Benjamin's Lay: A Biographical Summary of a Quaker Abolitionist

by: Gabriel Roark

I stumbled on a provocatively titled article in the September 2017 issue of Smithsonian magazine: "The Cave-dwelling Vegan Who Took on Quaker Slavery and Won," by Marcus Rediker (Volume 48, issue 5, pp. 34-41). The article proved to be a sympathetic and respectful review of Benjamin Lay's contribution to the kingdom of heaven.

Benjamin Lay was born in Essex, England, in 1682. He was a third-generation Quaker in a region known for textile manufacturing, protests, and religious radicalism. In the late 1690s, as a teenager, Lay found satisfying work as a shepherd on a half-brother's farm in eastern Cambridgeshire. When it came time for Benjamin to strike out on his own, however, his father pointed his son in a different direction. The elder Lay apprenticed Benjamin to a master glover in Colchester, Essex. Benjamin disliked the work and in 1703, at the age of 21, he went to London to be a sailor.

For the next 12 years, Lay lived between London and the sea lanes. While aboard ship, Lay worked closely with multiethnic crews and had much exposure to the horrors of the slave trade and ownership. The plight of slaves in Barbados was especially grim in Lay's eyes. I wonder whether knowledge of George Fox's early visit to the island provided an additional push into Lay's staunch abolitionist stance. We know from his later writings that Lay's study of Quaker history also convinced him that no man had the right to control another human's conscience or to attempt to exert such control.

The earliest known record of Lay participating formally in Quaker business dates to 1717, in the British American colonies. Lay had sailed to Boston to request a certificate of approval to marry Sarah Smith of Deptford, England. Smith was a little person like her husband-to-be, although she was a popular and admired preacher in her monthly meeting - in contrast to the esteem in which Lay was held in the London monthly meeting. Lay's meeting did say that he was clear of prior marriages. Benjamin and Sarah soon married.

In the middle of March, 1732, the Lays took a ship to Philadelphia, eager to take part in William Penn's Holy Experiment. The City of Brotherly Love was then North America's largest city and boasted the second largest population of Friends in the world. At the center of the city's religious and civic life was Philadelphia Monthly Meeting.

A discordant element of life in this Quaker country was slavery. The abominable practice was commonplace - much more so than in the Lays' native England. What was more, Friends both owned slaves and engaged in human trade. Galvanized by the early death of his abolitionist friend Ralph Sandiford (also a Friend), after May 1733, Benjamin began staging public protests to startle Philadelphia Friends into an awareness of slavery's immorality.

Lay's early protests included the condemnation of tobacco smoking and cultivation because of its reliance on slave labor and health depredations. Lay had brought three pipes into the meetinghouse on a first day and rose to speak toward the end of worship. He dashed the pipes on the floor and railed against slavery and smoking.  On another occasion, Lay waited in deep snow outside the meetinghouse and thrust a bared leg into a snow drift as Friends passed him. Several Friends admonished Lay to take care not to expose himself to the elements. Lay responded that their concern must be feigned, as they make their slaves go half-clad all winter long.  Lay's public condemnation of slave-holding Friends was so ardent and persistent that Philadelphia Friends appointed a constabulary to keep Benjamin out of worship meetings.

At the end of 1734, the Lays moved 8 miles north of Philadelphia to Abington. For their transfer, Philadelphia Monthly Meeting gave Sarah a letter of good standing. Not so for Benjamin. Sarah died of unknown causes in late 1735; Lay partially blamed Robert Jordan Jr., an overseer in Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, for Sarah's death.

In 1738, Lay had Benjamin Franklin print a book, All Slave-Keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. It was part autobiography, prophetic pronouncement against slavery, description of slavery in Barbados, writings by others, and account of Lay's struggles with Philadelphia Quaker slave owners. Lay continued to attend meetings and protest slavery.

Lay eventually left his Abington house and built a home in a cave to live a simpler life unencumbered by unwitting contributions to the slave economy of Philadelphia. His new home had room for a spinning jenny and a large library. Lay gardened, kept bees, and planted fruit trees. He observed a vegetarian, nearly vegan diet, and made his own clothing.

By 1757, at the age of 75, Lay's health began to deteriorate. He ceased traveling. The following year, word reached Lay that a process of internal purification had begun in Philadelphia Monthly Meeting. Participation in the slave trade was forbidden among members of the monthly meeting, although slave ownership was tolerated for another 18 years. Nevertheless, Lay praised God for moving the hearts of his fellow Friends. Benjamin Lay died at home on February 3, 1759, and was buried in Abington cemetery. The Abington Monthly Meeting register of burials recorded the fact of Lay's burial, but did not indicate him a member of the meeting.

Soon after reading this article, I asked Jim and Tyla whether the monthly newsletter might have room for a few notes about Benjamin Lay. A few reasons present themselves. It's not often that Christian's receive positive treatment in scholarly or semi-scholarly journals - and accounts of Quakers are rarer still! The article reminds me how Friends have a special place in God's service and also in American history. I feel that both of these things are worth us celebrating - the former because of the joy in ministering under Christ's easy yoke and the latter as a record of Christian ministry. Lay's life can also remind us that the injustices with which he took righteous umbrage are relevant today. The forms of human bondage in America are different today than in Lay's time, yet human trafficking is all too real. He was concerned about the treatment of food animals long before veganism was a household word in the western world (I am not advocating for veganism here; I view that as a matter of individual health, conscience, and expression of faith). Most importantly, the shackles of sin and estrangement from the author of life continue to plague the human race. I see in Benjamin's life a clarion call to patient, faithful witnessing and loving kingdom living

(Note:The author of the article Gabriel read also wrote a full-length biography called The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist.It will soon be available in the church library. – Jim Healton)