Quaker Benjamin Lay died exactly 265 years ago today (on February 8, 1759). I’m using the anniversary of his death to reflect on his life and invite you to join me by sharing your thoughts sometime this week.
Lay — the "Quaker Comet" — was a radical anti-slavery advocate and an important figure in the Quaker abolitionist movement. He’s been described as a moral weirdo; besides viewing slavery as a great sin, he opposed the death penalty, was vegetarian, believed that men and women were equal in the eyes of God, and more. He didn’t hide his views and was known for his “guerrilla theater” protests, which included splashing fake blood on slave-owners and forcing people to step over him as they exited a meeting. Expulsion from various communities, ridicule for his beliefs or appearance (he had dwarfism), and the offended sensibilities of those around him didn’t seem to seriously slow him down.
Consider sharing your thoughts this week (February 8-15)!
Here are a few discussion prompts, in case they help (feel free to write about whatever comes to mind, though!):
In the rest of this post, I share a brief overview of Benjamin Lay’s famous protests ⬇️, life and partnership with Sarah Lay (a respected Quaker minister and fellow abolitionist) ⬇️, and how their work fits into the broader history of slavery ⬇️.
I should flag that I’m no expert in Lay’s life or work — just compiling info from ~a day of reading.
Protests against slavery: shocking people into awareness
“Over the course of the twenty-seven years that he lived in Pennsylvania, Lay harangued the Philadelphia Quakers about the horrors of slavery at every opportunity, and he did so in dramatic style."
— Will MacAskill in Chapter Three of What We Owe the Future
Lay’s famous protests illustrate his “dramatic style” (and how little he cared about the opinion of others). Here are some examples:
- 1738: At the biggest event of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Lay showed up in a great coat and waited his turn to speak. When the time came, Lay rose and announced in a “booming” voice: “Oh all you Negro masters who are contentedly holding your fellow creatures in a state of slavery, . . . you might as well throw off the plain coat as I do.” He then threw off his coat, revealing that he was dressed in a military uniform and holding a sword and a book: “It would be as justifiable in the sight of the Almighty, who beholds and respects all nations and colours of men with an equal regard, if you should thrust a sword through their hearts as I do through this book!” When Lay plunged his sword through the book, it started gushing red liquid. In preparation for the event, Lay had hollowed out the book and inserted an animal bladder filled with bright red pokeberry juice. As he finished speaking, he splattered the fake blood on the slave owners present. (Apparently the room exploded into chaos and he was eventually carried out.) (Compiled from Smithsonian and WWOTF)
- One Sunday morning he stood at a gateway to the Quaker meetinghouse, knowing all Friends would pass his way. He left “his right leg and foot entirely uncovered” and thrust them into the snow. Like the ancient philosopher Diogenes, who also trod barefoot in snow, he again sought to shock his contemporaries into awareness. One Quaker after another took notice and urged him not to expose himself to the freezing cold lest he get sick. He replied, “Ah, you pretend compassion for me but you do not feel for the poor slaves in your ﬁelds, who go all winter half clad.” (Smithsonian)
- “Benjamin gave no peace” to slave owners, the 19th-century radical Quaker Isaac Hopper recalled hearing as a child. “As sure as any character attempted to speak to the business of the meeting, he would start to his feet and cry out, ‘There’s another negro-master!’” (Smithsonian)
- …ministers and elders had him removed from one gathering after another. Indeed they appointed a “constabulary” to keep him out of meetings all around Philadelphia, and even that wasn’t enough. After he was tossed into the street one rainy day, he returned to the main door of the meetinghouse and lay down in the mud, requiring every person leaving the meeting to step over his body. (Smithsonian)
- Benjamin Lay’s neighbors held slaves, despite Lay’s frequent censures and cajoling. One day, he persuaded the neighbors’ 6-year old son to his home and amused him there all day. As evening came, the boy’s parents became extremely concerned. Lay noticed them running around outside in a desperate search, and he innocently inquired about what they were doing. When the parents explained in panic that their son was missing, Lay replied: Your child is safe in my house, and you may now conceive of the sorrow you inflict upon the parents of the negroe girl you hold in slavery, for she was torn from them by avarice. (Swarthmore College Bulletin)
- In 1742, the 61-year-old Lay set up a table on a busy Philadelphia street and laid out delicate cups and saucers (previously owned by his wife Sarah). Then he started smashing them with a hammer, denouncing “tyrants” in India and the Caribbean who mistreated the enslaved people (and other workers) who harvested the tea and produced the sugar — explaining that consumers cared more about these objects than they did about people. An outraged crowd gathered and started protesting him, finally picking him up and carrying him away. (Various sources.)
Benjamin Lay wasn’t born planning protests at Quaker meetings:
Benjamin Lay was born in England in 1682. He had a form of dwarfism and, as an adult, stood at a bit over four feet tall and had a hunched back (he called himself “Little Benjamin”). He was briefly a shepherd as a teenager, then an apprentice glover until he ran away to London to become a sailor when he was 21. During his twelve years as a sailor, Lay heard a lot about the slave trade from other sailors.
This was also when he met his wife Sarah. Sarah Lay (born Sarah Smith in 1677) had become a Quaker in her youth and was a minister of the congregation by 1712. Like Benjamin, she also had dwarfism. Various sources describe her as intelligent and charismatic, and she was respected as a minister (even later, when her husband was being denied membership by various groups — despite her own abolitionist activities). Benjamin spent five years courting her before she agreed to marry him in 1717. (Sadly, not very much is written about Sarah.)
In 1718, the couple moved to Barbados, where they set up a profitable shop. They soon discovered the ugly side of Barbados; the primary business, sugar, depending heavily on brutal exploitation of enslaved people. The Lays witnessed the cruelties of slavery first-hand, and started seeking out enslaved people’s stories, inviting them to their house for food and prayer meetings, and preaching against slavery. (According to Benjamin’s book, Sarah initiated some of these activities.) By the time the Lays left Barbados a year and a half later, the local ruling class had begun preparing to banish them for “fraternization” with the enslaved. The couple went to London, but were soon expelled from the Devonshire House Monthly Meeting and moved to Colchester, which had a meeting house friendlier to their values.
In 1732, they moved again, this time to Philadelphia. When the Lays arrived, they were disturbed to find that many Quakers (especially Quaker leaders) owned slaves. They also saw the harassment faced by a fellow anti-slavery advocate, Ralph Sandiford, who had published A Brief Examination of the Practice of the Times without permission, for which he was persecuted to the point that he suffered a nervous breakdown. Benjamin Lay was Sandiford’s friend until his death in 1733 and seems to have been outraged at the posthumous disparagement Sandiford was subjected to. Benjamin’s anti-slavery advocacy became more disruptive. He became known for these actions and started facing his own persecution, which might have been the reason for the couple’s move to a nearby town (Abington, which was home to Sarah’s friend and fellow Quaker missionary Susanna Morris).
Then in 1735, Sarah suddenly died. Benjamin was very affected by this and accused one of his enemies of contributing to her illness and death. He seems to have become more confrontational after Sarah’s death, and eventually he was denied membership in the Pennsylvania Monthly Meeting and the Abington Monthly Meeting. He also started writing.
In 1738, Benjamin Lay published All Slave-Keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates, one of the first anti-slavery books ever published in North America (printed and edited by Benjamin Franklin, who apparently treasured his friendship with Lay and was proud of his work on the book). The text describes abuses enslaved people endured and discusses the theological justifications for declaring slavery a great sin. It also directly accused many elders and/or wealthy Quakers who accepted or participated in the practice of owning and trading slaves. (See a number of excerpts in this footnote.) The Quaker Board of Overseers, which vetted all publications in Pennsylvania and consisted significantly or entirely of slave-owners, naturally issued an official condemnation of the book, saying that it “contains gross Abuses, not only against some of their Members in particular, but against the whole Society.” They also declared that Lay was not “of their religious Community.” (As far as I can tell, he did not stop protesting at their meetings.)
Lay built himself a comfortable cottage in a cave. He also stopped consuming products he believed were immoral. This included refusing to eat animal flesh (animals were “God’s creatures”) and making his own clothes to avoid commodities produced by slave labor and animals. He continued meeting with abolitionists around the colonies and protesting slave holders, but his health began to give out and he spent the last two years of his life taking visitors in his cave.
In 1758, he got good news about the first Quaker ruling on the immorality of slavery; against the wishes of its leadership, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting had voted that any Quaker who traded in slaves would be disciplined and eventually disowned. Lay apparently went silent after hearing the news, then said: “Thanksgiving and praise be rendered unto the Lord God. [...] I can now die in peace.” He died a year later, at the age of 77.
Role in the broader abolition movement
It’s really hard for me to evaluate Benjamin and Sarah Lay’s impact (I’ll focus on Benjamin here, as I’ve read more about him).
My overall sense is:
- Moral change seems to have been important for the abolition of slavery, and it might not have happened without key events/factors/actions (or it might have taken much longer):
- Slavery was seen as morally permissible throughout many/most periods and civilizations, including by influential philosophers and thinkers (e.g. Aristotle, Kant), and while we might hope that there’s a “march of moral progress” that would have made abolition inevitable, it’s not clear how long it would have taken without some key events around the 17th-19th centuries, and the evidence doesn’t even seem to support a very consistent trend.
- Moreover, economic factors don’t seem to explain the abolition of slavery.
- Benjamin Lay’s activism had a significant influence on the Quaker abolitionist movement.
- A generational shift might have been underway among the Quakers, but it seems that Lay might have made the unacceptability of slavery a much more salient topic and catalyzed action on this front (he was certainly noticed and discussed). It’s also notable that Lay was friends with Anthony Benezet, who helped make abolition mainstream in England, and that changes in the Quakers’ policies towards owning or selling people happened fairly soon after Lay’s work.
- The Quaker abolitionist movement was also very important for catalyzing Britain towards the abolition of slavery.
- The Quakers were among the first to actually organize against slavery, and were “foremost in the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787 [...] [which was] responsible for forcing the end of the British slave trade in 1807 and the end of slavery throughout the British Empire by 1838.” (Wikipedia)
- Britain, in turn, was very important for global abolition.
- So, although other factors were also incredibly important in the global abolition of slavery, I think we can’t write off Lay’s influence.
I hope to write a reflection in the comments later.
For now, I’ll say that I am often tempted to believe that, had I lived in a different time and place, I still wouldn’t have tolerated the practice of slavery — that I would have seen it for the moral atrocity it is and that I would have fought against it. But it’s striking to me that so few people had the moral clarity of Benjamin Lay and other abolitionists. And even fewer had his willingness to take moral convictions seriously. The thought that there’s a good chance I would have been one of the majority of the Europeans who interfaced with slavery who either directly profited from it or who didn’t care enough to do anything to stop it is scary.
This is part of what makes me want to reflect on Benjamin Lay’s actions and life; I want to teach myself to be a bit more like him. I think there are still huge problems in the world and I might be too uncaring, cowardly, or blind to do anything about them, and I want to change that.
Here’s a template you can use, if you'd like:
This is part of the Forum’s reflection on Benjamin Lay’s life — consider writing a reflection of your own! The “official dates” for this reflection are February 8 - 15 (but you can write about this topic whenever you want).
Or at a market — accounts seem to vary
This seems to be partially due to offense Benjamin might have caused in London that also led to issues for them when they were trying to get married. From this:
Marriage wasn’t that straightforward, though. As a Quaker he needed a certificate declaring his eligibility for marriage from his own meeting house (the Devonshire House Monthly Meeting in London). He didn’t have any of the disqualifying conditions; he was neither already married nor in debt. But his opinionated mind, and his willingness to speak those opinions, had made him enemies of ministers in the meeting house that he had argued with. So he decided to think laterally, and took a job on a ship heading to the British colony of Massachusetts. There he asked the local meeting house to give him a certificate. They wrote to London, and though they did agree that the certificate should be issued they asked for it to include a passage exhorting him to “lowliness of mind” and to behave himself peaceably in church. Of course Benjamin didn’t do this, and so they refused to give him the official copy of the marriage certificate from Massachusetts. Benjamin had to appeal to the London Quarterly Meeting, a committee overseeing all the Quakers in the city, for assistance. They condemned his conduct but agreed that the DHMM should not withhold the certificate. So finally in July of 1718 he and Sarah were married. Two months later, with tensions still lingering, they left London and moved to Barbados.
From What We Owe the Future:
Early in his time there, he whipped several enslaved people who, racked by hunger, had stolen food from his shops. He was subsequently stricken with guilt and made friends with a number of enslaved people. One of these friends, a barrel maker, had a master who would whip the people he owned every Monday morning “to keep them in awe.” One Sunday evening, in order to avoid the next day’s brutality, this friend committed suicide. Experiences like these haunted Lay for the rest of his life.
which was in Willian Penn’s colony, Pennsylvania. It had a high level of religious freedom for the time and had attracted many Quakers.
Somewhat random excerpts I pulled from Lay’s book as I was reading (bold mine):
“But O! Say the slave-keepers… what a parcel of hypocrites, and deceivers we are, under the greatest appearance and pretensions to religion and sanctity that ever was in the world; we’ll censure [Ralph Sandiford, who wrote an anti-slavery book called The Mystery of Iniquity], and his book too, into the bottomless pit, if we can, tho we can’t disprove a word in it, for it’s undeniable truth and so unanswerable… we are in the practice of slave-keeping, and our children by our means, encouragement, and appointment, not only so, but our fathers before us, [...] and some of them ministers and elders, with all men of renown. They found the sweetness of it, and so do we, and we will continue in it; let who will or dar say nay; we’ll condemn R. in his grave, and his book and all that favour it, or promote its being spread abroad, or being read, that exposes us, and we’ll expose that, or especially him that writ it, by calumnies and slanders, and surmises, and by insinuating all that ever we can hear or think against him… so that if we can but render him odious in his character, his book will be invalidated in course with us that hate it, although we can’t disprove a tittle of it [...] It is true some may say, Christ in his great love, hath forgiven sins, committed in time of great darkness and ignorance; but if we should commit the grossest of evils now, in the clear light of this Gospel Day, continue in them, and plead for it too, we should withstand spiritual Moses and our damnation would be just. [...]
It is true the objection is just [...]: but what shall we do, for people begin to see [clearly], that this practice of ours is as directly opposite to our holy principles as light is to darkness, Christ to Belial, or God to the Devil.
If the case be thus, dear brethren, as to be sure if it is, how shall we stand our ground? Our ground, I say. It is true we may keep our meeting-houses for a time, and we may join forces with them that are in the [slave-keeping practice/slave trade]; in strict unity among ourselves, and with any other dear Friends of our own mind [...] if they will but come to meetings and do as we do, if not, say as we say, and plead for said sad hell-practice; or at least, gentleman-like, connive, palliate, and dissemble to extenuate the crime; and we will with all our might, interest and strength, put forth, keep out, and hinger or prevent coming into our synagogues, any that will oppose or condemn our practice, or us for continuing in it. [...]”
“[Ministers who practice slave-keeping will] preach more to Hell, I firmly believe, than they will to Heaven [...].
For custom in sin hides, covers, as it were takes away the guilt of sin. Long custom, the conveniency of slaves working for us…”
My Friends, you that practice tyranny and oppression for slave-keeping is such; he that assumes in arbitrary manner, unjustly, dominion over his fellow-creature’s liberty and prosperity, contrary to law, reason or equity, he is a wicked and sinful tyrant, guilty of oppression and great iniquity. But he that trades in slaves and the souls of men, does so; therefore — [...] the very name of a tyrant is odious, to God, to good men, yea to bad men too; and the nature and practice is much worse.
And Friends, you that follow this forlorn filthy practice, do you not consider that you are opening a door to others, or setting them an example to do the like by you, whenever it shall please the almighty to suffer them to have power over us, as a scourge to us for our sins, what reason then shall we have to complain?
There are many hundreds of thousands that are now in slavery, were they at liberty, as we are, had the same education, learning, conversation, books, sweet communion in our religious assemblies; I believe many of them would exceed many of their tyrant masters in piety, virtue, and Godliness; and their bright genius, which I know they have, would be inlivened; for I have converst with many of them, for liberty is life, and slavery is death, nay the very thoughts of it to a right thinking animal, as man or woman.
[...] But my dear and tender Friends, how does this cruelty and partiality agree with our principles as a people, which have been preaching up perfection in holiness of life, for near a hundred years, and the universal love of God to all people, of all colours and countries, without respect of persons: have we forgot this blessed testimony with our dear Friends suffered in Old and New-England.
When I have mildly reasons with some Friends concerning their hostility, in carrying a person or Friend, if I may call him so, out of meetings so often, and keeping him out by constable and other ways [...]. O But say some, he is a very troublesome person, and has been so for many years; and is too censorious about trading in slaves or against traders in, and keepers of slavers; and positively affirms, that no man or woman, lad or lass ought to be suffered, to pretend to preach truth in our meetings, while they live in that practice; which is all a lie.”
But some that have not, and will not keep Negroe slaves of their own, may say, we must not be too censorious, for we are often at their houses, and eat and drink bravely, and have their negroes to wait on us, our horses, wives and children.
Possibly just the political/religious publications (see here)
based in large part on Chapter Three of What We Owe the Future and on the 80,000 Hours Podcast episode with Professor Christopher Brown
See e.g. What We Owe the Future discussion around page 65.
What We Owe the Future: “Since the publication of Econocide, few historians have continued to adhere to the economic interpretation of British abolition.” [...] There are a few reasons for this. First, at the time of abolition slavery was enormously profitable for the British. [...] The economic interpretation of abolition also struggles to explain the activist approach that Britain took to the slave trade after 1807. [...]”
From What We Owe the Future: “Lay’s activism coincided with the time when moral sentiment among Quakers changed dramatically. In the period of 1681 to 1705, an estimated 70 percent of the leaders of the Quaker’s Yearly Meeting owned people; for the period 1754 to 1780 that figure was only 10 percent. In the 1758 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, it was decided that Quakers who traded people would be disciplined and then disowned (though it would be another eighteen years before owning people was also banned). [...]”
What We Owe the Future: “at the time of abolition slavery was enormously profitable for the British. [...] The British government paid off British slave owners in order to pass the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, which gradually freed the enslaved across most of the British Empire. This cost the British government £20 million, amounting to 40 percent of the Treasury’s annual expenditure at the time. To finance the payments, the British government took out a £15 million loan, which was not fully paid back until 2015. [...] The economic interpretation of abolition also struggles to explain the activist approach that Britain took to the slave trade after 1807. Britain made treaties, and sometimes bribes, to pressure other European powers to end their involvement in the trade and used the Royal Navy’s West African Squadron to enforce those treaties.90 Britain had some economic incentive here to prevent their rivals from selling slave-produced goods at lower prices than they could. But the scale of their activism doesn’t seem worth it: from 1807 to 1867, enforcing abolition cost Britain almost 2 percent of its annual national income, several times what Britain spends today on foreign aid; political scientists Robert Pape and Chaim Kaufman described this campaign as “the most expensive international moral effort in modern history.” [...]”
[Professor Brown] rebuts one prominent theory — that the practice of slavery was bound to end as it was no longer profitable for slaveholders and traders — by noting that people involved in the slave trade were viewing the system as profitable. And mechanization of labor also doesn’t guarantee the end of slavery; the episode calls us to imagine modern-day hypotheticals like captive boys trained from childhood to be the shock troops in war, or enslaved people treated as luxuries for the rich.
The episode focuses on the history of abolition; how enslaved people fought back, the part played by the politics of the American Revolution, the role of individuals, and more. One change is described as especially significant: the shift from feelings of unease about the morality of slavery to organized action in slaveholding societies. Brown notes that it might be comforting to think that “once [people] understood the cruelty of slavery, then of course they would organize and do something about it,” but he stresses that “not only did it not happen that way, but it almost never happens that way.”
Brown urges listeners to take this as a lesson that change like this is up to us: “I think we need to watch ourselves individually, and watch the worlds that we live in and the people that we elect, and think about what harms we do or what harms we authorize or permit because they just seem basic to the world in which we live. [...] The world gets better or worse on the choices we make individually and collectively — not because things are just sort of trending in the right direction.”
ALL SLAVE-KEEPERS that keep the innocent in bondage : APOSTATES
pretending to lay claim to the pure & holy Christian religion, of what congregation so ever, but especially in their ministers, by whose example the filthy leprosy and apostacy is spread far and near : it is a notorious sin which many of the true Friends of Christ and his pure truth, called Quakers, has been for many years and still are concern'd to write and bear testimony against as a practice so gross & hurtful to religion, and destructive to government beyond what words can set forth, or can be declared of by men or angels, and yet lived in by ministers and magistrates in America.
The Leaders of the People case them to Err.
Written for a General Service, by him that truly and sincerely desires the present and eternal Welfare and Happiness of all Man-kind, all the World over, of all Colours, and Nations, as his own Soul;