The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist

By Marcus Rediker. Beacon Press, 2017. 194 pages. $26.95/hardcover; $25.99/eBook.

Buy from QuakerBooks

Should readers choose to read this compelling biography—and those who see this review are hereby forewarned not to deny themselves that experience—they should approach it carefully, wearing asbestos gloves. It glows red hot, both in subject matter and its author’s approach.

Let’s deal with the author first. Not a Friend, Marcus Rediker is distinguished professor of Atlantic history at the University of Pittsburgh and an authority on slavery. But more important for our purposes, he follows the late British historian Christopher Hill, best known among Friends as author of the groundbreaking The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution. Hill depicted Quakers at the cutting edge of demands for upending the established order during the revolutionary period from the 1640s to 1660. Rediker picks up this stance and insists that the eighteenth-century Lay patterned his opposition to racial slavery after those early Friends and insisted that his contemporaries live up to the unfiltered Light implicit in their religion. Modern Friends seldom hear jeremiads like Lay’s in their meetings these days. Rediker’s work implies that we should.

Born in England in 1682, Lay was a third-generation Friend, a hunchback “little person” or dwarf a bit over four feet tall, and an “antinomian” in theology. (Antinomianism is the concept that a Christian, freed of sin by Christ’s grace, is not bound by outward laws; early Friends styled them “ranters,” a term applied to James Nayler, one of George Fox’s closest associates.) For a dozen years after 1703, Lay alternated between working as a sailor and living ashore in London and Barbados. At sea he observed the slave trade and its effects on both Africans and sailors; on land he regularly attending meeting and learned to distrust the ministry of the Society’s leading “Public Friends.” He publicly attacked such ministers, who were, he claimed, “preaching in their own words,” not God’s truth. When he would not promise to cease such affronts and be “tender” and “lowly,” Devonshire House Meeting disowned him.

In 1732, Lay and his wife, Sarah, moved to Philadelphia, Pa., with a certificate of removal because Devonshire House Meeting had finally accepted his apology, but that did not prevent controversy from lurking over the Lays’ credibility. The situation worsened because Benjamin unleashed diatribes against powerful Friends for owning slaves. He also embarked on tactics of what later generations would called guerilla theater: once in winter he stood at the meetinghouse door with his bare foot in the snow outside; when warned that he would catch his death of cold, he responded that slaves Quakers owned had no shoes at all. Two years after the Lays arrived, Philadelphia Monthly Meeting found obstructions with their transfer of membership and revoked it.

But Lay would not be silenced by the mere absence of membership, so, because Quaker meetings were open to all, he turned up again and again. In 1738, he appeared at one of the sessions of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting itself, dressed in a great coat covering a military uniform, a sword, and a hollowed-out book resembling a Bible with a bladder of red pokeberry juice hidden inside. Rising to address this gathering of weighty and politically powerful Friends, he exclaimed that God was no respecter of persons and that slave-keeping was the world’s greatest sin. He ripped aside his coat, pulled out his sword, stabbed it through the book, spattering blood-like liquid among the assembled worthies, and boomed out that thus “God [would] shed the blood of those persons who enslave[d] their fellow creatures.” The same year, printer Benjamin Franklin published Lay’s book, All Slave-Keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates.

Lay’s radicalism shaded over into vegetarianism, and he championed animals, cave dwelling in the last years of his life, and making his own clothes. As he defended enslaved Africans, so he stood staunchly against the power of wealth and the influence of property among Friends. No wonder Abington Meeting, it seems, also disowned him. Although it is unclear when and how Lay joined another meeting after having been read out of Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, there must have been some evidence that Lay did just that. Rediker’s readable, well-researched biography should go a long way to reintroduce this red-hot Quaker to a new generation of Friends, unaccustomed to such levels of warmth in those they know.

Previous Book Next Book

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Maximum of 400 words or 2000 characters.

Comments on may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.