Lay’s methods made people talk about him, his ideas, the nature of Quakerism and Christianity, and, most of all, slavery. According to Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, the name of this “celebrated Christian philosopher” became “familiar to every man, woman and to nearly every child, in Pennsylvania.” For or against, everyone told stories about Benjamin Lay.
Lay, a hunchback as well as a dwarf, was the world’s first revolutionary abolitionist. Against the common sense of the day, when slavery seemed to most people as immutable as the stars in the heavens, Lay imagined a new world in which people would live simply, make their own food and clothes, and respect nature. He lived in a cave in Abington, Pa., ate only fruits and vegetables — “the innocent fruits of the earth” — and championed animal rights. He refused to consume any commodity produced by slave labor and was known to walk abruptly out of a dinner in protest when he found out that his host owned slaves.
Today Benjamin Lay is largely forgotten, for essentially two reasons.
The first is that he did not fit the dominant, long-told story about the history of the abolitionist movement. Formerly a common sailor, he was not one of the so-called gentleman saints like William Wilberforce, an aristocratic leader of the abolition movement in Britain. He was wild and confrontational, militant and uncompromising.
A second reason is that he has long been considered deformed in both body and mind. As a little person and as a man thought eccentric at best and more commonly deranged or insane, he was ridiculed and dismissed, even among Quakers who were ostensibly committed to an ideal of spiritual equality. The condescension continued in subsequent accounts of his life.
Yet Lay deserves a proud place in our history. He predicted that for Quakers and for America, slave-keeping would be a long, destructive…