The Fearless Benjamin Lay by Marcus Rediker

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

The Fearless Benjamin Lay
The Quaker Dwarf Who Became The First Revolutionary Abolitionist
by Marcus Rediker
Beacon Press, 224 pp., cloth $26.95

Who cares about Benjamin Lay (1682–1759), a 4-foot-tall, malformed, 18th-century member of a minority religious network known as the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)? Until recently, not very many people. But in seven gracefully crafted chapters and some two dozen images, Marcus Rediker makes a persuasive case for why Benjamin Lay and his legacy are worth caring about.

Opening with a dramatic vignette of Lay’s renditions of one-man theatre, Rediker pulls his readers into some of the dramatic ways that Lay packed considerable action, geography, philosophy, street drama and influence into his eight-decade-long life, most of which was spent among Philadelphia-area Quakers. And, bringing to bear the power of his own multidecade research on the early Atlantic World maritime realities, Rediker then deftly narrates and interprets that life.

Through Rediker’s lens, readers meet Lay: a self-educated, sea-faring man of “strife and contention,” who finding himself among Philadelphia’s Quaker “men of renown,” settles with
his wife Sarah into a life of agitation and protest against the region’s Quaker slaveholders and slave traders. Lay’s social-reform commitments and techniques — which involved pamphleteering, kidnapping Quaker children, and what Rediker refers to as “guerrilla theater” — included adopting a lifestyle that allowed him to withdraw from the crassness of American capitalism. For example, he manufactured his own housing, clothing and food, thereby avoiding products that resulted from exploiting any person or animals (such as wool, meat or slave-made materials).

Prior to Rediker’s concise page-turner of a narrative, what we’ve known of Lay has mostly come from brief sketches of “worthy-and-memorable Friends” — often written for Quaker children — and from a 19th-century romanticized and hagiographic anecdotal “memoir” pamphlet created by crusading Philadelphia lawyer Roberts Vaux. A member of a small but intense cadre of reformers that included Ralph Sandiford, Anthony Benezet and (sometimes/somewhat) Benjamin Franklin, who mostly anonymously published the antislavery writings of some of these reformers, Lay became one of America’s earliest radical abolitionists.

Lay’s story is fascinating in its own right but when seen in the context of a long tradition of Quaker street drama — stretching from 17th-century British Quaker James Nayler’s work through Norman Morrison’s 1965 Vietnam War protest in front of the Pentagon and beyond — it provides a rich and intriguing invitation to explore the Quakers’ long tradition of confrontation. Lay’s life is a story that has long needed a good telling, and Rediker has elegantly met that need.

Emma J. Lapsansky
Haverford College