A hundred years ahead of his time, the fiery abolitionist Benjamin Lay assaulted the consciences of Philadelphia slaveowners—and won
On a bitter Sunday morning some two hundred years ago, a frail, middle-aged man lay in the snow at the gateway to one of the Friends’ meeting houses in Philadelphia. His right leg and foot were bared to the icy winds. When passing worshippers warned him, “Benjamin, thee will catch thy death of cold!” he retorted, “Ah, you pretend compassion for me, but you do not feel for the poor slaves in your fields, who go all winter half clad.”
The rebuked Quakers shrugged their shoulders and hurried into meeting. Benjamin Lay’s protests against slavery were an old story. In an era when the keeping of slaves was considered no more sinful than keeping horses or cattle, he made a full-time career of trying to convince his fellow Philadelphians that it was not possible to be both a slaveholder and a Christian. He buttonholed government officials, harangued civic leaders, and preached—usually uninvited—to church congregations of all denominations.
His approach was often dramatic. One Sunday he strode into a rural church near Philadelphia wrapped in a mantle of sackcloth. He stood motionless and listened to the sermon, his mantle and flowing white beard giving him the look of an Old Testament prophet. At the conclusion of the services he fixed the congregation with a piercing eye, and proceeded to denounce those members who held slaves.
On another occasion he removed the leaves from a thick book and between the covers stowed a bladder filled with pokeberry juice. Then he arrayed himself in a military uniform—complete with sword—and concealed the costume beneath his Quaker’s greatcoat. With the book tucked under his arm, he found a prominent seat at the yearly meeting of the Society of Friends at Burlington, New Jersey, and claimed his right to speak. After berating his listeners for holding their fellow creatures in bondage, he concluded: “You might as well throw off the plain coat as I do [casting off his Quaker coat] and thrust a sword through their hearts as I do this book.” Whereupon he drew his sword and pierced the bladder, sprinkling bloodcolored pokeberry juice over half a dozen indignant Quakers sitting nearby.
Arousing indignation was a lifelong habit with Lay. Born into a Quaker family—in Colchester, England, in 1677—he was a merchant seaman until his mid-thirties, when he married a country woman and settled on a farm near his native town. Here he engaged in such heated religious controversies that the Quakers finally “disunited” him from membership.
Emigrating with his wife to the West Indies, he opened a store in Barbados, at that time a center of the slave trade. Appalled by its cruelties, he launched a vociferous one-man crusade against slavery.
Each Sunday hundreds of slaves gathered at his house, where he preached to them and fed them—a hospitality denounced by the colony’s white populace, who feared he would stir the blacks to rebellion. Eventually the anti-Lay sentiment grew so clamorous that government officials hinted he might be happier elsewhere. He moved to Philadelphia in 1731.
Disappointed to find slavery practiced in Penn’s colony, he declined to live in the city. Moving several miles out into the country, he built a retreat—half cabin, half cave—with a similar shelter nearby for his wife. He laid out an extensive vegetable garden, orchard, and apiary to provide their food.
A vegetarian, he was not only opposed to eating the flesh of animals, but also to using their pelts. His clothing was made from flax which he grew and spun himself. When not busy with his husbandry chores, he read, meditated, and wrote antislavery pamphlets which he distributed on the streets of Philadelphia.
His appearance was as singular as his behavior. Only four feet seven inches tall, he had an unusually large head set on a narrow, hunchbacked body; his legs looked almost too spindling to support him. His tiny wife also had a crooked back. The similarity of the pair had fascinated the Negroes in Barbados, who told their masters, “That ittle backararar [white] man, go all over world, see[k] for that backararar woman for himself.”
But Lay was sturdier than he looked. He once determined on a forty-day fast in imitation of the Saviour and after eight days of a diet limited to spring water was still able to walk five miles into Philadelphia to call on his friend Benjamin Franklin. At last too weak to rise from his bed, Lay ordered a loaf of bread to be placed on his bedside table. “Benjamin, thou seest it, but thou shall not eat it,” he muttered to himself as he gazed at the loaf. It was not until his mental faculties began to fail—at the end of three weeks—that his friends were able to feed him forcibly.
He survived the fast by twenty years and continued his assault on the conscience of Philadelphia. In addition to preaching emancipation and vegetarianism, he was a pioneer in the temperance movement and agitated for a less harsh criminal code. Throughout his embattled career, his wife supported his views.
In 1758, the yearly meeting of the Society of Friends voted to “disown” from membership any persons engaged in the buying and selling of slaves, and urged members to free slaves they owned. When news of this decision reached Lay—by then enfeebled with age—he rose from his couch with eyes blazing. “Thanksgiving and praise be rendered unto the Lord God,” he cried. “I can now die in peace!” He died several months later, aged eighty-two.