- The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist by Marcus Rediker
In this impressively researched biography of Benjamin Lay, Marcus Rediker has brought to light one of the most compelling yet underrecognized abolitionists of the eighteenth century. Born in Essex, England, in 1682, Benjamin Lay was deeply influenced by the legacy of radicalism that stemmed from the English Civil War. In his youth he challenged England’s economic and social hierarchy; he refused to doff his hat to social superiors and aggressively challenged those whom he felt delivered “false ministry.” After initially working [End Page 282] as a shepherd and glover in Essex, Lay left England and worked on a sailing vessel that took him throughout the Mediterranean. His time traveling on this ship gave Lay his first exposure to slavery—the issue that would shape his life’s advocacy. But when Lay moved with his wife to Barbados in 1718, he witnessed the way chattel slavery dehumanized both slaves and their owners and that experience led him to become a militant opponent of human bondage. From the 1720s until his death in 1759, Lay harangued “weighty Friends” both in England and in Pennsylvania who held slaves, sold slaves, or consumed slave-produced goods. Through this advocacy, argues Rediker, Lay created the catalytic preconditions for the much more famous (and widely venerated) Quaker abolitionists of the late eighteenth century, Anthony Benezet and John Woolman.
In spite of his critical place in pushing Quakers to eventually end their activity in the slave trade and slaveholding, Benjamin Lay has traditionally been treated as a “voice in the wilderness” in the historiography of Quaker abolitionism. When he does appear in these narratives, Lay serves as a quirky anecdote whose aggressive and shocking tactics were only matched by his strange appearance and lifestyle. He stood somewhere between 4´ and 4´7´´ and spent the final decades of his life living in a cave while making his own homespun clothing and eating fruits and vegetables he grew himself. When he confronted Quaker slaveowners, Lay employed dramatic forms of “guerrilla theater” to challenge the immorality of his co-religionists. He publicly smashed his wife’s china set to attack the forced labor that produced both tea and sugar; he placed himself in the entryway to a meeting house in the middle of the winter with exposed legs to demonstrate the physical brutality of slave labor; and, most famously, he crashed the 1738 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting dressed in military garb, where he delivered a tirade against slave-holding before thrusting a sword into a hollowed-out Bible he had filled with a bladder of pokeberry juice, splattering the Quaker “men of renown” with the faux-blood. These tactics alienated him from his contemporaries: Quaker meetings on both sides of the Atlantic disowned him for his radical message and confrontational methods.
Rediker includes all of these memorable anecdotes but works to situate the seemingly unconventional aspects of Lay’s life into the wider context of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world as a way to understand (and take seriously) Lay’s radicalism. Until this biography, the authoritative source on Lay’s life has been the fifty-five-page 1815 biography by the Philadelphia Quaker philanthropist and reformer [End Page 283] Roberts Vaux. Providing a much-needed update of Lay’s life has proved challenging because Benjamin Lay was an individual who left behind very few documentary records and those disparate ones that exist are scattered throughout that Atlantic world’s Quaker communities. Moreover, Lay only wrote one major work himself, All Slave-Keepers, Apostates (1738), and the fragmentary, non-narrative nature of this work has made it one that few scholars have been eager to explore in depth. Rediker has conducted impressive research in Quaker communities on both sides of the Atlantic: he scoured Quaker meeting and local municipal records to uncover the extensive correspondence that Lay conducted with the meetings in England (especially in Colchester, Essex, and London) as well as in North...