The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist

Reviewed by Stephen Angell

A Review of Marcus Rediker, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017. $26.95, hardback.

Marcus Rediker, Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh, has published many excellent volumes with African and Afro-diaspora themes, including The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000); The Slave Ship (2007); and The Amistad Rebellion (2012). He first encountered Benjamin Lay (1682-1759) in his research on The Many-Headed Hydra.

    In this book, Rediker hopes “to illuminate and overcome once and for all the condescension, opposition, and isolation [Lay] received from his contemporaries and from some who have written about him since his death” (151). This is Rediker’s first book-length treatment of a Quaker historical figure.

    Lay, an anti-slavery Quaker who maintained a persistent prophetic witness among Friends, just as a young John Woolman garnered his first anti-slavery leadings, was given to striking actions in his opposition to slavery, prompting at least occasional interest among biographers including Benjamin Rush (1790), Roberts Vaux (1815), and the latest entrant by Marcus Rediker, under review now. An important biographical essay on Benjamin’s spouse, Sarah Smith Lay, appeared in Quaker History in 1997.

    All of Benjamin’s biographers have highlighted dramatic stories about Lay. Rediker begins his biography with narration of Lay thrusting his sword through a hollowed-out Bible in the Burlington meetinghouse, puncturing a hidden bladder and sprinkling supposed blood (actually pokeberry juice) over some surprised Quakers during yearly meeting sessions. “In a rising crescendo of emotion, the prophet thundered his judgment: ‘Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures’” (2).

    In addition to these stories preserved for posterity by Rush, Vaux, and other contemporaries or near-contemporaries of Lay, there are a variety of other sources that can be used to write his biography. Minutes of various Quaker bodies provide copious evidence of a man who was reviled for disturbing Quaker meetings and disrespecting otherwise well-esteemed Quaker ministers, even before the most active anti-slavery phase of Lay’s career.

    Then there is Lay’s attack on slavery, especially within the Society of Friends, entitled, All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates, Pretending to Lay Claim to the Pure & Holy Christian Religion; of what Congregation so ever; but especially in their Ministers, by whose example the filthy Leprosy and Apostacy is spread far and near.

    This 57,000-word text contains stories of the awakening of Benjamin and Sarah Lay to the evils of slavery, thundering denunciations of slaveholders, much of it based on the book of Revelation and the Old Testament prophets, as well as notes on the numerous Quaker books that Lay has read. Rediker has consulted all of these sources, and he presents his findings in clear, engaging prose. Whatever its merits and faults, this biography makes for easy reading. [Excerpts from All Slave-Keepers. . . Apostacy follow this review.]

Why a New Biography of Lay?

    Readers of any Lay biography may be most interested in the dramatic stories of his prophetic actions. Rush and Vaux did a good job in collecting these stories, and their works still make for lively reading more than two centuries after their original publication. Rediker has done some fine spadework here, comparing various versions of the stories and contextualizing them. But these stories themselves, as they appear in this volume, will largely be familiar to those who had some previous acquaintance with Lay biography. There aren’t any major surprises in this respect.

    More pressing are valid questions about the meaning of Lay’s witness and legacy. This is where this review will focus. In this respect, opinions can change and grow over the centuries. Here is one place where Rediker aims to make an impact, and, to a large extent, he succeeds.

    According to Rush, Lay evidenced “turbulence and severity of temper.” Vaux concurred, adding that Lay’s “eccentricity was remarkable,” and he ventured that Lay “occasionally manifested symptoms of derangement; yet all must acknowledge that ‘oppression will make a wise man mad.’”

    Both Rush and Vaux, however, saw Lay’s efforts as integral to the eventual progress of antislavery. “The meekness and gentleness of Anthony Benezet … would probably have been insufficient for the work performed by Mr. Lay” (Rush). That Lay “was pious and benevolent, most will admit. That he was disinterested and generous, few can deny. That his opinions were correct, concerning the great work of reformation of which he was one of the founders, we have almost the universal consent of mankind” (Vaux). Rediker aims to provide us with solid grounds for a more sympathetic and less ambivalent reading of Lay’s legacy.

Radical Benjamin Lay, in the Stream of Quaker History

    It is central to Rediker’s case that Lay, born to Quaker parents in Essex, England, in 1682, represented “in many ways a throwback to [James] Nayler, [Martha] Simmonds, [John] Perrot, and other early radical Quakers” (Rediker, 19). By the time of Lay’s birth, the elderly George Fox and his Quaker contemporaries had essentially given up interrupting ministers of the Church of England to correct them on their mistaken doctrine. As Rediker amply documents, however, this spirit of confrontation to non-Quaker and Quaker ministers who were not adequately witnessing to Truth was a central aspect of Lay’s prophetic message. This confrontational spirit was well in evidence before anti-slavery was a prominent part of Lay’s ministry, something that came to preoccupy him by the 1730s.

    For clarity’s sake, we might stipulate that Lay did not think of himself as a radical, in the sense of diverging in any significant way from Friends’ belief. He positioned himself as doctrinally orthodox, speaking favorably, for example, of Scottish Quaker theologian George Keith during his orthodox phase, but conspicuously denouncing Keith after the latter entered into schism in the 1690s (Lay, 69; in more general terms, Rediker, 81). [“Orthodox” among eighteenth-century Quakers had a somewhat different meaning than it would have in succeeding centuries. It meant someone who opposed the abortive “Christian Quaker” movement of George Keith.]

    Convinced in the early 1660s, Keith, a friend of Robert Barclay and, for a time, William Penn, became one of the Quakers’ most skillful theologians. Lay especially treasured his Immediate Revelation … not Ceased (1668) and Way to the City of God Described (1678). In the mid-1680s, Keith migrated to West Jersey, and became a schoolteacher, surveyor, and Quaker minister. He grew concerned about what he saw as the laxity of Quaker doctrine on such matters as Christ’s incarnation and bodily resurrection.

    In the early 1690s, a conflict on these and other issues between Keith and various Quakers in the Delaware River Valley spiraled into a major rift. Keith split from the Yearly Meeting and formed a Christian Quaker sect. He was disowned by (Philadelphia) Yearly Meeting, meeting at Burlington in 1692, and by London Yearly Meeting three years later. Around 1700, he left Quakers altogether and became an Anglican clergyman, after which the Christian Quaker group dissolved. In 1703, he returned from England to North America as a missionary under the auspices of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, an Anglican agency that engaged in slaveholding in the West Indies and did not oppose it in North America. (Birkel 2015, 256, 264-265)

    Prior to Lay’s moving to Pennsylvania in 1732, he accused numerous ministers in England of not speaking Truth. For example, in Colchester, Essex, in 1724, Lay was said to have spoken “in a very Rude & Audacious manner to ye great Disturbance of many friends in ye Meeting” from the women’s side of the meetinghouse. While the content of Lay’s message was not recorded, Rediker surmises that Lay was challenging the artificial division of the assembly into a male and female meeting space, in violation of the Galatians 3:26 principle that all, even male and female, are one in Christ. In any event, Lay was disowned by the Colchester Two Weeks Meeting, in 1722 and again in 1724.

    The decision of another Quaker body, the Colchester Monthly Meeting, to reinstate Benjamin’s membership in 1731 and then, a year later, to grant him a certificate of removal to Pennsylvania, proved controversial. While Lay’s subsequent 1737 disownment in Pennsylvania may have had a lot to do with the fact that he was then at the height of his confrontational ministry toward Quaker slaveholders, the stated grounds for his disownment were that his certificate of removal was improper and should never have been granted in the first place, as the long arm of English Friends dissatisfied with Benjamin had reached out through correspondence across the ocean.

    Rediker portrays Lay’s anti-slavery as part of a holistic worldview. Lay’s radicalism was evident in his vegetarianism (his diet today would be described as vegan), in his anti-clericalism, in strong support for freedom of the press, in making his own clothes and even weaving his own cloth, in a move toward simplicity similar to that later undertaken by Mohandas Gandhi. He removed himself from the global economy, not relying on money for his subsistence. In short, “Benjamin conducted his life in full keeping with his evolving democratic, egalitarian, and antinomian principles” (115).

Lay and Early Pennsylvania

    Rediker builds on Frederick Tolles’ Meeting House and Counting House (1948) and a host of other literature in recent decades that depicts just how far a small sliver of wealthy eighteenth-century Quakers departed from the ideals of simplicity of the earliest Quaker movement, and how seriously they threatened to drag other Quakers with them. (Actually, Quakers then attempted to enforce a standard of “plainness”; modern Quaker conversion of the testimony of “plainness” into “simplicity” may reflect, in part, a laudable sensitivity as to how little a thin “plain” veneer served to deter Quaker grandees from indulging in wholesale oppression – of slaves, in part.)

    Rediker usefully depicts Lay’s confrontations with a small handful of grandees. One notable adversary was John Kinsey, a wealthy lawyer who at one time was simultaneously Speaker of the colonial Assembly, Clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Clerk of the colony’s General Loan Office (after his death, it was discovered that Kinsey had embezzled significant funds from this office); he almost certainly was a slaveholder like his father had been. Lay referred to Kinsey as a “nasty beast” (93) empowered by the dragon of the book of Revelation. Kinsey drafted and signed two minutes casting out Lay, one a Philadelphia Monthly Meeting minute designating Lay “a disorderly & obstinate Person” (69), and the other disavowing All Slave-keepers Apostates (93).

    Another significant adversary was Robert Jordan, Jr., a slaveholder, a scion of a Virginia tobacco dynasty, and a traveling minister who had been imprisoned in Virginia for his opposition to tithes. Jordan angrily remarked that Lay “loved the Negroes better” than he did his fellow Friends. (67) Rediker thinks it probable that Jordan meant the words “obstinate & perverse in principle or practice” to refer to Lay; Lay on the other hand, using only initials, castigated Jordan as a “diabolical” slave-keeper in All Slave-keepers Apostates. Lay saw Jordan as the chief conduit for spreading among Pennsylvania Quakers derogatory information about Lay disseminated by his adversaries in England (64; cf. Lay, 231).

    It is impossible to overestimate the degree to which Lay hated the hypocrisy of slave-keeping ministers like Jordan. One example from Lay’s book (31), also quoted in Rediker (77):

 “Then old Sir Master calls, Negro fetch my best Gelding quickly, for me to ride to Meeting, to preach the Gospel of glad tydings to all men, and Liberty to the Captives, and opening the Prison-Doors to them that are bound; but I’ll keep thee in Bondage nevertheless, help thy self if thee can.”

In another place, Lay inquires how the “cruelty and partiality [of slave-keepers] agree with our Principles as a People, which have been preaching up Perfections in holiness of Life, for near a hundred years” (Lay, 56).[More examples and background are in the excerpts from Apostates which follow this review.]

    In All Slave-keepers Apostates, Lay held “some Friends” responsible for the 1735 “Death of my Dear Wife” Sarah (Lay, 57, 67), possibly recalling the occasion that Philadelphia Monthly Meeting condemned Benjamin but emphasized that Sarah was a member in good standing. In the minutes of the Meeting, and in All Slave-keepers Apostates, he is recorded as blaming Jordan for his wife’s death (Lay, 67; Rediker, 69, 176). It is impossible at this remove to say how many grounds there were for Lay’s charge here, because very little is known about Sarah’s death. Obviously, however, bitterness on both sides was very deep and very personal.

    After his disownment in 1738, Rediker tells us that Lay remained “involved with the Quaker community, attending worship services” and actively confronting Friends on the wrongs of slavery. He also put much energy in devising the means for righteous living at his cave in Abingdon, or, as Rediker puts it, borrowing language from Revelation, he sought to “build the New Jerusalem” (95).

    He outlived many of his old adversaries. Jordan died in 1742, Kinsey in 1750, and his memory was soon disgraced, and in their places came a younger set of leaders amenable to anti-slavery perspectives. By 1758, at the age of 76, a noticeably weakening Lay was still around to celebrate the action of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to sanction Friends for buying and selling slaves and to strongly admonish them to free their slaves. (A further decision by the yearly meeting to disown slaveholders would follow fifteen years after his death.)

    Lay then stated, “I can now die in peace.” His death came the following winter, in February 3, 1759, shortly after he was moved from his cave to Joshua Morris’s house (120). His estate was valued at 586 pounds, or $117,000 in 2016 financial values. Possibly much of that had been accumulated when he was a merchant in Barbados, although no one knows for certain. Lay, consistently philanthropic, willed 40 pounds to the school at the Abington Meeting which had disowned him for the purpose of educating poor children (121-122).

    Most Pennsylvanians, and most Quakers in Pennsylvania, did not own slaves. In All Slave-keepers Apostates, Lay noted that some Pennsylvania non-slaveholding Quakers muted their opposition to slavery, or did not oppose it at all, because they wanted to be welcome as guests in the houses of the Quaker grandees. Lay, however, would never be quieted by such means, in fact using the rare invitation to a rich slaveholder’s house as an opportunity for confronting an evil.

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” (Rediker, 62).

Rediker captures well the exploitation and oppression according to race and class in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, and the opposition to it that Lay was trying to ignite.

Lay’s Non-Quaker and Quaker Sources

    The weakest part of Rediker’s book is his attempt to capture the intellectual roots of Lay’s thought. Rediker develops at some length, and with varying degrees of strength in his sources, intellectual debts that he supposed Lay to owe to ancient Cynics like Diogenes; the seventeenth-century English radical William Dell; advocates of freedom of the press like Andrew Hamilton; and the seventeenth-century English commentator on intellectual history, Thomas Tryon.

    “As Benjamin built a new way of life after 1738,” writes Rediker, “he combined the ideas of William Dell, the Cynic philosophers, Pythagoras, and Thomas Tryon, none of whom, it must be emphasized, were Quakers. Many were not even Christians” (113-114).

    To leave matters there, as Rediker does, is profoundly misleading, because Lay owed a large intellectual debt to his Quaker forbears, as well as to the ideas and personalities he encountered in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and in the early history of the Christian church. All of these matters are  major themes of All Slave-keepers Apostates. For all the sound insights in Rediker’s exposition of Lay’s book, he does not even attempt to explain Lay’s admittedly cryptic comments on all of the Quaker books that he has read. And while, on slender circumstantial grounds, Rediker ingeniously emphasizes Lay’s similarities to Diogenes the Cynic, a performance prophet, and Lay’s possible debts to the cynics, he ignores or downplays Lay’s obvious debts to Isaiah and Jeremiah, also performance prophets, and ones that Lay quotes profusely in All Slave-keepers Apostates.

    If one examines All Slave-keepers Apostates in depth, it casts grave doubt on Rediker’s thesis that Lay’s radicalism is due to Quaker figures who diverged from the mainstream tradition, like James Nayler or John Perrot. All Slave-keepers Apostates mentions dozens of Quakers whose books and writings Lay would recommend to his readers. But neither Nayler or Perrot is on any of Lay’s lists. It is highly doubtful that Lay would have had access to Perrot’s writings, but Nayler’s collected works were published in 1706, and it is quite plausible that Lay, with his library of hundreds of volumes in his cave in Abingdon, Pennsylvania, would have had access to Nayler.

    It is arguable that the two seventeenth-century Quakers to whose thought Lay was most indebted were George Fox and William Penn. Rediker misses this fact altogether. Fox and Penn would have been the Quakers most highly respected by Pennsylvania Quakers in the eighteenth century, including those who were Lay’s adversaries. Lay was immersed in a desperate struggle to wrest the legacy of Fox and Penn away from the “slave-keepers,” and to claim them for the budding anti-slavery movement.

    From a twenty-first century perspective, this may strike us as somewhat strange. Penn had been a slaveholder himself, and Lay ignores this aspect of Penn’s legacy. Fox had given ministry in Barbados in the 1670s that dealt extensively with the issue of slavery, and it seems likely that, like other American Quakers, Pennsylvania Quakers, both pro-slavery and anti-slavery, strove mightily to make it appear to fellow Quakers that Fox’s position was entirely in accord with their own position on slavery (Carroll 1991, 62; Frost 1991, 80, passim).

    Lay cited several works by Penn, including his No Cross, No Crown. But undoubtedly Lay’s favorite work by Penn was An Address to Protestants, a rationalist theological exposition of a Quaker version of pro-Protestant-unity-advocacy published by Penn in 1678 during a time of anti-Catholic hysteria in England. (Incidentally, An Address to Protestants was also a favorite of later Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott, who drew from it the dictum, “It is time that Christians were judged more by their likeness to Christ than their notions of Christ.”)

    Lay wrote, “I could heartily wish The Address to Protestants [sic] were reprinted, for the sake of my Friends called Quakers as well as others; I believe it might be of great Service, for I think the matter therein contained belongs to us, as much as to any People in the World” (Lay, 156). (Incidentally, An Address to Protestants, as well as other works by Penn, is readily available today in Earlham School of Religion’s Digital Quaker Collection.)

    Here is an excerpt from An Address to Protestants:

Religion and Reason are so Consistent, as that Religion can neither be understood nor maintain’d without Reason. For if this must be laid aside, I am so far from being Infallibly assured of my Salvation, that I am not capable of any Measure of Good from Evil, Truth from Falshood. Why? I have no understanding or use of any, which is the same. All the Disadvantage the Protestant is under in this, is that of his greater Modesty, and that he submits his Belief to be tryed, which the other refuses. (Angell 1992, 468-469).]

    The use that Lay made of Penn’s work is interesting. Lay quoted an extended passage that promotes the necessity of the laity to confront ministers who are corrupt. But whereas Penn clearly had ministers of the Church of England in mind, Lay just as clearly held a more encompassing interpretation, one that would have highlighted the need to confront slaveholding Quaker ministers like Robert Jordan (Lay, 154-155). The confrontation of corrupt or mistaken ministers that had been the foundation of the young George Fox’s ministry was channeled through Penn to Lay, and the further reformation of the Christian churches that was needed definitely included reform of the Quaker ministry – or, so Lay saw matters in the 1730s.

    Rediker’s work would have benefited greatly from this kind of examination of Lay’s Quaker sources. The best that one can say of Rediker’s work, as an exercise in intellectual history, to the extent that it attempts reconstruction of Lay’s worldview, is that it is woefully incomplete. Then again, it is unlikely that any historian, no matter how accomplished, can provide all that is necessary for a full understanding of an important historical figure like Lay. So now it is time for Quaker historians to step up to the plate and provide our own in-depth analyses of Lay.

The Bottom Line

    By all means, read this lively and engaging book, which presents both sympathetic and balanced perspectives on an extra-ordinary early antislavery activist. It is a great advance on anything available previously. Hopefully, this book will stimulate further research and publication on Benjamin Lay. It won’t be the last word.


Lay, Benjamin (1737). All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. Printed for the author.

Frost, Jerry W. (1991). “George Fox’s Ambiguous Anti-Slavery Legacy.” In Michael Mullett, ed., New Light on George Fox (1624 to 1691), pp. 69-88. York, England: William Sessions Limited.

Carroll, Kenneth L. (1991). “George Fox and America.” In Michael Mullett, ed., New Light on George Fox (1624 to 1691), pp. 59-68. York, England: William Sessions Limited.

Penn, William. (1678). An Address to Protestants. Available from Earlham School of Religion’s Digital Quaker Collection.

Vaux, Roberts (1815). Memoirs of the Lives of Benjamin Lay and Ralph Sandiford. Philadelphia: Solomon W. Conrad.

Rush, Benjamin (1855 [1790]). “Biographical Anecdotes of Benjamin Lay.” In Evert A. and George L. Duyckinck, eds., Cyclopedia of American Literature, pp. 269-270. New York: Charles Scribner.

Angell. Stephen W. (1992). “An Address to Protestants Upon the Present Conjuncture.” In Hugh Barbour, William Penn on Religion and Ethics: The Emergence of Liberal Quakerism, vol. 2, pp. 450-480. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

Birkel, Michael (2015). “Immediate Revelation, Kabbalah, and Magic: The Primacy of Experience in the Theology of George Keith.” In Stephen W. Angell and Pink Dandelion, eds., Early Quakers and their Theological Thought, pp. 256-272. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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