A biography of a nearly forgotten Quaker whose life still resonates.
In his youth, Benjamin Lay (1681-1759), born in Colchester, England, was an unschooled shepherd and glover. Though a hunchback and not much taller than 4 feet, he became a common sailor. The Caribbean island of Barbados, where he became a merchant, was a major center of the world slave trade. As Rediker (Atlantic History/Univ. of Pittsburgh; Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail, 2014, etc.) notes, this was where Lay viewed firsthand the manifold evils of the traffic in human beings, leading to his career as a fervent and intractable abolitionist. With his wife, Sarah, who matched his mighty spirit, Lay moved to Pennsylvania to join the Society of Friends. There, he quickly made himself unwelcome through his fervent preaching against slavery, especially targeting fellow Friends who kept slaves. In a form of guerrilla theater, at one meeting, clad in a military tunic, he stabbed a concealed bladder with a sword, spattering nearby Quakers with blood-red juice. Lay was formally disowned by various groups as he persisted in his demands for piety, humility, and reverence for all life. Through it all, he practiced what he preached, living in a cave, making his own clothes, and growing his own food (he was a staunch vegetarian). Ascetic and religious and also an autodidact, Lay compiled a significant text, which was largely a commonplace book with lessons from the Old Testament and the book of Revelation as well as classical philosophy. Titled, clearly enough, All Slave-Keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates, it was edited and published by his good friend Benjamin Franklin. Relying on Lay’s book and pamphlets, Quaker records, and contemporaneous accounts, Rediker provides a valuable addition to abolitionist historiography.
A concise, solid biography of “the first revolutionary abolitionist,” a diminutive man who was decades ahead of his time.