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Benjamin Lay, the lone Quaker dwarf abolitionist was perhaps the most radical person on the planet during his own time.

Benjamin Lay was a fearless firework of “isms.” Part Quaker, part philosopher, part sailor, abolitionist, and commoner, Lay was also “The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist.” Joining us this week is Marcus Rediker, one of the most important living historians and Lay’s most recent biographer.

Further Readings/​References:


Anthony Comegna: Benjamin Lay was a fearless firework of isms, part Quaker, part philosopher, part sailor, abolitionist, and commoner. Lay was also the Quaker dwarf who became the first revolutionary abolitionist. Joining us this week is Marcus Rediker, one of the most important living historians and Lay’s most recent biographer. Rediker holds a PhD in history from the University of Pennsylvania and is a distinguished professor at [00:00:30] the University of Pittsburgh, where I had the opportunity to teach with him and he had the opportunity to join my doctoral committee. We spoke about his latest book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay, and the Enlightenment from below that radical Quaker dwarf helped create.
Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. [00:01:00] Benjamin Lay is the subject of discussion today, and you have a great quote from historian Gary Nash. He calls Lay “a living stick of dynamite,” which is a wonderful turn of phrase, I think. Can you tell us about Benjamin Lay?
Marcus Rediker: Yes, I sure can. Benjamin Lay is a very important figure in the history of the struggle against slavery. [00:01:30] He was born in 1682 in Essex, England. He lived an Atlantic life. He worked as a sailor. He lived for a time in Barbados, the world’s leading slave society in 1718. Eventually, he migrated to Philadelphia in 1732, but for the last 40 years of his life, he spent much of his time trying to convince his fellow Quakers that [00:02:00] they must not own slaves.
He was one of the first people to speak out very clearly that slavery must be abolished. Eventually, thanks in large part to his important work, the Quakers did become the first group in modern history to outlaw slavery. In 1776, they finally decided that you could not be a Quaker and own a slave. [00:02:30] Quaker resolve on this issue had a huge impact on the development of anti‐​slavery movements in both the United States and Great Britain.
Anthony Comegna: Is that the source of your claim that Lay was the Quaker dwarf who became the first revolutionary abolitionist, that he was able to convert the Quaker church as a mass to anti‐​slavery?
Marcus Rediker: Well, he didn’t do it alone, because there were many other Quakers increasingly over time who did support this idea [00:03:00] of abolition, but Lay was one of the first and also one of the loudest. As you know, his methods were unusual. He performed guerrilla theater in order to shame Quaker slave‐​owners in public. This got him into a lot of trouble with the wealthy Quakers who were the most powerful members of the Philadelphia Meeting, and, in fact, it got him disowned [00:03:30] from the Quaker community.
Lay was really important in this regard, but there is one more thing that people will need to know in order to understand why I call him a revolutionary abolitionist. He did not only advocate the overthrow of the slave system. He also imagined a very different way of life, a way of life in which people should live, [00:04:00] as he called it, on the innocent fruits of the earth. By this, he meant live without human exploitation and live without animal exploitation. He was an early vegetarian and a champion of animal rights as well as an abolitionist.
Anthony Comegna: Now that’s a theme, perhaps the theme of the book I was most interested in was what pulled him to vegetarianism later in life, and it seems gradually throughout his life. [00:04:30] I wonder, you tend to be a very personalized kind of researcher. You really try to put yourself in the mind of your subjects, I think, as much as possible and experience the world, such as you can, in a way that they might have experienced it. I think your subjects are not specimens in jars. They’re not chemicals to you to be studied disinterestedly, and you really connect with your subjects. Did you connect with Lay at all in that way while you were researching him? For example, [00:05:00] did you practice vegetarianism?
Marcus Rediker: I did everything I could to try to understand Benjamin Lay’s life and world. I was especially interested to understand his intellectual history. I know this is a special interest of yours, Anthony. I wanted to understand what allowed this ordinary working man to make this enormous breakthrough. In other words, in [00:05:30] a time when slavery was a very widely accepted institution, how did this man manage to break out of it, to see that slavery was not only wrong but destructive of all human society? How did he make that breakthrough? That was one of the key questions I wanted to address in my book.
Anthony Comegna: How did he do that, then? What were the big significant influences on his life and his thought?
Marcus Rediker: [00:06:00] I’ve identified five major influences, and the first and the most important of these was a specifically radical variant of Quakerism. Now Quakerism goes back, actually, to the English Revolution. It began as one of many radical Protestant groups. The others were the Levellers, the Diggers, the Seekers, the Ranters. The Quakers are all part of this. Those groups [00:06:30] arose during the English Revolution when royal censorship broke down as the king, King Charles I, and Royalists did battle with Oliver Cromwell and Parliamentary side. These radical groups really burst into print in that situation, offering from below their own solutions to the problems of the day.
Quakers were part of this, and there was a man [00:07:00] named James Naylor, who was an especially radical Quaker. I basically argued in my book that Benjamin Lay channeled this early generation of Quakers. They were very activist. They performed street theater. They were very confrontational. He managed a couple of generations later to reach back to them in order to revive that spirit of Quakerism.
Benjamin Lay [00:07:30] thought, for example, that the Quakers who moved from England to Pennsylvania in 1682 had grown terribly corrupt. They had bought slaves, like many other wealthy people in the Americas, so he wanted to reach back to what he thought was a purer version of Quakerism, and that was really his core belief. I see this, Anthony, as a rope of five strands, [00:08:00] and radical Quakerism is the first of them that goes to make up Benjamin Lay’s very radical view of the world.
A second was that he had experience as a sailor. He worked for a dozen years at sea, sailing out of London, sailing around the world, acquired a very cosmopolitan kind of experience. In fact, he bragged about this in his book, “I’ve seen mankind all [00:08:30] around the world,” and this became an important part of his authority. He developed among sailors the ethic of solidarity. This was very important because sailors lived in a very dangerous world, and Lay eventually would extend this solidarity to enslaved people. He was very strong in his advocacy of compassion, compassion and love, love for your [00:09:00] fellow preachers, and seafaring actually had something important to do with that.
A third significant influence was his experience in Barbados, where he saw firsthand, very up close, all of the horrors of slavery. He saw people starving to death in the streets. He saw people being tortured. He saw people being executed. This moved him profoundly, and he actually began [00:09:30] to feed the hungry and held meetings with enslaved people in his home. These meetings got larger and larger. The big planters in Barbados didn’t like it, and they basically banished Benjamin and his wife, Sarah, from the island. That experience of being very close in human terms to the slave system, this was a crucial experience.
Then, I’ll just mention two others. A fourth experience [00:10:00] was that of commoning, in other words, learning to live off the land. This, of course, had been a very important thing in the commons of England, especially his own native Essex. Benjamin took this idea of commoning and, like almost everything else he did, he carried it to extremes. He decided he wanted to live in a place where he could grow his own food, where he could make his own clothes. [00:10:30] He lived in a cave. He really lived outside the market economy. In doing this, he studied vegetarianism. This was a kind of environmental consciousness, you might say. That was the fourth strand of the rope.
The last one may be the most surprising of all. I discovered that Benjamin Lay, although largely self‐​taught, he had very little education, was a very serious student of ancient [00:11:00] philosophy. He was especially interested in a school of philosophers called the Cynics. They were led by a man named Diogenes in ancient Greece, and Diogenes was a bit of a role model for Benjamin Lay because Diogenes believed that philosophy required acting out your ideas in public, and in very confrontational ways, with the powers that be.
A [00:11:30] central idea of the Cynic philosophers, and Diogenes in particular, was what they called parrhesia, and that basically translates as speaking truth to power. Benjamin Lay did that his entire life. He always spoke truth to power. Those, I think, in combination, the radical Quakerism, seafaring, the commoning, the radical communing, [00:12:00] the experience in Barbados, and essentially philosophy, all those things came together to allow Benjamin Lay to make this breakthrough to not only oppose slavery but to imagine a new way of life.
Anthony Comegna: I’d love to dig down some into each one of those threads or those strands throughout his life. I want to start with his theology, his Quakerism. We’ve talked a lot about antinomianism on the show, and I wonder in what ways was Benjamin [00:12:30] Lay’s Quakerism of the 18th century, in what ways was it similar to Anne Hutchinson’s style, antinomianism? In what ways did he depart?
Marcus Rediker: As you know, Anthony, antinomianism is kind of a heresy within a heresy. Protestantism in general was a heresy, according to the Catholic church, and within Protestantism there was this radical idea called antinomianism, which literally means to be [00:13:00] against authority, anti meaning against, and nomos meaning authority or law or the social order. Antinomians like Anne Hutchinson and Benjamin Lay shared a view that they were above the law, that their direct relationship to God allowed them to decide in all matters of conscience, and they felt as though they were quite right in everything [00:13:30] they believed.
Lay, in my argument is actually a continuation of the antinomians of the 1630s, like Anne Hutchinson, the 1640s. Almost all Quakers had a strong degree of antinomianism, and this was reflected, for example, in their collective decision that they would not have ministers. Quakers have never had ministers, formal ministers. The members are equal [00:14:00] and people speak as the spirit moves them. That’s a kind of antinomian idea, but some Quakers like Lay carried this much further than others. Benjamin would have said, for example, “No one is obliged to obey the laws of slavery, because those are merely laws that rich men made for their own protection. We have a higher law that we serve.” This would be one way in which he justified [00:14:30] his resistance to the slave system.
Anthony Comegna: By his time in Pennsylvania, he would have been surrounded by what were called the weighty Friends, the rich Quakers grown wealth, in part at least, through the slave trade and through slavery in the colony itself. Did Lay believe in universal salvation? Did he think that even the planters and the slave masters would be saved?
Marcus Rediker: He believed that everybody could be saved. Yes, I do think [00:15:00] so. This was, in some ways, a logical extension of his view that all people were equal in the eyes of God. One of the things that really attracted Benjamin Lay to Quakerism is this kind of spiritual egalitarianism, and he believed this very strongly. He quotes from the Bible, “God made all peoples of the earth of one blood.” That’s an important phrase [00:15:30] and will actually remain an important phrase to the abolitionist movement long after Lay is gone.
Against the notion of race, which was rapidly dividing up humanity in this time period, Benjamin took a kind of anti‐​racializing strategy, emphasizing what humanity had in common. Now he was very quick to point out the contradictions among Quakers, and the easiest way to do this was by holding up the Golden [00:16:00] Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Lay repeatedly pointed out in both words and action that no one would willingly be a slave, and, therefore, any Quaker who owned a slave was violating this most fundamental rule of Christianity.
Anthony Comegna: What kind of activity did he engage in then? You mentioned his role as a dramatic performer before the Quaker meetings. Can you tell [00:16:30] us some of the more amusing anecdotes from his life where he made an impact on the observers there at the churches?
Marcus Rediker: Yes [crosstalk 00:16:39].
Anthony Comegna: Congregations, let’s say, not churches.
Marcus Rediker: On one particular Sunday, Benjamin, in a time after a major snowfall … This was in Abington, Pennsylvania. He basically put his bare leg into a big snowdrift [00:17:00] at a place where all of the Quakers on their way to meeting would pass by. When they saw this, they became very alarmed, and they said, “Benjamin, Benjamin, you must not do that. Take your leg out of that snow bank. You’ll get sick. You’ll catch cold.” He would listen to them very carefully and say, “Ah, you pretend compassion for me, but you own slaves who go half‐​clad all winter. They don’t have proper clothes.” [00:17:30] Basically, he’s pointing out, “You are a hypocrite and you are violating the Golden Rule.” That’s one such instance.
Another that I think is perhaps the event for which Benjamin is most famous, he went to a Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. This is a big gathering of hundreds of Quakers, and he secretly dressed in a military uniform and buckled a sword at his waist. [00:18:00] He took an animal bladder and filled it with bright red pokeberry juice and then tied it off and then put that bladder inside a book that had a secret compartment, a carved‐​out inner chamber. He then threw an overcoat over the uniform, the sword, and the book and he took a strategic position in the Quaker meeting, and when [00:18:30] it was his time to speak, he stood up and in the booming voice of a prophet, he says, “Slave‐​owning is the greatest sin in the world.”
Then he throws off the overcoat, and the room, the hall, is filled with the gasp of people. These are all pacifists. Here he is with a sword and a uniform. Then he takes the book and he holds it above his head, and he pulls out the sword and he says, ” [00:19:00] God will take vengeance against those people who oppress their fellow creatures.” He runs the sword through the book, and the blood comes gushing down his arm and he then sprinkles it on the head and bodies of the slave‐​owners who are sitting nearby, just in case everyone needed to know exactly who he was talking about, those people who were oppressing [00:19:30] their fellow creatures.
Very rapidly, a group of Quaker men picked him up and threw him out into the street, but he had made his point, and this, I think, was really a kind of a crescendo in Benjamin’s activism. He was determined to do everything he could to call attention to the evil of slave‐​owning.
Anthony, we haven’t actually talked yet [00:20:00] about the fact that Benjamin Lay was a dwarf.
Anthony Comegna: Yes. Yeah.
Marcus Rediker: This is a very important part of the story. He was barely above four feet tall, and he put his body on the line repeatedly to disrupt these hypocritical and pious routines of his fellow Quakers. I think his dwarfism really is an important part of the story, although he himself didn’t talk about it much. It is, nonetheless, I [00:20:30] think pretty clear that as an outsider, as somebody who was mocked and scorned for his unusual body, I think this really enhanced his empathy for understanding and relating to other people who were also marginalized in one way or another, and I think it did facilitate his identification with enslaved people.
Anthony Comegna: As you say, he seemed to downplay the role of dwarfism in his [00:21:00] life. Do we have a clear picture from the sources you looked at of how people treated him in any particular way because of his dwarfism?
Marcus Rediker: We have some evidence about this. The most powerful people in the Quaker meeting were his greatest enemies, people like John Kinsey, who was not only the head of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, but the head of the Pennsylvania legislature, without question, the most powerful man in [00:21:30] Pennsylvania in the 1730s and 1740s. He would make nasty, condescending comments, calling Lay a whimsical little fellow, but when it came time to address Lay’s ideas, Kinsey did not think he was a whimsical little fellow. He considered him to be a very serious opponent, and Kinsey did everything in his power to try to crush Lay and remove [00:22:00] him from the Quaker congregation, but Benjamin, of course, never backed down.
Benjamin did write a book. It’s called All Slave‐​Keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. By that he meant that all so‐​called Christians who owned slaves were apostates to their own faith. He does talk in there about the way he was treated. Here, he mentions that he would be laughed at, [00:22:30] he would be scorned, he would be mistreated, he would be insulted. Now he did not attribute all of this to his being a dwarf. He thought, and rightly so, that one of the reasons he was treated this way was because of the ideas he held, his opposition to slavery, but I think it’s really impossible to separate the two. He did stand for certain ideals which brought forth contempt, but there was [00:23:00] also contempt expressed for him simply because he was a little person.
Anthony Comegna: By the way, whimsical little fellow is a much nicer turn of phrase than some historians have used to talk about Lay in recent decades.
Marcus Rediker: That is true. One of my arguments is that Benjamin Lay had been forgotten, and I dare say your listeners, the overwhelming majority of them will never have heard of Benjamin [00:23:30] Lay, even though he played this extraordinarily important role in a developing anti‐​slavery movement. Historians have played a role in marginalizing him. This includes David Brion Davis, probably the leading historian of abolitionism. He called Lay a demented little hunchback.
Now this actually, I think, goes to show that Lay was marginalized partly [00:24:00] because he was presumed to be mentally incompetent, which I argue is absolutely not the case. He was actually quite a brilliant man. He just had a different set of views. Going back to this antinomianism of the English Revolution, that was crucial to who he was. He also had a different set of methods, extreme, direct action methods that he would take against these wealthy slave‐​owners.
[00:24:30] The Quakers originally were the ones who marginalized him, but historians came along afterwards and basically treated him as only a minor character of suspect sanity in the larger story of abolition. One of my purposes in writing this book is to restore Benjamin Lay to his proper central place within this movement, and by the way, the movement that many consider to be the first great modern social [00:25:00] movement, one that eventually abolished both the slave trade and slavery.
Anthony Comegna: With that view of Lay, who is operating 1720s, 1730s, ‘40s, he’s smack in the middle of this cycle of rebellion in the Caribbean and across the Atlantic that you’ve identified elsewhere. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of rebellions and possible potential revolutions all across the period disrupting these great empires that dominate the [00:25:30] region. Here comes Benjamin Lay with a full intellectual and political, religious strategy for abolitionism, and he divides the population into four groups. There’s the abolitionists; those who silently tolerate slavery; those in the population who don’t own slaves or have a direct interest, but they support the institution nonetheless; and then there are the masters.
He has a particular strategy for each of these people and how to handle them [00:26:00] toward the goal of abolitionism. Could you comment on that strategy?
Marcus Rediker: Let me go back to your first point, Anthony, because it’s a very important one. Benjamin Lay’s activism on the issue of slavery in the 1730s, and this is the period when he wrote his book, published in 1738, this is really critical because there was, as you say, this wave, this cycle of rebellion in which there … All the places [00:26:30] in the western Atlantic where slavery is significant, there is intensified resistance, running away, strikes, you might say, insurrections. I actually originally found Benjamin Lay as Peter Linebaugh and I were studying the 1730s for a book called The Many‐​Headed Hydra, and we wanted to see if that wave of struggle produced breakthroughs in abolitionist thought, and lo and behold, [00:27:00] there comes Benjamin Lay publishing this very radical tract in 1738.
Now that instance that I mentioned a moment ago where Benjamin Lay at that great Quaker meeting said, “God will take vengeance on those who oppress their fellow creatures,” there’s kind of an ominous double meaning to that, because in this period when slavery was very common, everybody in the room knew that God might [00:27:30] not be the only one taking vengeance. Lay is in some ways translating the popular resistance into his guerrilla theater and into a set of ideas about emancipation.
Now, to come to your second point, it is pretty remarkable that Lay had such a clear analysis of, you might call it the array of forces on the issue of slavery. He had an idea for exactly how [00:28:00] to recruit people into the abolition movement. He had a quite clear analysis, and nobody has ever credited him for this in the past. I’m convinced that one reason is that even though lots of historians cite his book, All Slave‐​Keepers, very few of them have actually read it.
Anthony Comegna: I’m happy to say I did, preparing for this interview.
Marcus Rediker: You’re one of the relative few, and you will know [00:28:30] that it’s actually not an easy book to read.
Anthony Comegna: No. No, and‐
Marcus Rediker: As it’s full of Biblical citations and arguments against slavery. He throws in an autobiography. He copies down things that he’s reading and then offers commentary on those things, so for a historian it’s a wonderful source because part of it is almost like an annotated bibliography. This does give you a sense of his mind and how it works. Again, [00:29:00] he left us this precious gift, this book, and what it shows is a really unusual mind at work on one of the great problems humanity has ever faced, and that is slavery on a mass scale.
Anthony Comegna: Now I want to talk a bit about his view of the Book of Revelations, and he viewed himself as part of what Quakers called the lamb’s war. I think that comes from Naylor, right? The lamb’s war. Could [00:29:30] you tell us what that was? What was their vision of the lamb’s war and how did it relate to Revelations?
Marcus Rediker: The Book of Revelation is really one of the most fascinating, but also most complex parts of the Bible. It’s a visionary imagination of the future, and it’s really all about a cosmic clash in heaven between the Archangel Michael and his army [00:30:00] of angels and the Great Red Dragon, representing Lucifer and his army of angels. During this titanic struggle, the Great Red Dragon, it says in the Book of Revelations, used his tail to gather up a third of the stars of heaven and threw those stars down to earth. Now the way the cosmic battle worked out was that Michael and his angels defeated [00:30:30] the Satanic forces and Satan was thereby exiled to earth.
When Satan came down to earth, it turns out that these stars sprouted from the soil, and in Benjamin Lay’s creative reading of the Book of Revelation, that sprouting represented the origin of the slave‐​holding class. In other words, slave‐​holders were literally the spawn of Satan. [00:31:00] Now this is a very important thing to understand, because if that’s your view, and that was definitely Benjamin Lay’s view, he makes that clear in his book, this helps us to understand why he would brook no argument about whether slavery could be abolished gradually.
Most historians think that there was a big argument that began in the 1830s between the immediatists and the gradualists. Well, Benjamin Lay is having [00:31:30] this debate with Quakers a hundred years earlier, and he basically says repeatedly when they come to him and say, “Oh, Benjamin, it must be a gradual thing,” he says, “It can’t be gradual. It’s evil. It’s connected to Satan. We must stop it right now.” What I found really fascinating about this is that Lay’s reading of the Bible was very closely related to his justification for the necessity, [00:32:00] really, of abolishing the slave system.
Anthony Comegna: Lay really seemed to live out his principles absolutely as much as possible. By later in his life, he came to adopt vegetarianism. I wonder, could you say a bit about what drew him to vegetarianism and how did he practice it throughout his life?
Marcus Rediker: Like a great many other things in Benjamin Lay’s life, this particular set of beliefs, [00:32:30] vegetarianism, seems to be related to his work experience, because another line of work which he labored in for a number of years was as a glove‐​maker. Now this was a very low and dirty kind of craft, always working with the skins of dead animals, and Benjamin never liked [00:33:00] this kind of work. I do believe that it had a long‐​term impact in steering him away from the consumption of animals and in developing an attitude that animals are also our fellow creatures, not just human beings, but animals, and we must treat them as such.
Now another influence in this was a late 17th‐​century English writer named Thomas Tryon, [00:33:30] and Tryon is regarded by many people as a founding father of vegetarianism. He studied about this in ancient Greece. It turns out that Pythagoras, the great mathematician, was also a person who was a vegetarian. He wrote on the subject. Tryon also included Brahman philosophy from India. Well, Tryon’s book on this subject was one of Lay’s favorites, and [00:34:00] it was noted of him that Lay would carry this book with him wherever he went. I’m sure the reason why was to read aloud from it to other people so that they could understand the importance of vegetarianism.
Benjamin did act upon his ideals, and this is crucial. He himself grew his own food, vegetables and fruits for the most part, also nuts. He had an [00:34:30] apiary. He was a beekeeper. He did eat honey. He drank only water and occasionally milk. I think with the exception of the honey and the milk, he was technically a vegan about 200 years before that word was invented. This had a remarkable impact, because even though little people frequently have quite serious health complications, Benjamin, I’m convinced partly because of his [00:35:00] healthy lifestyle, lived to be 77 years old. This is back in the 18th century, when the expectation of life was much shorter.
His vegetarianism was a defining belief for him. It was part of an integrated worldview. He was, we might say, a pantheist, in a sense that he saw divinity in all living things, and he thought that all living things deserved [00:35:30] to be treated with respect.
Anthony Comegna: Benjamin Lay and other radicals were vectors of connection and causation in the world’s great unknown Enlightenment. Beneath the gilded lush layers of philosophes and statesmen that litter our history books were the slave rebels, the servile insurrectionists, the outcasts and arsonists, the common rabble out of doors and on the docks, and even the lone Quaker dwarf abolitionist. [00:36:00] These people and many more built their own kind of Enlightenment from below, and though their contributions have been overshadowed, obscured, or outright ignored, we here at Liberty Chronicles feel perfectly content to recognize Benjamin Lay as a radical for our times, perhaps the most radical person on the planet during his own, and he is, therefore, the makeshift patron saint of this show.
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