"Quaker Comet" was the biggest abolitionist you've never heard of (2023)

On September 19, 1738, a man named Benjamin Lay appearedentered a Quaker meeting house in Burlington, New Jersey for the largest event of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. He wore a large coat, behind which was hidden a military uniform and a sword. Beneath his coat, Lei held a hollow book with a secret compartment, in which he had placed a tied animal bladder filled with bright red berry juice. Because Quakers had no official priest or church ceremony, people spoke as the spirit moved them. Leigh, a Quaker himself, waited his turn.

Finally he rose to speak to this gathering of "heavy Quakers." Many friends in Pennsylvania and New Jersey had become rich through the Atlantic trade, and many bought human property. Lai announced to them in a loud voice that Almighty God respects all nations equally, rich and poor, male and female, white and black. He said that keeping slaves was the greatest sin in the world and asked: How can a people who profess the Golden Rule keep slaves? He then threw off his greatcoat and revealed his military uniform, book and knife.

A murmur filled the hall as the prophet pronounced his judgment: "Thus shall God shed the blood of those who enslave their fellow men." He drew the sword, lifted the book above his head and ran the sword through it. People gasped as the red liquid flowed down his hand. the women fainted. To everyone's horror, he "blooded" the slavers. He prophesied a dark, violent future: Quakers who did not heed the prophet's call must expect physical, moral, and spiritual death.

The room erupted into chaos, but Lay remained motionless and motionless, "like a statue," one witness noted. Several Quakers quickly surrounded the armed soldier of God and carried him out of the building. He didn't resist. He had made his point.


This spectacular performance was a moment of guerrilla theater among many in Lay's life. For nearly a quarter of a century, he denounced slavery at one Quaker rally after another in and around Philadelphia, confronting slave owners and slave traders with a fierce, most un-Quaker fury. He emphasized the utter depravity and sinfulness of the "man thieves," who he said were literally the product of Satan. He considered it his divine duty to expose and expel them. At a time when slavery seemed to many people around the world as natural and unchanging as the sun, moon and stars, he became one of the first to call for the abolition of slavery and an avatar of confrontational protest.

He stood out for his physique. Benjamin Leigh was a dwarf, or "little man," standing just over four feet tall. He was called the hunchback because of an extreme curvature of his spine, a medical condition called kyphosis. According to a fellow Quaker, “His head was large in proportion to his body. his facial features were remarkable and strongly defined, and his countenance was grave and good-natured. ...His legs were so thin they seemed almost unfit to support him, small as his frame.' However, I found no evidence that Leigh believed he was diminished in any way or that his body was preventing him from doing anything he wanted to do. He called himself "little Benjamin" but compared himself to "little David" who killed Goliath. He did not lack confidence in himself or his ideas.



His confrontational methods got people talking: about him, his ideas, the nature of Quakerism and Christianity, and especially slavery. His first biographer, Benjamin Rush—physician, reformer, abolitionist, and signer of the Declaration of Independence—observed that “there was a time when the name of this famous Christian philosopher . . . was known to every man, woman, and almost everyone child, in Pennsylvania." For or against, everyone was telling stories about Benjamin Lay.

And yet he appears only occasionally in abolition history, usually as a small, colorful figure of suspect common sense. In the 19th century he was seen as "sick" in his mind and later as "broken in his head". This image has been largely preserved in modern history. David Brion Davis, a leading abolitionist historian, dismissed him as a mentally deranged, obsessive "little hunchback." Lay is better treated by amateur Quaker historians, who include him in the pantheon of antislavery saints, and by many professional historians of Quakerism. But he remains little known among historians and almost completely unknown to the general public.


Benjamin Lay was born in 1682 in Essex, a part of England then known for cloth manufacturing, protest and religious radicalism. He was a third-generation Quaker and would have been more fervently devoted to the faith than his parents or grandparents. In the late 1990s, a teenage Benjamin left his parents' country house to work as a shepherd on a half-brother's farm in east Cambridgeshire. When the time came for him to live on his own, his father apprenticed him to a master glove maker in the village of Colchester, Essex. Benjamin loved being a shepherd but disliked being a glove maker, which is perhaps the main reason why he fled to London in 1703 at the age of 21 to become a sailor.

The intrepid Benjamin Leigh: the Quaker dwarf who became the first abolitionist rebel

With passion and historical accuracy, Rediker positions Lay as a man who fervently embodied the ideals of democracy and equality when he practiced a unique blend of radicalism nearly three hundred years ago.

For the next twelve years, Lay alternated between London and sea, sharing cramped quarters with multinational colleagues for months at a time, working together in a strict hierarchy under a highly disciplined captain, moving ships and their ships. worldwide shipments. The experience - which included hearing sailors' stories about the slave trade - gave him a hard-earned cosmopolitanism. Later, during an 18-month stint as a shopkeeper in Barbados, he saw a slave man kill himself rather than submit to another beating. this and countless other atrocities in that British colony traumatized him and fueled his anti-slavery passion.

Although his formal education was limited, he studied the history of Quakerism and was inspired by its origins in the English Revolution, when a motley crew of arrogant commoners used the conflict between the Cavalier (Royalist) and Roundhead (Parliamentary) elites to propose their own solve them. . about the problems of the day. Many of these radicals presented themselves as "dissidents" - people who believed that no one had the right or power to control human consciousness. Lay never used the word—it was largely an adjective—but he was profoundly antilegal. This was the source of his radicalism.

The first record of Lay active participation in organized Quakerism dates from 1717 in America. Although living in London at the time, he had traveled to Boston to apply for a certificate of approval from the local Quakers to marry Sarah Smith from Dipford, England. . She was, like him, a small person, but, unlike him, a popular and admired minister in her Quaker community. When the Massachusetts Quakers, in an act of due diligence, asked Lye's congregation in London to confirm that he was a friend in good standing, the reply noted that he was "free from debt and from women in relation to marriage," but added : "We believe that he is convinced of the truth, but wishing to keep himself low and humble in spirit, he has gone too far from an undiscerning zeal to appear in our public meetings." Lay disturbed the peace at Quaker meetings by calling out those he believed to be "covetous"—corrupted by worldly wealth.

Thus the "Quaker Comet," as it was later called, appeared in the historical record. He was allowed to marry Sarah Smith, but a lifelong turmoil ensued. He was formally excommunicated or excommunicated from two churches in England. More controversy awaited when the pair boarded a ship bound for Philadelphia in mid-March 1732. It wasn't easy being so ahead of the times.


Benjamin and Sarah were eager to participate in William Penn's "Sacred Experiment." Like the thousands of others who had sailed to "this good land," as he called Pennsylvania, they awaited a future of "great freedom." Philadelphia was the largest city in North America and contained the second largest Quaker community in the world.

The center was the Great Meeting House, at Market and Second Streets, home of the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting. Among those widely known as "men of fame" were Anthony Morris Jr., Robert Jordan Jr., Israel Pemberton Sr. and John Kinsey Jr. They guided both the religious and political life of the colony, even to the point of control, by the Quaker Board of Overseers, all publications. In fact, they epitomized a side of the early history of Quakerism in which Friends came to Pennsylvania to "do good" and in turn "do good"—very well indeed, judging by wealth and power that they collected. Three of these leaders, and possibly all four, owned slaves. So did the majority of Philadelphia Quakers.

After living in England for the past ten years, where slavery was barely visible, Lay was shocked when he arrived in Philadelphia. Certainly, slavery in his new home was radically different from what he had seen in Barbados more than a decade earlier. only one in ten was a slave in the city, compared with nearly nine in ten on the island. The level of violence and repression was significantly lower. But slavery, violence and repression were a daily reality in the City of Brotherly Love.

Enslaved men, Lai noted, "ploughed, sowed, threshed, chopped wood, split rails, cut wood, cleared land, built ditches and fences, fed the cattle, ran and drove the horses." She saw enslaved women engaged in "all the toil in the dairy and the kitchen, inside and out." He represented this hard labor with the idleness of the slave owners – the growling, empty bellies of the slaves and the “lazy, mean bellies” of their masters. Worse, he explained with growing anger, the serfs would perpetuate this inequality by leaving these laborers as property to "proud, cute, lazy, contemptuous, tyrannical, and often beggarly children to submit to rule."

Shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, Lay befriended Ralph Sandiford, who had published an indictment of slavery three years earlier in response to the objection of the Board of Supervisors. Lay found a man in poor health, suffering from "many infirmities of body" and, most disturbingly, "a grievous affliction of mind," which Lay attributed to persecution by Quaker leaders. Sandiford had recently moved from Philadelphia to a log cabin about ten miles northeast, partly to escape his enemies. Lye visited this "very kind man" regularly over the course of nearly a year, the last time when Sadiford was on his deathbed in "a kind of delirium," noting that in May 1733 he died "in great confusion." , at the age of 40. Lai concluded: "Oppression ... drives a wise man mad." He did, however, take on Sadiford's fight.

Lay began organizing public protests to shock the Philadelphia Friends and make them realize their own moral weaknesses in slavery. Aware of the hard, exploitative labor required to produce commodities such as tobacco and sugar, he appeared at a Quaker annual meeting with "three magnificent tobacco pipes in his arms." He sat between the stands of male and female elders and ministers. As the meeting drew to a close, he rose in indignant silence and "blew one pipe among the male ministers, one among the female ministers, and the third among the assembled congregation."With each crushing blow he protested slave labor, luxury, and the ill health caused by smoking the foul-smelling swede. He tried to make his brothers and sisters aware of the politics of the seemingly most trivial choices.

As winter set in, Lei used a deep snowfall to make a point. One Sunday morning he stood at the gate of the Quaker church building, knowing that all the friends would pass him. He left "his right leg and foot completely uncovered" and stuck them in the snow. Like the ancient philosopher Diogenes, who also stepped barefoot in the snow, he again tried to bring consciousness to his contemporaries. One Quaker after another noticed this and urged him not to expose himself to the freezing cold or he would get sick. He answered me: "Ah, you pretend to pity me, but you do not pity the poor slaves in your fields, who are half-clothed all winter."

He also began disrupting Quaker meetings. "Benjamin gave no peace" to slave owners, 19th-century radical Quaker Isaac Hopper recalled as a child. "As one character was trying to talk about the business of the meeting, he stood up and shouted, 'There's another negro master!'

It was no surprise to Lai or anyone else that the ministers and elders had him removed from meeting after meeting. They did appoint a "policeman" to keep him out of the Philadelphia meetings and even that wasn't enough. After throwing up in the street one rainy day, he returned to the main entrance of the church building and lay down in the mud, forcing everyone out of the meeting over his body.


Perhaps because of increasing conflicts with "men of fame," Benjamin and Sarah left Philadelphia in late March 1734 and moved ten miles north to Abington. The move required a certificate from Philadelphia Monthly Meeting stating that they were members in good standing to present to the local Quaker meeting in their new home. It was Lay's misfortune that letters from enemies in England found their way to Robert Jordan Jr., giving Jordan a pretext for a long dispute about Lay's involvement in Philadelphia.

During this challenge, Philadelphia Monthly Meeting went out of its way to note that Sarah was a member in good standing—"she seemed to have a good conversation while she was here"—while Benjamin was not. This judgment would be a source of lifelong bitterness for Lay, especially after Sarah died of unknown causes in late 1735 after 17 years of marriage. He would later accuse Jordan of playing a key role in "the death of my beloved wife." It may have been her death that led him to push his activism – an act that sparked his biggest controversy to date.

For two years, Lay spent much of his time writing a strange, passionate treatise,All slavers who enslave the innocent are renegades. The book makes strange reading: a mixture of autobiography, prophetic biblical polemics against slavery, writings by others, surreal descriptions of slavery in Barbados, and a scathing account of his struggle against slave owners in the Quaker community. Lay knew that the Board of Supervisors would never approve his book, so he went directly to his friend, the printer Benjamin Franklin, and asked him to publish it, which he did in August 1738. It became a founding text of Atlantic anti-slavery movement and a major advance in abolitionist thinking. No one had ever taken such a militant, uncompromising, universal stand against slavery.



Lay's originality lay in his completely uncompromising attitude. Slavery was a "filthy", "gross", "heinous", "hellish" sin, a "sin of the soul", "the greatest sin in the world". He argued that “No man or woman, boy or girl should be allowed to pretend to preach the truth in our assemblies while we live in this practice [of slavery]. these are all lies." The hypocrisy, he said, was intolerable. Because the serfs bore the "mark of the beast"—they embodied Satan on earth—they had to be expelled from the church.

The book reflected a generational struggle among Quakers over slavery in the 1730s, as Quaker attitudes toward this extraordinary institution began to change. Lay repeatedly said that his most determined enemies were "elders," many of whom were wealthy, such as Anthony Morris, Israel Pemberton, and John Kinsey. others were ministers, like Jordan. At one point, Lay declared that it was "time for such old rusty candlesticks to be moved from their places." Elsewhere he personally attacked elders, as when he referred to the "raging Dragon"—a diabolical beast of the Apocalypse—giving "the ugly beast his power and his place, his place to sit as chief judge"—an allusion to Kinsey, who was a clerk of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and would soon become Attorney General of Pennsylvania and Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Very little of the discussion on this subject has been written or published, so it is difficult to know exactly how Lay's book was received by mutual friends. However, the reaction of the Watchers was recorded. That fall, the board issued a formal condemnation, signed by John Kinsey, stating that the book "contains gross abuses, not only against some of their members in particular, but against the whole Society," adding: That the author is not from the religious community". The Abington meeting also dismissed the author.

And so, in 1738, Lay became the last of the few Quakers ostracized for protesting against slavery.


Excommunicated and frowned upon, Lay still attended religious services and argued the evils of slavery. But he also began to build a new revolutionary way of life, a broader, more radical vision of human potential.

He built his own home, choosing a site in Abington "near a fine spring of water" and building a small house in a "natural excavation in the earth" - a cave. He lined the entrance with stone and created a roof with branches of evergreens. The cave was apparently quite spacious, with room for a revolving genie and a large library. Nearby he planted apple, peach and walnut trees and tended a colony of bees thirty meters long. He grew potatoes, pumpkins, radishes and melons.

Lai lived simply, in a "simple" style, as was the Quaker way, but he went further: he ate only fruits and vegetables, drank only milk and water. they were almost vegan two centuries before the word was invented. Because of the divine pantheistic presence of God perceived in all living beings, he refused to eat 'meat'. Animals were also "God's creatures." He made his own clothes to prevent exploitation of the labor of others, including animals.

In addition to boycotting all goods produced by slave labor, Lay, through his example and writing, challenged society to eliminate all forms of exploitation and oppression and to live from the "innocent fruits of the earth."

In 1757, when he was 75, Lay's health began to fail. His mind remained clear and his spirit as keen as ever, but he gave up his usual long walks and stayed at home. He tended his garden, spun flax and engaged in other "domestic occupations".

The following year, a visitor brought news. A group of Quaker reformers had undertaken an internal "cleansing" campaign, calling for a return to a simpler way of life, stricter church discipline, and the gradual end of slavery, all to appease an angry God. Now, Lay was told, after much agitation from below, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting had begun a process to discipline and eventually excommunicate the slave-trading Quakers. Slavery itself was still allowed—and would remain so for another eighteen years—but the first major step toward abolition had been taken.

Lai fell silent. After "thinking for a few moments," he rose from his seat and said "in an attitude of devotion," "Thanks and glory to the Lord God." A few moments later, he added, 'I can now mold in peace.'

Things soon took a turn for the worse for him. The specific causes are unknown. His friends gathered to discuss what they could do for him. He asked to be taken to the home of his friend Joshua Morris in Abington. He died there, on February 3, 1759, aged 77.

Like most Quakers of his time, Ly resisted the transfer of class differences to the afterlife. he was buried in an unmarked grave, near his beloved Sarah, in Abington Quaker Cemetery. In the Burials at Abington book for the year 1759 there is a simple entry: "Benjamin Lay of Abington died 2nd Monday 7th and 9th, aged 80 years." (The author was three years behind the age and four days on the date.) Other names in the book had an "E" for "elder" in the margin, an "M" for minister, and a comment about whether the person he was a member of the church. Lay's name had no such commentary, which would have been a source of pain and sorrow for him. He was buried as a stranger to the faith he loved.

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This article is a selection from the September issue of Smithsonian Magazine

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Marcus Rediker | READ MORE

Marcus Rediker, author or co-author of ten books, is professor of Atlantic history at the University of Pittsburgh.

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