“The Fearless Benjamin Lay: ~ by Marcus Rediker

Benjamin Lay was an 18th century Quaker,  a dwarf – barely 4 feet tall – who lived in a cave, sewed his own clothes and ate as a vegetarian.  He was an avid reader, an autodidact,  and a writer as well as a glove-maker and bookstore owner.  An immigrant from England to Philadelphia,  he was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and other fairly important people of the time and place.

The important thing about Benjamin Lay is that he was an early and  outspoken critic of slavery – very outspoken.  He regularly “spoke truth to power” and sometimes used methods similar to those of  Carry Nation – where she broke up barrooms, Lay broke up Quaker meetings.  And he got removed from several congregations.  (Some of the early Quakers in Pennsylvania were also slave-holders. –  Lay had powerful enemies.)


“The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist”
by Marcus Rediker
2017/ 234 pages
read by Cornell Womack  7h 2m
rating :
(both read and listened)

But the reason you haven’t heard of him is because he was not really of the gentleman class – not well enough educated, nor “enlightened” enough for his era or the official abolitionist movement to embrace.  Also, he was deformed,  a dwarf,  and thought to be somewhat deranged.  This is “history from below.”

Marcus Rediker is an activist historian (think Howard Zinn) who has written quite a lot about pirates and slave ships and the origins of American Democracy in several other books of which I’ve only read “ Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”    So I was interested.   I might read more – ?? So far they’re very well researched history books which are somewhat dry-ish reading (not bad though),  but very interesting because of the subject matter which I think he knows well and chooses carefully.

So Lay came from 3 generations of Quakers based around where this denomination started in England.  He was of the group which believed heckling ministers (speaking truth to power) was effective and their right.  Some of them refused to remove their hats even during prayer.   These are the folks Oliver Cromwell had a problem with –  of the several religious antinomian  sects around at this time.  Antinomonians believed that God’s spirit and  individual conscience took precedence over law.   The Quakers lasted longest but they too eventually mellowed out – got their own power structure going with its own “rules” and became seriously anti-slavery.  (They weren’t at first.)

Lay became seriously opposed to slavery when as a seaman,  he visited Barbados for a short time.  Then he returned to England for about 10 years, married (Sarah – also a dwarf and a Quaker with similar views) worked as a glove maker and railed against the Quaker ministers who were out of line with his conception of God’s Holy Spirit getting kicked out of several Quaker congregations.

Lay and his wife immigrated to Philadelphia where they met Benjamin Franklin and were introduced to the Quaker community – the 2nd largest in the world.  He also met Ralph Sandiford,  an abolitionist Quaker who was making waves amongst the wealthy slave-holding Quakers.  His rantings in meetings as well as writings seems to have incurred the wrath of slave-holding Quakers wherever he went –  he was totally against covetousness (greed) which made slavery possible and the worst example of it. In Abington and in Philadelphia Lay’s membership in their meetings was either denied or revoked for troublemaking and not being repentant enough to stop.

A sample of Lay’s writing:

For Friends, all you that are Ministers of Anti-Christ, whether in Pulpits or Galleries, you that are of the Royal Off-spring, of the King of the Locusts, and are creeping out of the Bottomless Pit a little, to see what Mischief you can do to Mankind, & Service for your King Lucifer, who was (and is now to you) as the Son of the Morning, and to see what good you can get for your God, your Bellies.”  (pg 68)

The book goes through Benjamin Lay’s life and his antics and his strident anti-abolitionism.  The reason you’ve never heard of him is because 1.  his writings were suppressed by the Quaker powers at the time and 2.  he was too extreme,  fiery and extremist and so  historians tended to marginalize him and the similar radicals.  Also,  imo,  his arguments are basically religious with a focus on the Bible especially the Book of Revelations.  Furthermore, he addressed his thinking almost entirely at other Quakers who dismissed him in his own generation.    Only in the 1980s did some revisionism start seeping in.

Rediker is not unbiased – this is from page 133:

A quarter century after Benjamin’s death, Ann Emlen, wife of the devoted antislavery campaigner Warner Mifflin, was still put off by his provocative, polarizing methods. Benjamin, she wrote in a letter of 1785, was “fiery” and “zealous,” a “Trumpit” against slavery. He was “quite noisy & talkative in Meetings of Publick Worship” and eventually “got himself disowned.” (She blamed the victim.) His manner, she concluded, “was by no means acceptable to Friends,” even though many acknowledged that “what he said in a great many expressions” was”the truth.”  (and sourced to a letter from Ann Ellen to John Pemberton)

For a Kindle book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay is rather expensive,  but the paperback and hardcovers are normal price and the Audible version is great – it has no notes or graphics though.    The footnotes in Kindles are excellent – with  pop-ups and further links and there are photos at the back.

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1 Response to “The Fearless Benjamin Lay: ~ by Marcus Rediker

  1. Carmen says:

    Wow, thanks for reviewing this book about a character I otherwise may not have known. I will make a mental note to get the Kindle or the audible version if I find them on sale.

    Liked by 1 person

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