Imagine this: a hunchbacked dwarf living in early Enlightenment-era England, variously a farmhand, shepherd and glovemaker, but also a devoted autodidact gifted with great intelligence who despite his station in life becomes not only literate but highly-educated. Passionate and outspoken, he often dominates local meetings of the Society of Friends, flirting with antinomianism and distinguishing himself as a Quaker radical, often an outcast, publicly rebuking authority and earning the antipathy of the established order. He then becomes a sailor and, later settling as a merchant in Barbados, is so appalled by the human chattel slavery he encounters there that he adopts a fierce life-long antislavery stance that admits no toleration for anything short of abolition. Next, he makes his way to Philadelphia, where his troublesome nature again emerges, underscored by his unrelenting brand of antislavery agitation that alienates fellow Quakers, many of whom are slaveowners, most famously when he punctuates an annual Friends meeting by delivering a bellicose jeremiad against slavery and then plunging a sword into a Bible packed with a bladder of red pokeberry juice—a simulation of blood—that splatters those in attendance nearby! He writes a number of pamphlets denouncing slavery, as well as a rambling but impassioned book that is published by no less a figure than Benjamin Franklin. Ever self-righteous, obnoxious, curmudgeonly, he is also a wealthy eccentric who eschews materialism, and is well-known to his community as a philanthropist, a strict vegetarian, and a man utterly intolerant of slavery. He marries, but after his wife’s death becomes even more zealous in his adherence to his radical faith, in his pursuit of justice, and in his crusade for abolition, as well as in campaigns against animal cruelty, capital punishment, the prison system, and the hypocrisy of the affluent elite. He closes out his life devoted to absolute self-sustenance, keeping goats, nurturing fruit trees, and growing flax that he spins into his own clothing, making his home in solitude in a cave with his collection of over two hundred books.
Okay, you have imagined it: could you suspend disbelief long enough to read a novel or watch a film based on a fellow like that? Well, this is no flight of fictional fancy but the actual tale of a truly extraordinary figure named Benjamin Lay (1682-1759) who somehow has managed to be remembered as little more than a footnote to history—on the rare occasions when he has been remembered at all. Historian Marcus Rediker—author of The Slave Ship and The Amistad Rebellion—seeks to resurrect this remarkable character from oblivion with his latest book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist.
In this effort, Rediker largely succeeds, and in the process brings the talent of a skilled historian to bear as he sketches out the ground that the adult Lay walked upon in the early-to-mid-eighteenth century, a milieu largely unfamiliar to many readers, with fascinating glimpses of England, Barbados and colonial Pennsylvania in a transformative era that rarely receives appropriate scrutiny. Because so much of Lay’s identity was wrapped up in his religious fervor, the author treats us to a study of the evolution of Quakerism—including its peculiarities and its many internal revolts—on both sides of the Atlantic. Absent this background, Lay’s outrageous behavior—and it was indeed often outrageous—would seem to defy the boundaries of sanity. In fact, Lay was just the most recent actor to emerge in a tradition of antinominalist dissent—albeit an extreme incarnation—who with his carefully choreographed public protests not only danced at the edges of decorum but stomped upon any vestiges of it. That he cloaked his polemics in theatrics brought wide attention to his message, while provoking loud rebuke from those he routinely offended. Outwardly flamboyant, even crude, Lay’s frequently offensive performance art was a thin disguise upon the true heart of a reformer deeply offended by cruelty, injustice, hypocrisy and the widespread betrayal of what he believed Quaker Christianity should be all about.
Lay’s strict vegetarianism, as well as his opposition to animal cruelty, the prison system, and capital punishment—all of this distinguished him as a truly unusual individual for his time, further underscored by the fact that what had to have been the handicap of dwarfism in that era seems to have placed no brake on his behavior as he publicly campaigned for justice: hardly more than four feet tall, he ever played an outsize role in his community. But it was, of course, with his uncompromising antislavery agitation and demands for abolition that Lay left his mark on history. A century after his death, while the antislavery movement had gained wider traction, true abolitionists were still in a very tiny minority in the United States. In Lay’s own time, his voice must have been a very lonely echo indeed. At the close of the eighteenth century, near the end of his long life, Benjamin Franklin and fellow Quakers took a public stand against slavery, but—as Rediker makes pains to point out—Franklin’s own position on slavery was often manifested in ambivalence. That certainly could not be said of Lay, who never wavered in his insistence that chattel slavery was a great evil that represented a sin against man and God. Benjamin Franklin has been much-celebrated, but it was not he who penned one of the very earliest antislavery tracts in colonial America, but rather his friend Benjamin Lay, although the young Franklin can be credited for publishing Lay’s opus, All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates in 1737.
If there is a flaw in The Fearless Benjamin Lay it is that while extremely well-written it is clearly directed at a scholarly audience, with all of the strengths and weaknesses that implies. Lay lived such a colorful life that with virtually no embellishment his story should read like a James Michener novel. Alas, the typical limitations for academic writing in structure and prose means that the narrative frequently succumbs to dull passages even as it never falls short in fleshing out the man that Benjamin Lay was and adroitly recreating the age he inhabited. On the flip side, there are copious notes and little doubt that Rediker’s finished work is firmly rooted in both best practices and the appropriate historiography. In the final analysis, I recommend this book for restoring from anonymity an intriguing figure who is especially deserving of recognition for taking a radical stand against slavery long before more than a handful of others would join in. And since the versatile Rediker also works in film, I would like to advocate that he next produce a documentary for general release that will bring the fascinating life and times of Benjamin Lay to a much wider audience.
[Note: A digital edition of Lay’s book All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates can be accessed online at no charge at https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N03401.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext]