The Fearless Benjamin Lay
The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist
By Marcus Rediker
232 pp. $26.95
Reviewed by Joe Smydo
Quakers were early opponents of slavery in Pennsylvania and instrumental in establishing the state's gradual Emancipation Act of 1780, often described as the first law of its kind in the nation. But Quakers did not gravitate automatically to the slaves' cause; some were slaveholders who ruthlessly suppressed antislavery dissent. In 1730s Philadelphia, one Quaker's antislavery agitation cost him dearly.
This is the story Marcus Rediker tells in The Fearless Benjamin Lay. Rediker, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, traces the development of Lay's antislavery sensibilities. Contemptuous of authority, Lay had running battles with Quaker leaders in England and recoiled at the mistreatment of slaves on Barbados sugar plantations. Rediker suggests Lay's diminutive stature helped sensitize him to the plight of the less fortunate.
In 1732, Lay came to Philadelphia, hoping, Rediker says, "to join William Penn's 'Holy Experiment.' " Instead, he was sickened to find slave owners among the city's leading Quakers. His campaign against these "apostates" included attention-grabbing protests and publication of a book in 1738. Printed by Benjamin Franklin, it contained language of prophetic fire. Lay's entreaties drew scorn, and he suffered ridicule because of his dwarfism. His religious community shunned him. He lived in a cave, with friends and books to comfort him.
Lay was ahead of his time. His demand for immediate emancipation anticipated the radical abolitionists of a century later. So do his religious inspiration, defiance of elites, uncompromising stance, and willingness to endure personal abuse for the cause.
Rediker believes Lay's size and eccentric behavior are partly why history has dismissed him. He also suggests that the working-class Lay, by turns a shepherd, tradesman, and sailor, is lost in the common view of abolitionism that focuses on wealthy activists such as New York merchant Lewis Tappan, a leader in the radical American Antislavery Society founded in 1833.
Lay, a lover of books, would have appreciated this one, less for the praise lavished on him than the attention given his message. As Rediker says, "Benjamin's prophecy speaks to our time."
Marcus Rediker appears 7 p.m. Nov. 17 at Arch Street Meetinghouse, 320 Arch St. Admission: Free. Info: facebook.com/events/159930111267051.
This review originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.