Benjamin and Sarah Lay returned to England, first to London, then to the north country. Benjamin was no quieter there. He called members of Quaker meetings to follow the leadings of their conscience, to avoid using slave products especially rum, and to help the poor. Sometimes he disrupted meetings of worship with his warnings against hypocrisy and his calls for the end of slavery. His behavior and his demeanor irritated his listeners. They disowned him though they continued to respect and live in harmony with his wife Sarah.
In 1732 the two sailed for America. They settled in Philadelphia. Benjamin opened a bookselling business. He was shocked to see the behavior of some of the wealthy Quakers. Those who owned slaves angered him. Benjamin felt slavery was killing his beloved Quaker community. He tried hard to make the members understand this. He wrote pamphlets about slavery, prisons, simple living, not using slave-produced goods. He seemed to irritate, not educate.
He and Sarah left Philadelphia and settled on the farm of one of Sarah’s friends, Susanna Morris. They chose a spot near a spring and fashioned a “cottage” home in a hillside cave, much like those of early Quaker settlers who lived in caves until William Penn’s Philadelphia city could be built. Theirs was more comfortable and had room for Benjamin’s library of 200 books. They planted fruit and nut trees, a vegetable and herb garden. Bees gave them honey and goats supplied milk. Benjamin planted flax. He harvested it, spun thread, and wove cloth to make his rough, undyed linen clothes. They lived simply and went to the nearby Quaker meeting every Sunday to worship. Then, sorrow of sorrows, Sarah died.
Benjamin was devastated. Susanna Morris comforted him but to no avail. He retreated to his cave home, where he read and wrote. He gained strength and encouragement from the works of George Fox and William Penn to speak his Truth and live a life using Jesus as his model. Thomas Tryon and the Greek philosopher Diogenes reaffirmed his simple, vegetarian lifestyle. He found Diogenes’ “the love of money is the root of all evil” compatible with his views. He continued to write pamphlets and then finished a book, All Slave-keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. In it he warned against false humility and hypocrisy and called for the immediate abolition of slavery. He never sought approval from the Quaker elders to publish his writing. They would not control his conscience! Deborah Franklin encouraged her husband Ben Franklin to print Lay’s book. He did. The elders of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting disowned him. Still, each Sunday he went to worship at the Abington Meeting.
And, he continued the dramatic public acts that contributed to his disownment. These acts always had a message. When he broke teacups in the market, he warned about the use of slave-produced sugar and the suffering of sugar cane workers. When he broke three smoking pipes in a meetinghouse, one in the men’s section, one in the women’s, and the last in the elders’ section, he called for true gender equality within Friends. He also admonished about the growing of tobacco which involved many workers all year round and encouraged the use of slaves. Benjamin even carried out one of his prophetic performances at an annual meeting in Burlington. There he wore a military uniform under his cloak where he had hidden a sword. When he felt called, he rose to speak. Slowly he drew his sword, raised his Bible high, and stabbed it through and through. A blood red liquid ran down his arm and splattered nearby worshippers. He shouted that they had the blood of those they held in bondage on their souls and were hypocrites and sinners. Men hurried him from the room. He did not resist. It mattered not that the “blood” was only pokeberry juice.
At Abington Meeting, he appeared one Sunday with one pant leg cut away and no shoe on that foot though the snow was piled high. When members worried that he would catch a terrible cold, he stated that they were showing him compassion but did not do the same to slaves that worked outside in winter without adequate clothing to keep them warm. Another time he lay across the meetinghouse door, forcing members to step around or over him into a muddy walkway, calling attention to the working condition of field hands.
Perhaps the act that disturbed Abington Friends most involved a young neighbor boy who disappeared from his home one day. Benjamin was a supporter of education. He often visited local schools. The children enjoyed listening to his Bible stories and tales of his days as a sailor. They helped in his garden and fed his goats. He even taught them to milk the nannies and work with the bees.
On the day in question, he invited the young neighbor to his cave home. They spent the whole day there. Maybe Benjamin let the boy help him spin his flax or weave some cloth. No doubt there were stories told. The day passed. At dusk, Benjamin saw the parents searching everywhere. He left the boy in the cave and walked down to meet the worried couple. Benjamin told them the boy was safe in his cave. He then asked them how they thought the parents of their slave girl felt when their daughter was sold from them due to the greed of her former owner.
The Abington Meeting disowned Benjamin Lay. He continued to attend meeting for worship. He continued to do his duty as he discerned it. When a friend visited him in his final days in 1758 to let him know that the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting had agreed to disown members who traded in slaves and would work to reach a decision on slaveowning, Benjamin sighed and gave thanks to God before expressing his surety that he could die in peace. When he died shortly thereafter, he was buried in the Abington cemetery in an unmarked grave, still unrecognized for his message to his beloved community.
The story did not end in that cave in 1759. In 2009, Marcus Rediker’s book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist, was published. It was later reviewed by Stephen W. Angell of the Earlham School of Religion. This led to serious discernment by Friends in England and Abington/Philadelphia. Marcus Rediker was invited to speak at the Abington Meeting. With the work of several members of that meeting a minute was approved on November 12, 2017 and affirmed by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting on July 14, 2018 to declare Benjamin Lay a “Friend of Truth”. This led to a marker of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission being placed on Meetinghouse Road in Jenkintown, PA, paid for by lawyer M. Kelly Tillery and the laying of a stone with both Sarah and Benjamin’s dates in the meeting cemetery near her grave site.. London Yearly Meeting’s Tim Gee spoken movingly when Benjamin Lay was recognized in 2017. He reminded Friends that we need to listen to the message of the spirit even when it is expressed in ways we do not want to hear or when it is tempered by those in power. He also said that as long as racism remains in Quakerism or in the society as a whole, we cannot live with justice and in peace with all.
Questions to ponder:
- What were the experiences in Benjamin Lay’s life that grounded him in the message he delivered?
- How did his body and others’ response to it affect their hearing or not hearing his message?
- Contrast Benjamin and Sarah’s response to their dealing with slavery.
- What do you think about the dramatic acts Benjamin used to get across his messages?
- Why do you think Marcus Rediker called Benjamin Lay “revolutionary”?
- The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolition by Marcus Rediker
- Memoirs of the Lives of Benjamin Lay and Ralph Sandiford by Roberts Vaux
- All Slave-keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates by Benjamin Lay
- “The Rebellious Gnome” in American Eccentrics by Carl Sifakis
- “Guide to Benjamin Lay’s Cave” at http://www.abingtonmeeting.org provides a map and walking directions to the Jenkintown, PA site near the Abington Meeting
- A review of Rediker’s book by Stephen W. Angell at quakertheology.org/QT-30-31- Angell-Review-Rediker.html