Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Re-Post: Benjamin Lay

[This is an edited re-post of an essay I wrote in 2008 about an extremely interesting, albeit quirky, Quaker. - DC]

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 was a Quaker who grew up in England and became a merchant seaman. He and his wife eventually settled in Barbados, West Indies, which was a hub for the slave trade. There Lay witnessed firsthand the horrors of slavery. He was so appalled that he devoted the rest of his life to speaking out against slavery. While living in Barbados, Mr. and Mrs. Lay would invite hundreds of slaves to their home each Sunday for meals and worship. 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.

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

Lay was an unusual man both in his obstreperous nature 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 appeared as if they wouldn't support him, very long arms, an unusually large head and a thick white beard. He was a vegan and refused to use any products that were made from animals or from slave labor. Mrs. Lay was equally diminutive and hunch-backed as well. The slaves in Barbados believed that Benjamin Lay had sailed the world in order to find a matching woman. Upon moving to Pennsylvania, Mr. and Mrs. Lay purchased a piece of property, where they grew their own food, including flax which Mr. Lay spun himself to make his own clothes with.

Lay would often walk five miles into Philadelphia to visit his friend Benjamin Franklin. He wrote a continuous stream of anti-slavery pamphlets and became a thorn in the side of his slave-owning Christian neighbors. He was known for his theatrical one-man protests against slavery, such as lying half-naked 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. Church attendees would have to walk past his prone body as he lectured up at them. He once walked into church dressed in sackcloth and stood motionless in the sanctuary 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, then went into the meeting and found a seat that would be highly visible. During the course of the meeting, Lay stood and spoke out 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 disfellowship 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 slavery 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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