The fearless Benjamin Lay : the Quaker dwarf who became the first revolutionary abolitionist

by Marcus Rediker

Other authorsKim Arney (Designer), William Williams senior (Cover artist)
Hardcover, 2017


Checked out
Due 29 Jul 2020

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Boston MA : Beacon Press, 2017.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Carolee888
William Lay was a most unusual person in history, a self educated man who became an avid reader, only four foot seven inches with a hunchback, a man revolted by the bad treatment of slaves by their owners in Barbardos, a vegetarian and animal rights proponent. I was curious about him because of his Quaker background and that Benjamin Franklin was one of his friends. It is an understatement to say that he was a free thinker.

Marcus Rediker produced a very well researched biography of William Lay and must have spent many hours locating illustrations for this fascinating book. It is written in a scholarly manner but the character and quirkiness of Benjamin Lay makes this book a standout. It is easy to know why slavery became such a passionate issue in his life by reading about his life in Barbados and Philadelphia. He had radical ideas of how to get his anti slavery position understood. You will not forget this person in history!

I received this Advanced Reading Copy by making a selection from Amazon Vine books but that in no way influenced my thoughts or feelings in this review. I also posted this review only on sites meant for reading not for selling.
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LibraryThing member Birdo82
Rediker displays his research chops presenting us with what is known of Benjamin Lay, possibly rescuing an accomplished and unique historical figure from obscurity, though it is a bit dry as a narrative.
LibraryThing member arelenriel
This is an amazing book about a man who was centuries ahead of his time in terms of his views on human rights, religion, and equality. It was well written and an inspiration to those who face discrimination .
LibraryThing member snash
This is a long overdue portrait of truly exemplar man, one who via empathy and intellect determined his version of TRUTH and then proselytized it and lived by it. By doing so he was critical to the development of the abolition movement. The book is thorough without being dry in describing how he developed and disseminated his ideas.… (more)
LibraryThing member hadden
An interesting book about an exceptionally obnoxious man. While the emphasis was on Benjamin Lay's abolitionist tirades, this man also did not stay in one place or in one occupation for more than a few years at a time. He was under admonition from several Quaker meetings, and had to practice several types of deceptions to get certification for marriage in one English meeting by going first to America, then coming back with a certification for marriage.
He also accumulated a rather large fortune, but his trade and professions were glove maker, bookseller, seaman and shepherd. Although he lived in a cave and was a vegetarian, how he accumulated his fortune is not revealed. His loud and unseemly disputations with other Quakers pre-date his abolitionist leanings had him removed from several meeting houses and assemblies. It really isn't shown how his abolitionist leanings were very different from his contrarian nature.
As a guerrilla theater practitioner, he often staged events where he would pierce a book with a sword and produce blood-like splatters in the meeting house, or lay down in front of the entrance of one so departing Quakers had to step over him to leave.
An interesting person to say the least, but one who could not stay at one place or in one field for very long. When he died in 1758, he was buried at the meeting house grounds, but was no longer a member. In speaking to the congregation about his work, Marcus Rediker asked them to re-instate Benjamin Lay, which they discussed as the author left.
I recommend the book, but the character and life of Benjamin Lay is difficult to understand today. Like Johnny Appletree, he is so eccentric and unique that he is difficult to classify.
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LibraryThing member book58lover
Benjamin Lay was a visionary, in animal rights, Vegetarianism, and above all abolition. He devoted his life to advocating for slaves and fought the Quaker establishment who condoned not only owning but buying and selling slaves. His single-mindedness led to his expulsion from various meetings and earned the enmity of prominent Philadelphia Quakers.
Rediker outlined the work of Lay by using contemporary documents and bringing Lay out of the shadows. He shows Lay's progress from England to Barbados, back to England and then to Philadelphia. He worked as a sailor, a glove maker and a book seller all the while staying true to his Quaker roots of simplicity, charity, honor and trying to move others on that path.
The beginning of the book is slow going but full of information and worth reading because the last two chapters on his impact are worth it. I kept asking myself why he persisted, why he stayed with the church, why he just didn't leave. But I understand that he decided to work for change within instead of without. He should be applauded for that. Lay had an positive impact even during his lifetime and should be honored for that in both church and secular history. Rediker does that admirably.
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LibraryThing member abealy
Benjamin Lay was a man out of time. An unswerving rights advocate and abolitionist in 18th century England and America. He was a man of small stature but many parts - a shepherd, glove maker, bookseller and sailor; a vegetarian Quaker who would not accept, to any degree, the keeping of slaves and the trading in human chattel.

His story is told with passion and clarity in Marcus Rediker's new biography, The Fearless Benjamin Lay. Lay's tireless campaigning for racial equality, his unstoppable guerrilla theater tactics and survival from vicious attacks and character assassination as told in Rediker's book, convincingly make the case that Benjamin Lay should have a much more prominent place in the pantheon of American heroes.

For many years Lay provoked his local community in England. He spoke out against the holding of slaves and the accumulation of wealth which depended on it. Not until Lay arrived in Philadelphia in 1732, did he find a like-minded Quaker who also published abolitionist tracts and refused to be silenced by the ruling Quaker board. Ralph Sandiford had published a fierce indictment against slavery several years earlier and was in poor health, being hounded by the ruling class, when Lay met and befriended him. After Sandiford's death, Lay continued his cause with as ever unyielding a voice as he ever had.

Lay took on the Quaker establishment with radical zeal and an untiring voice that would not suffer any compromise for the abolition of all slavery and the equal partnership of all sentient life on earth. His story is inspiring and uplifting and yet, sadly, is as relevant today, in the condemnation of greed and the ruling class, as it ever was then. Inequality is still smothering the earth and the richest one percent still abuse the rights of the poor and helpless. Slavery is out of fashion but the resulting suffering is the same.

Lay's great work, All Slave-Keepers That Keep The Innocent In Bondage, Apostates, was printed (and probably edited) by Ben Franklin in 1738. It is a scathing indictment of slavery within the Quaker movement and does not hesitate to name names and damn the guilty.

The Fearless Benjamin Lay is a welcome addition to the library of abolitionist history and an important document about one of the most zealous enemies of slaveholders.
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LibraryThing member adamps
This is a lovely book you would never pick up (at least I wouldn’t) if it hadn’t come across my path for reviewing. I appreciate these sorts of missing histories that explore a component of great events that usually do not make the canon retelling of the story. This is definitely one of those books.

If you share a passion for colonial history in the United States, this is definitely one to check out (or at least skim).… (more)
LibraryThing member JBD1
An excellent, thoroughly documented, and highly readable biography of Benjamin Lay, a fearless abolitionist and all-around interesting character. Rediker carefully analyzes Lay's life, writings, and legacy, in what is surely the best possible treatment of the man. Given my own interests, I was particularly keen on Rediker's explorations of Lay's library, which I need to do a bit more work to track down. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member bks1953
Today (3 February 2018) marks the 259th anniversary of the death of Benjamin Lay. A month ago, that fact would have meant nothing to me; now, having read Marcus Rediker's intriguing biography of the man, history and justice can rejoice in the life he lived.
Shepherd, glove maker, sailor, merchant, Benjamin Lay was born in England to Quaker parents of "modest but growing means" (p. 11) in 1682. Though Lay had little formal education, he read voraciously, enjoying philosophy, theology, history, and poetry. Lay's self-learning affirmed the Quaker "Protestant radicalism" teachings into a bedrock moral principle of how he would live his days, a steadfast and unyielding belief that "no one had the right or power to control the human conscience" (p. 15). Living this creed, it need not be said, could not have been, is not today, and never will be, easy. Lay's outspokenness often unsettled his fellow congregants and, more importantly, Quaker leaderships, to the point that he was expelled (dubiously, to be charitable) from numerous Quaker meeting-houses.
Having made several Atlantic crossings while working as a sailor, Lay and his wife eventually settled in Barbados for a time. While he was familiar with slavery from his seagoing experiences, it was there where Lay saw the evil up close and personal. From Barbados the Lays settled in Philadelphia, the couple perhaps lured in part because of the reputation of Quaker William Penn, founder of the colony; a colony and city grounded in the faith of Friends, how could it not be the proverbial shining city on a hill? Alas, reality soon revealed itself. And thus did Benjamin Lay, the man whom many in his community regarded as overfull "of strife and contention" (ch. 2) up his game.
Guerrilla street theatre, public discourse, and other acts that we might label today as civil disobedience, it all cam together in Lay's authoring rambling book denouncing slavery and slave holders with equal acidity. Lays' friend, another Benjamin (Franklin), edited and published the manuscript. (Perhaps apprehensive over public reaction, Franklin did not cite himself as the publisher. In fairness, however, it should be noted that, decades after Lay's death, Franklin became the president of the Pennsylvania abolitionist association.)
Benjamin's faith was deep and sincere. He did not ride a horse, as he considered such to be exploitation of the animal. He was a vegetarian (peaches and acorns his favorite foods) for the same reason. His clothes were colorless, drab and plain, as dyes were created by slave labor.
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LibraryThing member rowmyboat
"Benjamin Lay was, in sum, a class-conscious, race-conscious, environmentally-conscious vegetarian ultraradical. Most readers of this book would think this combination of beliefs possible only since the 1960s" (p. 149) -- unless one is a student of the history of anarchism, a word that seems almost conspicuously absent from this book.

As it was taught to me, the roots of what we now call "anarchism" are planted most firmly around 1800, with William Godwin and company. Benjamin Lay's life pulls that foundation back a hundred years or so; his roots in the radical beginnings of Quakerism, along with the Levellers, Diggers, and so on take us back at least another half century, if not all the way to the massive land enclosure and loss of the commons under the Tudor monarchs.
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LibraryThing member nancyadair
He spent his later life living in a cave, a vegetarian and animal rights activist who made his own clothing. Yet his estate at his death in 1759 was valued at $117,000 (in today's dollars).

He was an early convert to abolition, causing disturbances that his Quaker meeting house to remove him from membership.

He was a dwarf who married another Little Person, Sarah, a well-liked Quaker preacher, while he himself was reviled for his extremism.

The Fearless Benjamin Lay by Marcus Rediker resurrects the forgotten man who dared to stand up to wealth and power with the message that all creatures are God's children, and that to own a slave is to be steeped in sin.

Lay went to extremes to get his message across. Lay had been pressuring a neighbor Quaker in Abington, PA over their owning a slave girl. One day Lay encountered the couple's son and invited him to his cave. When the distraught couple found their son with Lay, he chastised them saying, "You may now conceive of the sorrows you inflict upon the parents of the negroe [sic] girl you hold in slavery, for she was torn from them by avarice."

Without a formal education, Lay wrote a book that was printed by Benjamin Franklin. It was Deborah Franklin who commissioned a portrait of Lay, a gift for her husband. It resides in the National Portrait Museum.

Lay's book printed by Benjamin Franklin
This vivid portrait of a unique personality is interesting as history, but Lay's vision transcends the years, for his concerns remain with us to this day and are more relevant than ever. As society struggles with issues of wealth trumping morality, consumerism and its impact on the environment and human health, and the continual fight against hate groups that devalue certain human lives, Lay's life stands as an example of how to live according to one's values and one's faith.

I received a free book from the publisher through LibraryThing.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
I definitely enjoyed learning about Benjamin Lay, a man who deserves to have been a more prominent figure in our stories of American history. In that respect, the book was fascinating. However, I was frustrated with the frequency of the repetition of facts multiple times. It felt as though the author was concerned with the length of the book, which is too bad, because the subject was so interesting.… (more)



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