The First Radical Abolitionist?

If I mention Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman, you probably think abolitionist.  But have you ever heard about Benjamin Lay?

Benjamin Lay was a most unusual radical.  He stood just over four feet tall and had an extreme curvature of the spine (kyphosis).  Born in 1682 in Colchester, England, he was a third-generation Quaker.  As a teenager, he left home to work as a shepherd, then was apprenticed to a master glover.  This career choice was not a good ‘fit’ for him and he ran away to London at age 21 to become a sailor.

During this period of his life, he absorbed the experiences of the sea, including stories about the slave trade.  Later, as a shopkeeper in Barbados, he witnessed a slave commit suicide rather than endure another whipping.   These experiences, plus the history of Quakerism, fueled his radicalism:  the “Quaker Comet”  was born.

Eventually settling in Pennsylvania, he adopted a plain lifestyle, eating only fruits and vegetables, drinking only milk and water, and making his own clothes.  His main endeavor was disrupting meetings and staging public stunts to protest social wrongs, especially slavery.  For example, one Sunday morning in the dead of winter he was seen standing at a gateway to the Quaker meetinghouse, with a bare right leg and foot thrust into the snow.  When asked why, he replied, “Ah, you pretend compassion for me but you do not feel for the poor slaves in your fields, who go all winter half clad.”  After his beloved wife’s death, he spent much of his time writing.  Ultimately, he is credited with publishing over 200 pamphlets.

Benjamin Lay died on February 3, 1759 at the age of 77.  Although largely overlooked by history, he is not forgotten.  His life was summarized in a “Secrets of American History” article by Marcus Rediker in the September, 2017 issue of Smithsonian magazine, which was the source for this piece.  It can be accessed at .  The picture came from the website.

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