakers kept his picture in his home.  People seeing him would honor him and express support.  He died in 1759 and was buried in the Abington Friends Meeting graveyard in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.

Somewhere along the time line of history, he was forgotten.  Possibly brushed under the memory rug in favor of Revolutionary War heroes and they replaced by pre-Civil War abolitionists.  I think, we should remember him and bring his 20th Century attitude into the 21st.

If you would like to read more,, has several reference and suggestions for further reading.