BENJAMIN LAY: The Quaker Comet and Old Time Radical Non-Violence

I mentioned a few of those radical Quakers a few posts ago, but I have to do it again. I was able to get my hands on an article published in that blustery and at times brutal year, worldwide, of 1968. Upon reading the paper entitled Henry Dawkins and the Quaker Comet, how could I not post a little about Benjamin Lay, who was a Quaker so relentlessly annoying he even annoyed the Quakers?


Born in 1681, Lay was barely over four feet tall, it is said, and a hunchback, as was his wife Sarah. Born in England, he later lived in Barbados, but his hatred for slavery was deeply “obnoxious” to most everybody there—except, I am sure, the slaves.

So Lay and his wife then moved to Abington, Pennsylvania, where he continued to be utterly obnoxious with his fervent anti-slavery ideas and his attack, mostly, on the leaders of congregations, who held slaves and did other things he found utterly wrong and hypocritical.

But consider the time, the early to mid 1700s. Nearly a hundred years before slavery was abolished in England. A hundred and fifty years before the American Civil War.

And his radicalism didn’t stop at slavery. Indeed, he may have been a hero had he lived in 1968, though undoubtedly still on the fringes. Actually, despite his radicalism, he was far too restrained in other obvious ways for the 1960s.

[Benjamin Lay] wore plain clothing made of tow and linen of his own weaving, refused to ride a horse or coach, and eschewed the use of any meat or other product of animal suffering. He was an ardent student of the Bible and religious literature, and was reputed to have collected an unusually large library. He objected to capital punishment, arguing that wantonness and idleness were sinful and might be reformed in prison, but that no repentance was possible from the grave.

To these ideals few Friends could object in principle, but his fulminations against slavery kept him continually at odds with the Quaker community.

Lay’s objection to slavery was on moral and humanitarian grounds, and his campaigns were carried on with great fervor. He lost no opportunity to prick the consciences of Quaker slaveowners and rub them with the salt of his own anguish.

He harangued Meetings with annoying length and frequency, and more than once was forbidden entry to Meetings or bodily removed for harassing brethren and ministers who were testifying.

An example to us all! Including the ‘ministers’ of the financial sector and alld the political ministers. Lay’s conviction goes even farther. According to Wikipedia:

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.

Also, he and a few others wouldn’t even buy goods that were taxed, because the taxes went to military build-up. Who would even consider that today? How can one even dream of avoiding the consumer ethos—heck, how could one survive without it, if only to a small degree. Sometimes it surprises me when I realize food doesn’t grow in cans.

Kidding. But Lay? Wow.

A proclamation he wrote, printed by none other than Benjamin Franklin, around the year of our Lord, 1737:

ALL SLAVE KEEPERS that keep the Innocent in Bondage, APOSTATES Pretending to Lay Claim to the Pure & Holy Christian Religion; of what Congregation so ever; but especially in their Ministers, by whose example the filthy Leprosy and Apostacy is spread far and near; it is a notorious Sin, which many of the true Friends of Christ, and his pure Truth, Called Quakers, has been for many Years and still are concern’d to write and bear Testimony against; as a Practice so gross and hurtful to Religion, and destructive to Government, beyond what Words can set forth, or can be declared of by Men or Angels, and yet lived in by Ministers and Magistrates in AMERICA. THE LEADERS OF THE PEOPLE CAUSE THEM TO ERR. Written for a General Service, by him that truly and sincerely desires the present and eternal Welfare and Happiness of all Mankind, all the World over, of all Colours, and Nations, as his own Soul; BENJAMIN LAY

I have to run out. Might add more later, but I thought you’d appreciate it. Lay died in 1760.

Lots of love. And good luck making your own clothes, harassing the folks and leaders in your congregation, eating only milk and vegetable products that you grow yourself, and not buying any consumer goods. Oh, and if that’s not enough for you, throw in kyphosis. Here’s to you, Benjamin Lay, and Sarah, for giving it all you had…

Pete xo


5 Responses to “BENJAMIN LAY: The Quaker Comet and Old Time Radical Non-Violence”

  1. Jason G says:

    Love it. I’m glad you found those 17th century Quakers. They were a pretty awesome bunch of human beings.

  2. Me, too. They are something else. This Benjamin Lay: unstoppable.

  3. AndreaCee says:

    Wow! What a barrel of laughs that guy was. Did he wear a hair shirt, too? Did he start that “Just Say No” campaign in the ’90’s? Can’t wait to invite Benjie to my next party.

    Just sayin’.


  4. Supposedly he was one heck of a dancer, both traditional and hip-hop.

  5. Brize says:

    Non-violence? He entered a Friends meeting in blackface and beat members of the the congregation with a whip.

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