Monday, March 24, 2008

Benjamin Lay

One of the things I love about history is that you come across the most remarkable people and circumstances. If there is one thing that history teaches us, it is that almost anything is possible.

One such remarkable person was Benjamin Lay (1681 - 1760). Lay, a Quaker, was born in England, and grew up to become a merchant seaman. He and his wife eventually settled in Barbados, West Indies, a hub for the slave trade. There Lay witnessed firsthand the horrors of slavery. He was so shocked and appalled that he devoted his life to speaking out against slavery. In Barbados, Lay would invite hundreds of slaves to his home each Sunday for meals and Gospel preaching. This did not go down well with the slave owners, who feared he would incite rebellion. Lay was eventually asked by government officials to leave Barbados.

He next settled in the then new town of Philadelphia, which was founded and governed by Quakers, but was upset to learn that slavery was being practiced there as well.

Lay was an unusual man both in his obstreperousness and his physical appearance. He was a dwarf--standing just over 4 feet tall--with a thin body, hunched back, protruding chest, spindly legs that looked like they wouldn't support him, very long arms, an unusually large head and a thick white beard. He was a vegetarian and refused to use any products that were made from animals or slave labor. Mrs. Lay was equally diminutive and hunch-backed as well. The slaves in Barbados believed that he must have sailed the world to find a matching woman. Mr. and Mrs. Lay purchased a piece of property in Pennsylvania where they grew their own food, including flax which Mr. Lay spun himself and made his own clothes with.

Lay, who would often walk five miles into Philadelphia to visit his friend Benjamin Franklin, wrote a continuous steam of anti-slavery pamphlets and became a thorn in the side of his slave-owning Christian neighbors. He was known for his dramatic one-man demonstrations against slavery, such as lying half-dressed in the snow in front of the church on Sunday to bring attention to the fact that poorly dressed slaves had to work in the cold. He once walked into church dressed in sackcloth, stood motionless until the conclusion of the sermon, then began berating the congregants for their complicity in the slave trade.

Perhaps Lay's most over-the-top and memorable demonstration was at the Quaker yearly meeting in Burlington, New Jersey. He had filled a bladder with blood-red pokeberry juice, hollowed out a book and inserted the bladder inside. He had then dressed up in full military regalia, sword included. He covered his uniform with his gray Quaker cloak, went to the meeting and found a seat that would be highly visible. During the course of the meeting, Lay stood and spoke out once again against the plight of the slaves, crying out, “You might as well throw off the plain coat as I do [casting off his Quaker coat] and thrust a sword through their hearts as I do this book.” At which point he stabbed the book with the sword, piercing the hidden bladder and spraying "blood" upon nearby attendees.

Benjamin Lay continued to offend and incite for the abolition of slavery until his passing at 82 years of age. Not long before his death in 1760, the Society of Friends (Quakers) officially voted to dis-fellowship any members who bought or sold slaves, and urged their members to free their slaves. When Lay heard the decision he cried out, "“Thanksgiving and praise be rendered unto the Lord God! I can now die in peace!”

In 1775 the first abolition society was formed. It was called The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, and was primarily comprised of Philadelphia Quakers.

In 1780, the congress of Pennsylvania passed An Act for the Gradual Abolishment of Slavery. This was nine years before Wilberforce's first abolition motion in England.

By 1798 all Northern states had enacted laws abolishing or severely limited the slave trade.

The importation of slaves into the United States was officially banned on January 1, 1808, but it wasn't until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 that slavery officially ended in the U.S.


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