The Fearless Benjamin Lay

The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary

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Marcus Rediker
  • Boston, MA: 
    Beacon Press
    , September
     2017.
     232 pages.
     $26.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780807035924.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Marcus Rediker has performed several excellent services with this biography of The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist.

First, Rediker has brought the remarkable figure of Lay (1682-1759) out of the intentional obscurity in which he was consigned, even by his own people, beginning in his own lifetime. Bringing Lay to a coveted slot on the pages of the New York Times Op-Ed was achievement enough. Yet of more interest to historians, Rediker also highlights and helps expose some of the unedifying sides of historiography in a religious group, the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, who are—perhaps too well—renowned for their plain probity (as one Friendly wag put it, “I’m proud to be a humble Quaker”).

Lay was an ideal vehicle for such an overdue exposé. Although most remembered (when he is) for being a very early and assertive antislavery crusader, Lay was also a loud and persistent critic of greed, hungers for power, materialism, and luxury among the Quaker leadership of his day, which was only in its third generation.

Quakers appeared in Britain during the 17th century English Revolution, one of many “enthusiastic” sects that flourished in the wake of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans and their New Model Army. Some of their “vanguard” entertained fantasies of taking over in Cromwell’s place. In addition to the often ecstatic worship that produced the unofficial name “Quakers,” many of the sects’ leading lights advocated some of the more radical proposals stirring the revolutionary waters: a restoration of the commons, the breaking-up of large estates, an end to established churches, and even an end to the monarchy, along with other “leveling” notions.

Yet all that flamed out with the 1660 restoration of Charles II, the return of the established Anglican Church, and the waves of persecution towards the Dissenters. The remaining Quaker leaders coalesced around the charismatic figure of George Fox, who shifted the movement into a survival mode. 

Survival—for Fox and an emerging Quaker elite—involved entrenching internal discipline and strict message control, to shape a long, costly, and often brutal struggle for Toleration, much of which was achieved with the Toleration Act of 1689.

By then the Quakers had evolved from a sprawling para-revolutionary upsurge into the prototype of the respectable, harmless British eccentric. This trend was buttressed by the fact that some members soon became quite wealthy, and then used portions of that wealth to purchase an ever-thicker veneer of respectability.

Along the way, however, many now inconvenient features, such as previous writings that could be tarred as showing “leveling” tendencies, were suppressed or revised, and many early Quakers who retained such sympathies were dumped.

The great British historian Christopher Hill put this more bluntly in The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries (Viking Press), his 1984 study of the Revolution’s aftermath: “[t]he Quakers survived, prospered, and rewrote their history.” All internal dissent came under the heavy hand of what Rediker flatly describes as a new “Quaker ruling class”

Among those thus silenced, Rediker contends, were both Lay’s parents and grandparents who were loyal, but humble Friends. Rediker sees the younger Lay as inheriting and carrying on this early and now-submerged early heritage and  virtually alone. Lay loved Quakerism deeply, yet his was a stubborn, prophetic love that repeatedly got him in trouble with its officialdom.

Lay’s frequent open challenges to wealthy and powerful Quakers in England earned him the ire of its hierarchy long before he arrived in Philadelphia in 1732. In between, he worked as a common sailor, and then with his wife Sarah, spent two tumultuous years on the slavery-centered island of Barbados. Witnessing slavery and its ravages close up shook Lay to the core; while he did not forget other radical Quaker tenets—vegetarianism and very frugal living—this experience put protesting slavery, and demanding its end, decisively and permanently atop his priority list.

It was this priority that dashed Lay’s hopes that in taking sail to William Penn’s colony, he was emmigrating to the land advertised as a “Peaceable Kingdom." Penn's Pennsylvania was, in fact, progressive in many ways; but this vision was shattered for Lay by two related and pervasive forms of corruption: a greed for wealth which, in only fifty years, created a rich, luxury-loving Philadelphia Quaker elite, that had morphed from eccentricity into moneyed Establishment. These elites had taken charge of the government, and with the widespread involvement of this upper class in slavery, exploited chattels were visible all over the growing city.

Lay preached his antislavery gospel incessantly, and embodied it in dramatic actions, which repeatedly earned him public repudiation. When he published All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates—printed in 1738 by Benjamin Franklin, who prudently left his name off the title page—a large notice condemning the work was placed in a local paper by John Kinsey, the most powerful Quaker of the day.

By his death in 1759, Lay had been formally disowned—expelled—four times by various Quaker groups, and carried bodily out of many more meetings (Lay may hold a record in both counts).

Rediker highlights the few Quaker historians who have shown that Lay was not as isolated as he seemed, as a few contemporaries did hold similar antislavery views, though they expressed less dramatically. Their influence can be traced to later, more celebrated (but less disruptive) antislavery Quaker figures like John Woolman. Yet Rediker also shows that “mainstream” Quaker historiography, with only a few honorable exceptions, has been written by scholars devoted to the condescending “respectable eccentric” outlook, in which Lay—if he is mentioned at all—is typically reduced to being “an eccentric dwarf” (the entirety of Elbert Russell’s description of Lay in The History of Quakerism: The Fascinating Story of the Friends (Macmillan Company, 1942). 

Though Lay’s physical stature was, in fact, small, in The Fearless Benjaminn Lay, Rediker has amply shown that his place in America antislavery history is much more substantial than previously understood.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles Fager is Director of the Quaker House in Fayatville/Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Date of Review: 
September 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marcus Rediker is distinguished professor of Atlantic history at the University of Pittsburgh and senior research fellow at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris. His books have won numerous awards and been translated into fourteen languages. They include The Many-Headed Hydra (Beacon Press, 2000; with Peter Linebaugh), Villains of All Nations (Beacon Press, 2004), The Slave Ship (2007), The Amistad Rebellion (2012), and Outlaws of the Atlantic(Beacon Press, 2015). Rediker is also the producer of the prize-winning documentary film Ghosts of Amistad: In the Footsteps of the Rebels (Tony Buba, director), about the popular memory of the 1839 Amistad rebellion in contemporary Sierra Leone. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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