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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Fearless Benjamin Lay: "Let Your Lives Speak"

To honor July 4th I am reviewing a biography of a true American original whose life expands our knowledge of the history of American abolitionism, Quakerism and alternative lifestyles.  Benjamin Lay was a very independent man who should be celebrated while we celebrate American independence. "Let your lives speak" is an old Quaker motto.  Lay certainly did that with his own life.  I received an ARC of The Fearless Benjamin Lay by Marcus Rediker from the publisher via Edelweiss in return for this review.


I became interested in Quakers and abolitionism after reading Tracy Chevalier's novel The Last Runaway which I reviewed here.  The protagonist is a 19th century English Quaker who learned that American Quakers were reluctant to be public about their support of abolitionism or lend clandestine support to the Underground Railroad which was difficult and very risky.  I went on to read a historical study that was an important source for Chevalier called  Slavery and the Meetinghouse by Ryan P. Jordan dealing extensively with the challenges of abolitionism for 19th century Quakers.  I reviewed Jordan's book on this blog here .

 From Jordan I learned that there were two types of abolitionists.  There were gradualists who were fearful of the consequences of the abolition of slavery and wanted it to be abolished gradually.  Then there were the immediatists who we would consider the real abolitionists.  They thought that the evils of slavery had existed long enough and that it should be abolished immediately.   Jordan states that the first Quaker to propose the immediate abolition of slavery was an English Quaker named  Elizabeth Heyrick in 1824.  Jordan was wrong about that. I've only recently discovered the truth from reading the book that is the subject of this review.   The first Quaker to propose immediate abolition of slavery was  Benjamin Lay, and he made this radical proposal in colonial Pennsylvania in 1738.

Benjamin Lay's 1738 anti-slavery book, All Slavekeepers Who Keep The Innocent in Bondage, Apostates was printed by Benjamin Franklin.   His first biographer, Benjamin Rush, was another Pennsylvania Founding Father and a prominent physician.   So Lay wasn't exactly obscure in his day.   Why is he forgotten now?  Marcus Rediker gives several reasons.   First, he used tactics intended to shock.  Rediker calls this sort of thing "guerilla theater", but it didn't make Lay popular among the Quaker leadership.   They also looked down on him because of his small stature, his working class background and his lack of formal education.   He didn't have the moderation and respectability of later Quaker abolitionists who were considered more acceptable.

Lay was also a vegetarian and an animal rights advocate.  He pioneered the boycott strategy by boycotting all products produced by slaves.  He not only grew his own food, but made his own clothing woven from plant products and walked everywhere because he was opposed to the exploitation of horses. He treated his wife, Sarah, as an equal.  So he had a very modern sensibility, and could be considered very much ahead of his time.   

Rediker discusses the roots of Lay's ideas in the English radicals of the 17th century and the ancient Greek philosophers such as Diogenes and Pythagoras. Rediker credits Lay with being responsible for Quaker Meetings condemning the slave trade (though not yet slave ownership) within his lifetime.   He also distributed his anti-slavery tract widely among younger Quakers which can be presumed to have had influence on them.   An engraving of a portrait of Benjamin Lay, which was reproduced in Benjamin Rush's Lay biography, was hanging in the homes of many early 19th century abolitionists.   So he definitely had an impact.

I feel that I owe a debt to Rediker for introducing me to Benjamin Lay whose radicalism and lifestyle can be appreciated by 21st century progressives.




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