The Fearless Benjamin Lay
April 7, 2019 6:22 AM   Subscribe

Decades before the anti-slavery movement took root in the US, radical Quaker Benjamin Lay published his book All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates, which demanded an immediate and unconditional end to slavery. Lay arrived at the 1738 Yearly Meeting of Philadelphia Quakers three weeks later with a message for his Friends. Declaring slaveholding the gravest sin in the world, Lay ran his sword through a book--rupturing a concealed animal bladder filled with red pokeberry juice and showering nearby slaveholders with fake blood. Writing for Aeon, historian Marcus Rediker examines the origins of Lay's radicalism and asks why so few have heard of him today. Eugene Grant (previously) looks at Lay's legacy as an activist and dwarf.
posted by duffell (13 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
 
In typical ignorance of my own national history, I never thought about Quakers keeping slaves before. I mean, in retrospect of course some of them must have, but it's amazing what we don't choose to remember as a people.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:58 AM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]


Looking forward to reading these. There's also a fun Dollop podcast that might be of interest to audio fans. (Click on the entirely non-obvious "pod" grapfic at the top left to play it.)
posted by eotvos at 8:46 AM on April 7, 2019 [1 favorite]


Declaring slaveholding the gravest sin in the world, Lay ran his sword through a book--rupturing a concealed animal bladder filled with red pokeberry juice and showering nearby slaveholders with fake blood.

That's.... pretty metal.
posted by PenDevil at 9:08 AM on April 7, 2019 [27 favorites]


It's weird to read of a Quaker carrying a sword. They were a lot more metal in the early days of the denomination, but pacifism became part of the core beliefs early on, and not wearing a sword even when it was socially appropriate was part of that.
posted by praemunire at 9:29 AM on April 7, 2019 [6 favorites]


thatdothbethejape.jpg

The military costume and sword were part of Lay's stunt.
posted by zamboni at 10:11 AM on April 7, 2019 [6 favorites]


Metafilter. Continually exposing my ignorance. But thank you anyway.
I had never even heard of Benjamin Lay. Possibly because he championed many of the things capitalism did not.
posted by notreally at 10:59 AM on April 7, 2019 [3 favorites]


Quakers in general are pretty excited about Benjamin Lay these days, helped by Rediker's book. Abington Monthly Meeting reinstated his membership in 2017, after having written him out of membership in 1737. There is now a historical marker about him, and the meeting placed a gravestone for Benjamin Lay and Sarah Lay in 2018. All that info is at the link.

We Quakers like to remember that we were far ahead of the mainstream in separating ourselves from slave-holding and advocating for abolition. But we were far behind some of our own members, like Benjamin Lay and John Woolman, who preached against slavery and called on slave-holding Quakers to free the people they held in slavery. As is true today, those who come to us with truths that make us uncomfortable, or that will cost us dearly to live up to, are challenged, fought against, and, still, though in quieter ways, driven out.

The military costume and sword were part of Lay's stunt.

Stunt? I call it ministry.

In typical ignorance of my own national history, I never thought about Quakers keeping slaves before. I mean, in retrospect of course some of them must have, but it's amazing what we don't choose to remember as a people.

Ten years ago now, Quakers Vanessa Julye, a Friend of African descent, and Donna McDaniel, a Friend of European descent, published Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship a detailed and exhaustively-researched history of Quakers' relationship with race, racism, and racial justice in North America. It contains all the things white Quakers today like to remember and congratulate ourselves for, like being leaders in the abolition movement, but also details individuals and meetings wrestling with slave-holding and more--such as the practice of requiring Friends of African descent to sit only in certain benches at the rear of the meetinghouse. It is both an indictment and a celebration of our history, and it is by no means an easy read. Quakers are devoted to truth--we once called ourselves Publishers of Truth, in the early days--but again and again individual Quakers have to press us to face up to the truth of our lives and actions, and we have rarely thanked them for it.
posted by Orlop at 11:04 AM on April 7, 2019 [22 favorites]


The actual, non-abbreviated title of his book is:

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; it is a notorious sin, which many of the true Friends of Christ, and his pure truth, called Quakers, has been for many years, and still are concern'd to write and bear testimony against; as a practice so gross & hurtful to religion, and destructive to government, beyond what words can set forth, or can be declared of by men or angels, and yet lived in by ministers and magistrates in America. The leaders of the people cause them to err.
posted by vogon_poet at 11:47 AM on April 7, 2019 [11 favorites]


Stunt? I call it ministry.

why_not_both.gif

One does not preclude the other. Theatrical stunts like Lay's can be a powerful form of non-violent direct action.
posted by zamboni at 12:22 PM on April 7, 2019 [2 favorites]


The actual, non-abbreviated title of his book is:

All slave-keepers...


So we know at least Fiona Apple is a fan of him.

I'd never heard of him either, but I'm reading Jill Lepore's new book These Truths: A History of the United States, and she mentions him (and his very metal theatrics) as well. So far (about 20% in) it's an amazing read.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 12:51 PM on April 7, 2019 [6 favorites]


The thing that jumped out at me about Benjamin Lay's story was that how thoroughly uninterested he was in being civil. His tactics today would get a lot of people wagging their fingers at how he was attacking his own side. It also didn't sound like his stunts were all that effective at changing minds? His book, and the support of Ben Franklin, sounded like it had a lot more persuasive impact.

And yet, here we are. The abolition movement won, and the world is a better place for it.
posted by Merus at 5:30 PM on April 7, 2019


The early Quakers were not in any way known for their civility. Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down is dated but still a good read.
posted by praemunire at 6:53 PM on April 7, 2019 [5 favorites]


It also didn't sound like his stunts were all that effective at changing minds?

Stunts can also be used for other reasons, like pointing out that a horrific injustice is happening, which has the added benefit of putting social pressure on the target group. It's the difference between gently mentioning that something someone said could be taken as racists and surely you didn't mean to say it quite like that and calling someone racist for saying/doing something racist. The latter is unlikely to change that individual's mind, but it is going to tell that person and those that can hear you--and, if in a position of authority, the organization/institution you represent--that you don't tolerate racism.
posted by carrioncomfort at 8:23 AM on April 8, 2019 [3 favorites]


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