Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 23 - L for Benjamin Lay

Benjamin Lay in America
Benjamin Lay was born in Colchester in Essex in 1683 to poor Quaker parents. There was no money for education and Benjamin was apprenticed to a glove maker but before he was eighteen he went to work on his brother's farm. When he came of age Benjamin decided to become a sailor, a surprising choice given his physical difficulties. He was only four feet seven inches (1.40 m) tall and was a hunchback, with a projecting chest and legs so slender that they seemed hardly able to bear his weight. However for the next seven years he went to sea and visited many parts of the world. He returned to England in 1710, moved to London and in 1718 married Sarah Smith of Deptford.

Benjamin was troublesome to Friends in London because of his practice of interrupting any ministry which he felt went beyond the guidance of God and used the minister's own words. When remonstrated with he said that he would prefer not to disturb meetings but had to be true to his own discernment. Eventually he was disowned in 1720. Benjamin took his wife back to Colchester and opened a shop, but he continued to disturb meetings and also other denominations' services. As he was already disowned Colchester Friends could do little but issued a public condemnation of him in 1723. Eventually Benjamin and Sarah left England for America in 1731.

They went first to Barbados where Benjamin obtained land and built a cottage. It was here that an incident occurred which made a great impression on Benjamin and which also illustrates the extremes of his character. One day Benjamin was furious to discover that a wild hog had got into his newly planted garden and uprooted everything. He killed the hog but then went further, dismembering it and nailing the pieces to his gate. Later, when his temper cooled, he was so stricken with remorse that he vowed never again to eat food or wear clothes that involved the death of any animal. He became a vegetarian and refused to wear leather.

John Woolman
Benjamin was horrified by the treatment of slaves in the island and his choice of food and clothing was further restricted by his refusal to use anything that was the product of slave labour. He grew flax and made his own clothes, refusing to wear cotton or to use indigo to dye cloth as both were produced by slaves. This practice was later followed by other Friends including John Woolman who were called 'White Quakers' because of their appearance. Benjamin spoke out against the slave owners and made himself so unpopular that he was soon on the move again, this time to Philadelphia. He had thought to escpe from slave owners there but was disappointed to find the practice widespread even among Friends. Benjamin built a house in the country where he grew vegetables and kept bees and devoted himself to campaigning against slavery and for other causes such as temperance and penal reform. As Benjamin's wife was in poor health the couple moved from their own house to stay with a Friend living near Abington Meeting. Here Benjamin built a 'grotto' in which he kept his library. Sarah died in 1735 but Benjamin continued his campaigning although his direct, dramatic methods made him very unpopular among Friends.

In 1738 during a Yearly Meeting session in Burlington, New Jersey, Benjamin entered dressed in a long white overcoat with a large book under his arm. He exclaimed against the hypocrisy of Quaker slave owners saying that they 'might as well throw off the plain coat as I do.' At this he took off his overcoat and revealed himself dressed in a bright military coat with a sword at his side. Saying that owning a slave was like thrusting a sword through his heart, 'as I do this book', Benjamin drew his weapon and plunged it into the book, piercing a bladder full of red poke-berry juice which he had concealed within its hollowed-out centre. People next to him were splashed with the scarlet liquid and several women fainted.

This disturbance proved the last straw for Philadelphia Friends. They had already been offended in the previous year by Benjamin's publication, without going through the proper channels to gain the Yearly Meeting's approval, of his book All Slave-Keepers That keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates... The book, printed by Benjamin's friend and namesake Benjamin Franklin, made many accusations against individual Friends and the Society as a whole for being complicit in the slave system. The Yearly Meeting was so displeased that they put advertisements in various newspapers distancing themselves from Benjamin's book and his views. In 1738 they went a step further and formally disowned him, claiming that he had never truly been a Friend and that he had obtained a travelling minute from Colchester under irregular circumstances.

Benjamin Franklin
Of course Benjamin took no notice and continued to consider himself a Quaker, He also continued to make dramatic gestures. Once he stood outside a meeting house in the snow without a coat and in bare feet to remind Friends of the hardship experienced by slaves. Eventually his campaigning, together with the more moderate stand taken by John Woolman and Benjamin Franklin among others, had an effect and the tide of public opinion turned against slavery. Not long before he died Pennsylvania decided to disown slave-holding Quakers. When Benjamin heard the news he rose from his chair and gave thanks to God adding, 'I can now die in peace.'

Eccentric to the last Benjamin wanted to be cremated and offered a friend £100 if he would burn his body and throw the ashes into the sea. But his friend refused, recoiling in horror at such an unheard-of request. So when he died, on 3 April 1759 at the age of seventy-six, Benjamin Lay was buried at Abington, Pennsylvania. Today we may associate the struggle against slavery with the name of Woolman rather than Lay but Benjamin's legacy continued to inspire the movement for generations and throughout the first half of the 19th century it was common for abolitionist Quakers to keep pictures of him in their homes.


Martin Kelley said...

Got to love crazy old Benjamin Lay! One tiny correction: I think it's Abington Meeting where he's buried (the first meeting I attended, Benjamin once lived in a cave a short distance from where I lived growing up).

Gil S said...

Thanks Martin I'll correct it. I was following a source but I did have my doubts.

Wendrie Heywood said...

I'd forgotten all about Benjamin Lay until I read this. Learned about him along with other eccentric Qs in Children's Meeting - don't remember why tho'.