Benjamin Lay

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Portrait of Lay
Condemnation of slavery by Benjamin Lay, 1737

Benjamin Lay (1682–February 8,[1] 1759) was a Quaker philanthropist and abolitionist.

Life and beliefs[edit]

Lay was born in Colchester (1681), England. In 1710, he moved to Barbados as a merchant, but his abolition principles, fueled by his Quaker radicalism, became obnoxious to the people who lived there so he moved to Abington, Pennsylvania in the United States. In Abington, he was one of the earliest and most zealous opponents of slavery.[2]

Lay was barely over four feet tall and wore clothes that he made himself. He was a hunchback with a projecting chest, and his arms were almost longer than his legs. He was a vegetarian, and drank only milk and water. He would wear nothing, nor eat anything made from the loss of animal life or provided by any degree by slave labor. He was distinguished less for his eccentricities than for his philanthropy. He published over 200 pamphlets, most of which were impassioned polemics against various social institutions of the time, particularly slavery, capital punishment, the prison system, the moneyed Pennsylvania Quaker elite, etc. Refusing to participate in what he described in his tracts as a degraded, hypocritical, tyrannical, and even demonic society, Lay was committed to a lifestyle of almost complete self-sustenance. Dwelling in a cottage in the Pennsylvania countryside, Lay grew his own food and made his own clothes.


His passionate enmity of slavery fueled by his Quaker beliefs, Lay made several dramatic demonstrations against the practice. He once stood outside a Quaker meeting in winter with no coat and at least one foot bare and in the snow. When passersby said expressed concern for his health, he said that slaves were made to work outdoors in winter dressed as he was. On another occasion, he kidnapped the child of slaveholders temporarily, to show them how Africans felt when their relatives were sold overseas.[3] The most notable act occurred at the 1738 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Quakers. Dressed as a soldier, he concluded a diatribe against slavery by plunging a sword into a Bible containing a bladder of blood-red pokeberry juice, which spattered over those nearby.[4][5]

Death and legacy[edit]

Benjamin Lay died in Abington, Pennsylvania, in 1759. His legacy continued to inspire the abolitionist movement for generations; throughout the early and mid-19th century, it was common for abolitionist Quakers to keep pictures of Lay in their homes. Benjamin Lay was buried in the Abington Friends Meeting graveyard located at Abington Friends School in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.


  1. ^,_Benjamin_%28DNB00%29
  2. ^ Archbold 1901.
  3. ^ Maria Fleming (2001). A Place at the Table: Struggles for Equality in America. Oxford University Press. pp. 33–. ISBN 978-0-19-515036-0. 
  4. ^ "Early Anti-Slavery Advocates". The Friend. Philadelphia. XXIX (28): 220. March 1856. 
  5. ^ Jackson, Maurice (2010). Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 49. ISBN 0812221265. 


  •  Archbold, William Arthur Jobson (1892). "Lay, Benjamin". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 32. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 
  • Claus Bernet (2001). "Benjamin Lay". In Bautz, Traugott. Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German). 19. Nordhausen: Bautz. cols. 875–880. ISBN 3-88309-089-1. 
  • American National Biography, sub nomine
  • Benjamin Rush: Biographical Anecdotes of Benjamin Lay. In: The Annual Monitor, or, New Letter-Case and Memorandum Book. Bd. I. York 1815
  • Richard Vaux: Memoirs of the lives of Benjamin Lay and Ralph Sandiford, two of the earliest public advocates for the emancipation of the enslaved Africans. Philadelphia 1815. London 1816.
  • William Allan: An American Biographical and Historical Dictionary, containing an Account of the Lives, Characters, and Writings of the most eminent Persons in North America from its first settlement, and a summary of the History of the several colonies and of the United States Boston 1832
  • John Hunt: Notices of Benjamin Lay. In: John und Isaac Comly (Hrsg.): Friends Miscellany. Being a Collection of Essays and Fragments, Biographical Religious Epistolary, Narrative and Historical. Designed for the Promotion of Piety and Virtue to Preserve in Remembrance the Characters and Views of Exemplary Individuals, and to Rescue from Oblivion those Manuscripts, Left by them which may be useful to Survivors. Bd. IV,6. Philadelphia 1833, 274-276
  • Lydia Maria Francis Child: Memoir of Benjamin Lay, Compiled from Various Sources. New York 1842
  • Account of the life of Benjamin Lay, one of the early antislavery advocates. In: The Friend. A Religious, Literary and Miscellaneous Journal, Bd. XXIX, 1856, 180f.
  • Sarah Lay: Account of the life of Sarah Lay, given in connection with the biographical sketch of her husband, Benjamin Lay. In: The Friend. A Religious, Literary and Miscellaneous Journal, Bd. XXIX, 1856, 180f.
  • Biographical Anecdote of Benjamin Lay. In: Evert Augustus Duyckinck, George Long Duyckinck, Michael Laird Simons (Hrsg.): Cyclopaedia of American literature embracing personal and critical notices of authors, and selections from their writings, from the earliest period to the present day, with portraits, autographs, and other illustrations. Bd. I. Philadelphia 1856, 279-280
  • Certificate for Benjamin Lay from Colchester Monthly Meeting, dated 12mo. 4, 1731, and addressed to Philadelphia Monthly Meeting. In: The Friend. A Religious, Literary and Miscellaneous Journal, Bd. LIII, 1879, 135
  • Benjamin Lay. Born 1677 - died 1759 - aged eighty-two years. In: W. Beck, W. F. Wells, H. G. Chalkley, H. G.: Biographical Catalogue, being an Account of the Lives of Friends and others whose Portraits are in the London Friends' Institute. Also descriptive Notices of Friends' Schools and Institutions of which the Gallery contains Illustrations. London 1888, 418-422
  • John Hunt: Anecdotes of Benjamin Lay. In: Journal of Friends' Historical Society, Bd. XXII, 1925, 72f (zgl.: The Friend. A Religious, Literary and Miscellaneous Journal, Bd. C, 1926, 18-19)
  • Benjamin Lay. In: The Journal of the Friends' Historical Society, Bd. XXIII, 1/2, 1926, 59f.
  • Brightwen Rowntree: Benjamin Lay (1681-1759) at Colchester, London, Barbados, Philadelphia. In: The Journal of the Friends' Historical Society, Bd. XXXIII, 1936, 3-19
  • Stevenson, Janet Marshall: Pioneers in freedom. Adventures in courage. Chicago 1969
  • William Kashatus III: Abington's Fierly Little Abolitionist. In: Old York Road Historical Society Bulletin, Bd. XLV, 1985, 35-39
  • Nathaniel Smith Kogan: "Aberrations in the Body and in the Body Politic: The Eighteenth-Century Life of Benjamin Lay, Disabled Abolitionist". In: Disability Studies Quarterly, Bd. 36 (3),
  • Marvin Perry: Benjamin Lay. In: Alden Whitman (Hrsg.): American Reformers. An H. W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary. New York 1985, 514-515
  • Lay, Benjamin (1677-1759). In: Pennsylvania Biographical Dictionary. Bd. I. Wilmington 1998 (2), 31-33
  • Paul Rosier: Benjamin Lay. In: John Garraty, Mark Carnes (Hrsg.): American National Biography. Bd. XIII. New York 1999, 305-307
  • Gil Skidmore: Benjamin Lay. 1683-1759. In: Dear friends and bretheren. 25 short biographies of Quaker men. Reading 2000, 19-21.
  • Joseph Smith: A descriptive catalogue of friends' books, or books written by members of the society of friends, commonly called quakers, from their first rise to the present time, interspersed with critical remarks, and occasional biographical notices, and including all writings by authors before joining, and those after having left the society, whether adverse or not, as far as known. Bd. I. London 1867, 92-93.

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