- The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist by Marcus Rediker
It is fitting that Marcus Rediker should begin his biography of Quaker Benjamin Lay with one of Lay’s most dramatic moments of guerilla theater. Lay arrived at the 1738 gathering of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting carrying “a hollowed-out book with a secret compartment into which he had tucked a tied-off animal bladder filled with bright red pokeberry juice.” After an impassioned address against slaveholding, Lay plunged his sword into the book splattering “blood” on those seated nearby (1–2). That event along with the nearly simultaneous publication of his fiery antislavery tract All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates—“the double explosion of 1738”—marked both a change in Lay’s relationship with the Quaker community that disowned and denounced him and a new, more revolutionary way of life that “fold[ed] his antislavery principles and practices into a broader, more radical vision of human possibility” (95). Although Rediker opens with perhaps one of the most infamous and oft-repeated moments in Lay’s life, Rediker goes on to deliver an excellent biography of one of the most misunderstood and overlooked Quaker abolitionists. Indeed, Rediker has ably accomplished his objective “to treat Benjamin with the respect he deserves” (149).
In six chapters, this short, accessible biography chronicles the life and times of Lay, a man who in appearance and in deed was unlike any Quaker of his time. Rediker recounts Lay’s early life in Essex, which is located about sixty miles northwest of London, an area known for “textile production, protest, and religious radicalism” (11). Previous accounts of Lay have described his early life in England, his work as a sailor, and his residency in Barbados, but Rediker explores more deeply these influences on Lay’s later radicalism. Outlining the origins of Quakerism in the English Revolution, Rediker connects Lay’s life and activism to the disruptive characteristics of early Quakerism. As Rediker argues, Quakers used “high religious drama in public in order to shock people out of their sinful complacency” (17). Moreover, Lay’s experience as a sailor instilled in him an empathy for laborers while his time in Barbados provided him with first-hand experience of the horrors of slavery. Lay’s difficulties with Quaker elders began in England and followed him to Philadelphia where he soon found himself in conflict with his contemporaries. [End Page 54] In Philadelphia, as in England, Lay found that Quakers had compromised their religious ideals and embraced the pursuit of wealth and renown. Lay sought not only the abolition of slavery but the revitalization of Quakerism. The latter is often overlooked in discussions of Lay’s activism.
Rediker is at his finest in the two chapters that discuss Lay’s book and his reading habits. In the first of these chapters, Rediker traces the intellectual and religious sources of All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. Described by Rediker as “a densely allusive, deeply religious work, written by someone who had studied the Bible for many years,” Lay’s book was the work of someone who had read widely and thought deeply about good and evil, slavery, and religious belief. In the following chapter, Rediker extends this discussion. By examining Lay’s reading habits, he reveals the breadth and depth of Lay’s self-education. It is in these two chapters, in particular, that Rediker succeeds in his desire “to illuminate and overcome once and for all the condescension, opposition, and isolation [Lay] received from his contemporaries and from some who have written about him since his death” (149).
In 1758 Deborah Franklin, wife of Benjamin Franklin, commissioned a portrait of Lay, most likely without Lay’s permission. That painting, which was the basis of several subsequent engravings, disappeared from view in the nineteenth century. It was only rediscovered, in near-ruined condition, by an antiques dealer in 1977. Restored, the painting now hangs...