Benjamin Lay Is Having a Moment—263 Years After His Death

by | Aug 10, 2022 | What I'm Seeing and Hearing | 7 comments

I first heard about Benjamin Lay a few weeks ago when another Quaker who had recently learned about him stood up in our Quaker meeting and offered a capsule biography. Then my issue of Friends Journal (the magazine of liberal U.S. Quakers) arrived and I saw there was an article about a new graphic biography of Benjamin Lay. And then, I listened to the latest Ezra Klein Show podcast in which he interviews Oxford philosopher William MacAskill on the question of what do we owe the future? To my surprise, MacAskill talked for several minutes about… BENJAMIN LAY!

So who was this guy? Lay was born to an English Quaker family in 1682. While Quakers today are noted for their role in the abolitionist movements in Britain and the United States, at the time of Lay’s birth and life, many Quakers were enslavers. Lay spent some years as a sailor, working alongside men with direct experience of slavery.

Lay and his Quaker wife, Sarah Smith, subsequently moved to Barbados where they were horrified by the treatment of enslaved people on sugar plantations. Eventually the Lays went to Pennsylvania, an English colony that at that time was governed primarily by Quakers.  

Lay used political theater and nonviolent direct action to challenge Quakers on their complicity in the slave system. He splattered red juice over Quakers during their worship service to represent the blood they were spilling through their treatment of other human beings. He stood in the snow barefoot and when his neighbors expressed concern, pointed out that the people they had enslaved also lacked proper clothing.

He had dwarfism, which gave him a distinctive appearance. He had a powerful personality and a brilliant mind; notably befriending the acclaimed scientist Benjamin Franklin. As the years passed and Lay’s awareness of injustice expanded, he became increasingly radical. He was a vegetarian and an animal rights activist. He boycotted products produced by enslaved people (sugar, coffee, tobacco, tea) and urged others to do so as well. He was repeatedly removed from his Quaker meeting, and finally disowned, but he did not stop his campaigns.

When Lay died in 1759, he was buried next to his wife in an unmarked grave next to Abington Friends Meetinghouse outside Philadelphia. In 2018, that meeting held a ceremony to honor Lay. Part of what inspired this belated recognition of Lay was the 2018 book The Fearless Benjamin Lay by Marcus Rediker, also the book that is the basis for the forthcoming graphic biography of this remarkable person.

Every consideration of Lay, of course, challenges us to consider what voices of the present day are being silenced.