Benjamin Lay was only about 1.2 meters tall, but his moral stature was very high.

He was a militant vegetarian, feminist, abolitionist, and opponent of the death penalty, a combination of values ​​that put him centuries ahead of his contemporaries.

The hunchbacked Quaker, despite receiving a limited formal education, studied and came to imagine a fairer world for all creatures that inhabited it: humans and animals, all were their fellow human beings.

His life passed during the 18th century, that Age of Enlightenment in which the entire thought of the Western world was radically transformed.

It started in England, then sailed the seas for years until it settled for a while on the sugar plantations of Barbados and finally ended up in the British territory that would become the United States.

Wherever he was, he defended, with deeds and words, what he believed.

His confrontational methods got people talking about him, his ideas, the nature of Quakerism and Christianity and, above all, slavery, which at the time was considered as natural as wind and water.

In perhaps his most famous protest, Lay went to the annual meeting of Philadelphia Quakers in 1738, carrying a hollowed-out book inside which he had stuffed a bound animal bladder filled with red berry juice.

He told those present, which included wealthy Quaker slaveholders, “Thus will God shed the blood of those people who enslave their fellow men.”

He then plunged a sword into the book, which looked like a Bible, and “blood” splattered on the heads and bodies of the horrified slaveholders.

As his biographer, University of Pittsburgh historian Marcus Rediker, puts it: “He didn’t care what they thought of him; he just wanted to attract people to his cause.”

“He lost the battle with the elders of the church, but he won it with the next generation.”

In a review of that biography “The fearless Benjamin Lay” says that “in his day, Benjamin Lay was perhaps the most radical person on the planet.”


Born in 1682, Lay trained as a glovemaker in Colchester, which had a significant local textile industry and was a hotbed of radical thought.

“He was a third-generation Quaker from an area with a strong history of religious radicalism,” Rediker said.

He later became a sailor, an experience that would shape his views.

“Lay first learned about slavery by hearing stories from his seafaring friends about the slave trade,” the historian said.

“There was also a radical seafaring tradition, a caring seafaring ethic, which complemented Lay’s radical tradition.”

After returning home to the Colchester area, Lay had problems with the Quaker community because he felt the need to speak out against those who did not measure up to his moral standards.

“He was a troublemaker every moment of his life,” Rediker said.

“He had a powerful sense of his convictions and spoke the truth to the powerful.”

The nightmare

From Colchester he went to Barbados with his wife, a popular and admired preacher in their Quaker community named Sarah Smith, also a Quaker and a dwarf, to open a shop, but their experience “was a nightmare.”

During an 18-month stint as a trader, he watched an enslaved man commit suicide rather than submit to another beating; that and a myriad of other barbarities in that British colony traumatized him and fueled his passion for the fight against slavery.

“It was the world’s leading slave society,” said his biographer.

“He saw slaves starving, he saw them beaten to death and tortured to death, and he was horrified.”

The Quaker spoke out against the plantation owners who, in anger, expelled him.

Lay’s odyssey then took him to Philadelphia, the largest city in North America, which included the second largest Quaker community in the world.

Having lived in England, where evidence of slavery was rare, he was surprised that most of the leaders of that Quaker community, as well as its members, owned slaves.

Lay began organizing public protests to shock the Friends of Philadelphia and make them aware of their own moral failings on slavery.

One Sunday morning after a heavy snowfall, for example, he stood at the entrance to the Quaker meetinghouse with one bare leg.

When urged not to expose himself to the freezing cold so as not to get sick, he would reply: “Ah, you feign pity for me, but you don’t feel pity for the poor slaves in your fields, who spend the whole winter half naked.”

With such actions and with many words, he protested so often that the ministers and elders ended up making sure that he could not return to any meeting.

Finally, he left Philadelphia to settle in Abington, where the following year his wife died in 1735.

That, and a lawsuit being held against him to challenge his membership in the Quaker community, left him bitter.

He went on to write a treatise calling for an immediate and unconditional end to slavery throughout the world, titled “All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage Apostates”.

And he went to his friend, the scholar and publisher Benjamin Franklin, the future founding father of the United States, to get it published.

Although it was a strange book, it became a foundational text in the fight against slavery in the Atlantic and a major advance in abolitionist thought.

Until then, although there were already other abolitionists, no one had taken such an uncompromising and universal position against slavery.

In the United States, he continued to challenge conventional wisdom, becoming what was probably the most visionary radical in pre-revolutionary America.

moral certainty

He built his own house, selecting a spot in Abington “near a spring of fine water” and erecting a small cabin in a “natural excavation in the earth”: a cave.

It was spacious on the surface, with room for a large library. Outside, he planted an apple tree and grew potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, and melons.

His favorite food was “boiled and then roasted turnips”, and his favorite drink was “pure water”.

The vegetarian made his own linen clothes to avoid the exploitation of animals, he did not even use sheep’s wool.

And he did not consume any product that could have been produced with slave hands.

In 1758, the year before Lay’s death at age 77, the yearly meeting in Philadelphia, after much agitation from below, began a process to discipline and ultimately disown Quaker slave traders.

Slavery itself was still permitted, and would be for another 18 years, but “Lay understood that it was the beginning of the end,” Rediker said.

When they gave him the news, he exclaimed: “Now I can die in peace.”

Quakers would go on to lead the campaign against slavery, which would finally be abolished in the US in 1865.

A better world

During his long life he was repudiated both by Abington Quakers and Philadelphia Quakers in the US, and by groups in Colchester and London in the UK.

His moral certainty meant that he could not allow the slave traders in his midst to go unchallenged, but his denunciations caused fury.

“He was ridiculed, heckled…many dismissed him as mentally retarded and in some way deranged because he went against the common sense of the time,” he said.

Almost 300 years later, four groups linked to those who repudiated it recognized their mistake.

One of them, the North London Quakers, accepted in 2017 that the group “had not traveled the path that we would later understand as the right one.”

“A historical injustice has been righted,” said London Quaker writer Tim Gee.

For Gee, Lay’s enduring legacy is that he had “a vision of a better world.”

“He was able to see the basic injustices in society that were considered normal and brought them out into the open.”

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BBC-NEWS-SRC:, IMPORTING DATE: 2023-07-02 11:30:06

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