By Marcus Rediker
Aug. 12, 2017
It was September 1738, and Benjamin Lay had walked 20 miles, subsisting on “acorns and peaches,” to reach the Quakers’ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Beneath his overcoat he wore a military uniform and a sword — both anathema to Quaker teachings. He also 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.
When it was Lay’s turn to speak, he rose to address the Quakers, many of whom had grown rich and bought African slaves. He was a dwarf, barely four feet tall, but from his small body came a thunderous voice. God, he intoned, respects all people equally, be they rich or poor, man or woman, white or black.
Throwing his overcoat aside, he spoke his prophecy: “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.” He raised the book above his head and plunged the sword through it. As the “blood” gushed down his arm, several members of the congregation swooned. He then splattered it on the heads and bodies of the slave keepers. His message was clear: Anyone who failed to heed his call must expect death — of body and soul.
Lay did not resist when his fellow Quakers threw him out of the building. He knew he would be disowned by his beloved community for his performance, but he had made his point. As long as Quakers owned slaves, he would use his body and his words to disrupt their hypocritical routines.
Lay’s methods made people talk about him, his ideas, the nature of Quakerism and Christianity, and, most of all, slavery. According to Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, the name of this “celebrated Christian philosopher” became “familiar to every man, woman and to nearly every child, in Pennsylvania.” For or against, everyone told stories about Benjamin Lay.
Lay, a hunchback as well as a dwarf, was the world’s first revolutionary abolitionist. Against the common sense of the day, when slavery seemed to most people as immutable as the stars in the heavens, Lay imagined a new world in which people would live simply, make their own food and clothes, and respect nature. He lived in a cave in Abington, Pa., ate only fruits and vegetables — “the innocent fruits of the earth” — and championed animal rights. He refused to consume any commodity produced by slave labor and was known to walk abruptly out of a dinner in protest when he found out that his host owned slaves.
Today Benjamin Lay is largely forgotten, for essentially two reasons.
The first is that he did not fit the dominant, long-told story about the history of the abolitionist movement. Formerly a common sailor, he was not one of the so-called gentleman saints like William Wilberforce, an aristocratic leader of the abolition movement in Britain. He was wild and confrontational, militant and uncompromising.
A second reason is that he has long been considered deformed in both body and mind. As a little person and as a man thought eccentric at best and more commonly deranged or insane, he was ridiculed and dismissed, even among Quakers who were ostensibly committed to an ideal of spiritual equality. The condescension continued in subsequent accounts of his life.
Yet Lay deserves a proud place in our history. He predicted that for Quakers and for America, slave-keeping would be a long, destructive burden. He wrote that it “will be as the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps, in the end.” The poison and the venom have had long lives indeed, as we still live with the consequences of slavery: prejudice, poverty, structural inequality and premature death.
Disparaged and abandoned by his fellow Quakers, Lay eventually helped win the debate over slavery. He wanted to provoke, to unsettle, even to confound — to make people think and act. His greatest power, indeed his genius, lay in his gift as an agitator. In every meeting he attended, public or private, he drew a line over the issue of slavery. He asked everyone he met, Which side are you on?
Slowly, over a quarter-century, his relentless agitation changed hearts and minds. In 1758 a friend arrived at his cave to inform him that the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting had finally taken the first big step toward abolition, ruling that those who traded in slaves would henceforth be disciplined and perhaps driven from the community. Lay fell silent for a few reverential moments, then rose from his chair, praised God and announced, “I can now die in peace.” He died a year later, an outsider to the Quaker community he loved, but a moral giant of a man.
Benjamin Lay was, in sum, a class-conscious, race-conscious, environmentally conscious ultraradical. Most would think this combination of beliefs possible only since the 1960s, two centuries after Lay’s life ended. But by boycotting slave-produced commodities, Lay pioneered the politics of consumption and initiated a tactic that would become central to the ultimate success of abolitionism in the 19th century, and one that still motivates global movements against abuses like sweatshops today.
In his time Lay may have been the most radical person on the planet. He helps us to understand what was politically and morally possible in the first half of the 18th century — and what may be possible now. It is more than we think.