Cast out by the Quakers, Abington's abolitionist dwarf finally has his day

Caretaker Dave Wermeling installs a new headstone for Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lay and his wife, Sarah, at Abington Friends Meeting burial ground.

Benjamin Lay was an 18th-century vegetarian hunchbacked dwarf who lived in caves around Abington with his wife, also a dwarf, and a trove of hundreds of books. But that wasn’t why — at least not entirely why — his wealthy Quaker brethren disliked him.

He was also a fierce abolitionist, an inflammatory impresario of dramatic protests in which he rebuked the Friends for owning slaves.  Even as they sat beside him in the meetinghouse, he sprayed them with red pokeberry juice to symbolize the spilled blood of their human chattel. He stood outside in the snow without coat and shoes, chiding them for making Africans toil in rags in winter’s throes. During a speech at a Philadelphia market, he smashed cups as a reminder that forced labor had provided the sugar for their spot of tea.

His faith-driven mission to end slavery, combined with his peculiar personal circumstances, turned the 4-foot-tall Benjamin Lay into one of the largest of Colonial America’s larger-than-life characters.

But his fame — or, in many a craw, infamy — eventually faded. The Quakers ousted him. He was ridiculed for his dwarfism. When he died at age 77 in 1759, he was buried as a nonmember in an unmarked grave in the Abington Monthly Meeting cemetery, his legacy doomed to be superseded by the upper-class-gentleman abolitionists who would follow.

Camera icon National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.
Painting of abolitionist Benjamin Lay by William Williams. National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.

Nearly three centuries later, Lay is having his day.

A biography presenting him as one of history’s most important abolitionists was published in September and has drawn critics’ kudos. A new play, The Return of Benjamin Lay, will have its first reading next month in London. Movie companies are said to be circling.

But for Lay, the only news that matters would undoubtedly be this: The Quakers are finally conceding he was right.

In a ceremony at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Abington Monthly Meeting will dedicate a headstone to mark the graves of Lay and his wife, Sarah, at the entry gates to the burial ground. A historical marker is to be erected later this year.

Because membership cannot be restored after death, the Quakers have done the next best thing and declared Lay a “Friend of the Truth.” The designation was endorsed by the Abington Quarterly Meeting, a regional Friends body in Southeastern Pennsylvania; the umbrella Philadelphia Yearly Meeting will take up the measure in July.

The motion also has been adopted by the North London Quaker Meeting, descended from the group that once banished him in his British homeland. A Benjamin Lay Society has even popped up on Facebook calling for the statue of William Penn, a slave owner, to be removed from City Hall and replaced with one of  Lay.

“He needed to be recognized,” said Loretta E. Fox, administrator of the Abington Monthly Meeting, who was instrumental in the Friends’ effort to resurrect Lay’s legacy. “He was a little person, a hunchback, a person who clearly had a difficult life. Yet he spent his energy speaking for people who didn’t have a voice. Maybe the fact that he was a dwarf had something to do with why he was so aware of other people’s humanity.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
A cave where Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lay is believed to have lived is along Chelten Hills Drive near Abington Monthly Meeting.

Born in 1682 in Copford as a third-generation Quaker, Lay was a shepherd and a glove-maker before running away to London to become a sailor. On board, he was part of a diverse brotherhood of seamen, an experience that would inform his antislavery activism.

When he returned to London after 12 years at sea, he married Sarah Smith, a fellow Quaker and little person, and the couple moved to Barbados, where Lay worked as a waterfront shopkeeper. There, they were propelled to a new stratosphere of abolitionist advocacy.

“Barbados was a leading slave society in the world,” said Marcus Rediker, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist.  “[Benjamin and Sarah] saw people collapsing from hunger, tortured, and executed. He invited them into his home, fed the hungry, and had courage to speak out.”

However, their activism so infuriated the wealthy slave masters that they were forced to return to England.  They managed to alienate the Quakers there, as well, and in 1732, they emigrated to the colonies.

“I think he loved the idea of coming to a place where Quakers were in power,” Rediker said. “He  thought he would find a more godly way of life, and then he got here and saw all this Quaker slave-owning. He was furious.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
An undated drawing of Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lay hangs in the Abington Friends meetinghouse.

The Quakers had come to Pennsylvania to “do good,” but ended up “doing well,” said George Schaefer, clerk of Abington Monthly Meeting. For some, their revolutionary zeal morphed into a mission to become “comfortable and rich.”

Lay lived in Philadelphia before settling in Abington, in a converted cave on land owned by fellow Quaker William Phipps. He believed that people should not be complicit in oppression — of men or animals. So he was an early vegetarian, grew his own food, made his own clothes, and lived in a place and a manner without connection to slave labor.

His anger at those he believed were killing the faith through slave ownership grew into an unyielding effort to agitate. He protested, wrote books and pamphlets, made speeches, and orchestrated newsmaking stunts.

His most notorious protest occurred in 1738 at  the Philadelphia Yearly meeting, a regional convention in Burlington. He walked into the crowd of pacifists wearing a military uniform and carrying a sword and a hollowed-out book, in which was tucked an animal bladder filled with pokeberry juice. Lay stood up and proclaimed, “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.” He plunged the sword into the book, splattering juice over his brethren. As the room broke into pandemonium, Lay stood as still as a statue.

He was “written out” of membership that year, not only for his protests but also a book he published behind the Quakers’ backs, All Slave-keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. He used an independent printer: Benjamin Franklin, who became Lay’s good friend and whose wife commissioned artist William Williams to paint a portrait of the abolitionist. It is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.

Being banished from the faith he loved saddened him, but didn’t surprise him, Rediker said. Lay knew that radical actions were needed to rattle the status quo, and there would be consequences. He continued to attend worship services but wasn’t allowed into the business meetings. His wife, a lay minister, remained a member.

In 1758, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting adopted a policy that members who engaged in the slave trade could be disciplined or disowned. When Lay was told, he said: “I can now die in peace.”  In 1759, he did.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Caretaker Dave Wermeling, left, and Abington Monthly Meeting administrator Loretta Fox install a headstone for Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lay and his wife, Sarah, in the burial ground next to the meetinghouse.

About 12 years ago, the Abington meetinghouse caretaker, Dave Wermeling, found an old sketch of Lay in a box. A short biography on worn brown paper was glued to the back of the drawing.

“I thought, ‘Who is this, and how can you not be talking about him?’ ” Wermeling recalled.

That’s what he has been doing ever since,  along with member and artist Rosie Bothwell. The new headstone is being funded largely by her. Inspired by a lecture by Rediker at Swarthmore College, Philadelphia lawyer M. Kelly Tillery decided to fill out the lengthy application to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the yet-to-be-installed marker, and pay for it.

Rediker, who cowrote The Return of Benjamin Lay with acclaimed playwright Naomi Wallace, knows that his subject was no charmer.

Lay was “stubborn and self-righteous,” Rediker said. “He was a really difficult man, but also a necessary one.”