#14 Benjamin Lay: Often Misunderstood, Now Recognized

The little boy scrambled up the tree and looked out over the rolling hills of his family’s small farm. He saw his father William working in the newly tilled field. He checked the few sheep grazing on the short grasses of the new season. There were new lambs frolicking on unsteady legs. He loved those lambs! They came to him, butted him with their bobbing heads, and followed him back to the enclosure. His mother came outside with a bundle of beddings. She began to shake them in the gentle breeze.

Benjamin Lay was a ten year old boy, though he looked no more than five or six. He was very glad to be outside once again after weeks of fevers and sore limbs. His mother had put poultices on his aching chest and cooled his head with her loving hards and dampened cloths. She massaged his sore limbs, giving them strength. His over large head, jutting chest, hunched back, curved spine, and spindly legs often caused other children to mock him. His big brother John encouraged him while his parents loved and accepted him.

It was 1692 in Copford, England. Benjamin looked forward to the meeting the next day at a neighbor’s farm. It would be a meeting for worship of the Friends of Truth, often called Quakers. He had heard his parents talking about the traveling minister coming to speak. Benjamin’s grandfather had joined this group’s early followers of George Fox as Fox spread his message of the light of God being in every person. His parents had joined soon after their marriage, drawn by the belief that everyone – poor farmers like they were, people who could read and those who could not, men and women, even little boys like their misshapen Benjamin – could speak directly to God. George Fox had been treated roughly when he disturbed church services and called for attenders and the priest to follow the words of Jesus’ Golden Rule. Benjamin’s parents had been called “dissenters” and other names by some of their neighbors.

Benjamin remembered that meeting fifteen years later as he sat atop the riggings of the merchant ship on which he sailed. He looked down on his fellow workers going about their tasks. They were different colors, spoke many languages, some young like he, some older with years at sea. They were his comrades, his new family. Most accepted him and respected his abilities despite his size and shape. A few had taught him to read and write. Their tales of other places were filled with excitement and danger. Some of the stories moved Benjamin deeply. They were tales of former slavery, days of hunger and pain. Their escapes had not been easy. Even the hardships of the sea were nothing by comparison. Others told of service on slave ships to the Americas – the cruelty, the deaths, the bodies tossed overboard. Benjamin vowed never to serve on one of those slave ships.

Having left the sea in his early thirties, Benjamin had married Sarah Smith, a “little person” like he was, and moved to the island of Barbados, where they set up a shop on the wharf. Barbados was the largest slave market in the Americas and the home of many Quakers. These Quakers were sugar cane planters, most slaveowners. Some were very wealthy and had become merchants and shipowners as well.

Benjamin and Sarah were horrified that members of their faith community were involved in the buying, selling, and owning of slaves. One day, Sarah, a gentle, intelligent, recorded minister, went to visit a fellow member to give advice and counsel. She was startled when their tea was interrupted by shouting and cries of pain. Rushing outside, they saw her friend’s husband beating a slave cruelly. This was unusual and certainly not right. When Sarah questioned the Quaker, he responded that the slave needed to know his place and be grateful for it. Sarah went home crying.

At this time, the Lays had sometimes given slaves spoiled food from their store, knowing them to be hungry. They had reported them to the authorities when the slaves stole from their store. Now they were ashamed. They opened their home to the plantation workers, fed them, prayed and read the Bible with them, and even taught them and their children to read and write. They listened to the slaves’ stories and were moved. Benjamin knew that he must lead Quakers, his beloved community, away from this sinful behavior. Sarah agreed. She used her gentle, reasoned nature to admonish them. Benjamin was more direct. He eldered the slaveowners personally and called them out in meeting for worship for holding other people in bondage. Finally the plantation owners and merchants, Quaker and non-Quaker, forced them to leave the island of Barbados.

On the ship back to England, Benjamin and Sarah talked about what had happened in Barbados. Benjamin fumed. He felt betrayed by the behavior of his fellow Quakers. How could they make their slaves work so hard in that heat? Why did they let them go hungry? Why did they not teach them to read and write? Why did so few tell them about the light of God inside all of them? Why did the planters break up families for financial gain? And finally, why did they treat him so badly just because he was a hunchback dwarf from poor beginnings and made them uncomfortable by his speaking?

Sarah listened and tried to calm his anger, reminding him to look within his heart to respond with more love, to answer that part of God he knew was inside every person, even the slaveowners. Benjamin listened to his beloved Sarah, looked out at the sea he had sailed for over ten years and come to love, and felt some calm. He was even more determined than ever of what he was called to do. He would not use anything produced by slaves. He would live a simple life. He would banish slavery forever.

If Benjamin and Sarah Lay’s ship had been lost at sea on their return to England, Quaker and world history would have been a different story. The next post will share the American part of their story.

I’ll post resources and questions to ponder after then next post.

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