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The Fearless Benjamin Lay

The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist

Table of Contents

Introduction — Prophet against Slavery
Chapter One — Early Life
Chapter Two — “A Man of Strife and Contention”
Chapter Three — Philadelphia’s “Men of Renown”
Chapter Four — How Slave-keepers Became Apostates
Chapter Five — Books and a New Life
Chapter Six — Death, Memory, Impact
Conclusion — The Giant Oak
Author’s Note

Excerpt from Chapter Three, “Philadelphia’s ‘Men of Renown’”

Guerrilla theater

Benjamin began to stage public protests against the “men of renown,” to shock the Friends of Philadelphia into awareness of their own moral failings about slavery. Conscious of the hard, exploited labor that went into making seemingly benign commodities such as tobacco and sugar, Benjamin showed up at a Quaker yearly meeting with “with three large tobacco pipes stuck in his bosom.” He sat between the galleries of men and women elders and ministers. As the meeting ended, he rose in indignant silence and “dashed one pipe among the men ministers, one among the women ministers, and the third among the congregation assembled.” With each smashing blow Benjamin protested slave labor, luxury, and the poor health caused by smoking the stinking sotweed. He sought to awaken his brothers and sisters to the politics of the smallest, seemingly most insignificant choices.

When winter rolled in, Benjamin used a deep recent snowfall to make a point to Quaker slave-owners. He stood on a Sunday morning at a gateway to the Quaker Meeting House, knowing all Friends would pass his way. He left “his right leg and foot entirely uncovered” and placed them in the snow. Like the ancient philosopher Diogenes, who also walked barefoot in snow, he again sought to shock his contemporaries into sentience. One Quaker after another took notice and expressed concern, urging Benjamin not to expose himself to the freezing cold. He would surely get sick. Benjamin listened carefully to their words, then replied, “Ah, you pretend compassion for me but you do not feel for the poor slaves in your fields, who go all winter half clad.” He made two points. First, anyone without proper clothing in cold weather deserved compassion. Second, Quakers were not practicing a maxim central to their faith, drawn from the Mathew 7:12: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” So saith Benjamin the prophet.

On another occasion, after one of his many eight-mile walks to Philadelphia, Benjamin called one morning on an unnamed gentleman “of considerable note,” who politely invited him to sit down to breakfast with him and his family. As Benjamin began to take his place at the table he saw a man of African descent appear at the door of the dining room to serve the meal. Benjamin turned somberly to his acquaintance and asked, “Dost thou keep any Negro slaves in thy family?” When the gentleman answered yes, he did indeed keep slaves, Benjamin pushed back and stood up from the table. He announced, “Then I will not partake with thee, of the fruits of thy unrighteousness.” Benjamin would have no intercourse with those who owned slaves. He walked out.

Benjamin also began to disrupt Quaker meetings in and around Philadelphia . The nineteenth-century radical Quaker Isaac Hopper relayed the following story, which he had apparently heard as a child, to fellow abolitionist Lydia Maria Child:

At the Monthly meeting of Friends [Benjamin] was a diligent attendant. At that time, many members of the society were slaveholders. Benjamin gave no peace to anyone of that description. As sure as any character attempted to speak to the business of the meeting, he would start to his feet and cry out, ‘There’s another negro-master!’

Never afraid to point the finger of shame, Benjamin insisted that slave-holding and Quakerism were utterly incompatible. “No justice, no peace” was his message.

Benjamin carried his theater across the city, visiting a variety of churches and ranting at ministers he disliked, just as he had done in London and Colchester. According to Roberts Vaux, he “attended all places of public worship, without regard to the religious professions of their congregations,” sometimes in sack-cloth to emphasize his humility before God. He listened to the sermons and judged them, usually harshly. His responses were sometimes so long and vehement as to require his removal from the house; an act to which he always submitted without opposition.” When an ungodly minister owned slaves, as was not uncommon in Philadelphia, Benjamin doubled his wrath.

These rants did not always go well. Ministers did not as a rule welcome a stranger’s harangue, least of all in the presence of their congregation. When a Philadelphia preacher announced during a sermon that he heard “a voice from Heaven” Benjamin blurted out, “from thy life, and preaching, I question whether thou ever heardst a voice from heaven in thy life, and if thou didst, I am sure thou hast not obeyed it.” Outraged, the clergyman seized a bullwhip and chased his critic from the church. Yet not all congregants took Benjamin’s interventions so seriously. On another occasion, Benjamin went to (Anglican) Christ Church in Philadelphia to hear the Reverend Robert Jenny preach about Judgment Day. As the congregation filed out of the church Benjamin stood at the door and asked person after person, “How can you, by such preaching as you have been hearing, distinguish the sheep from the goats?” A gentleman grabbed Benjamin’s bushy beard, gave it a hard tug, and said merrily, “by their beards, Benjamin, by their beards.”