Marcus Rediker has written an important correction to the history of abolitionism with his biography The Fearless Benjamin Lay. Lay was born in 1682, a commoner who worked as a shepherd, a glove-maker, a sailor, and a merchant and lived in Essex, Barbados, and Pennsylvania. He was a Quaker, perhaps more authentically devout than the many Quakers with whom he shared fellowship.
Lay was a child of the Glorious Revolution. influenced by the democratic idealism that animated that victory for the rights of Englishmen. It was a time of religious radicalism and while many of the sects faded away, the Quakers emerged as one of the strongest nonconformist faiths in England…and of course, there was Pennsylvania, their refuge. The Quakers were important in the abolitionist movement, but during the lifetime of Benjamin Lay, they not only approved slavery, but the most powerful and influential Quakers in America were slaveholders. Lay, after witnessing the heinous treatment of slaves in Barbados was a confirmed abolitionist and fought with all his might to change the church.
In denouncing greed, avarice, inequality, and slavery, Lay was never temperate. In fact, he was an avowed activist who employed direct action guerrilla theater. One time he stood in the snow without shoes and socks on one foot. When people expressed concern, he asked them why they were not concerned for the slaves who had even less clothing than he. He was all activism, not organizing, constantly ostracized from his community. It pained him, but not as much as silence in the face of injustice would have pained him. In the 1730s, then he was told to be quiet, to keep the peace, he said a phrase that is dear and familiar to all who seek justice, “No justice, no peace.”
It is interesting to learn about Lay since his influence has been minimized and ignored in most histories of abolition. This reflects past and current biases for the educated, privileged reformer over the working class agitator. Lay is not the first nor will he be the last activist to disappear from history for not conforming to the ideal gentleman reformer. Look at the erasure of Bayard Rustin from civil rights history until society became more accepting of gay rights.
Rediker correctly identifies class prejudice as one reason that Lay’s contribution was unmentioned. I think there is another, though, that is perhaps more potent. Rediker explained how Lay came to his opposition to slavery, through his belief in the Golden Rule, the brotherhood of man, and opposition to violence. Lay’s abolitionism was about the equality of all, it was not rooted in pity for a lesser race. Many abolitionists opposed slavery with racial bias and animus, eager to ship slaves back to Africa and indifferent to their fate after manumission. They did not believe Blacks were equal, just that slavery was pernicious. Lay had none of that condescension. He was a radical believer in the equality of all. That is even more radical than his class politics.
It would be interesting to see how Benjamin Lay would do in Portland. He was an antinomian environmentalist like many of the local anarchists of Black Bloc and Antifa. A vegetarian, who boycotted products that exploited and oppressed slaves, an environmentalist who imagined living sustainably in peace with the earth and the animals, a supporter of human rights, opposed to the death penalty and, of course, slavery. He was feminist before the word existedHe thought capitalism was violence and was anti-capitalist. He opposed all authority. He was 300 years before his time.
The Fearless Benjamin Lay is an interesting book of a fascinating man. It suffers from some repetition and some over-explication. For example, the author reprints two chapters of Revelations with Lay’s interpretation, though the interpretation alone would have been adequate. His short biography of jobs and places is repeated often. It is also easy to get lost in the amazingly petty bureaucratic persecution of Benjamin Lay by one of the Quaker churches back in England, but that kind of pettiness does express how deeply his righteous anger offended those in the church.
To be honest, that pettiness struck me as familiar. My great-great grandfather was a Quaker abolitionist who violated their peace testimony by joining the Union Army. He was disowned by his church and to make their point complete, there is a line drawn through his marriage and birth record. They really went to that much effort to make their point. That’s why when I was reading the extraordinary lengths the church in England went to in order to inflict unhappiness on Lay and his wife, I was not surprised.
The Fearless Benjamin Lay will be released September 5th. I received an advance e-galley from the publisher through Edelweiss.