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‘In the belly of hell’: The Quaker abolitionist disowned by his faith for condemning slave owners

A painting of Benjamin Lay by William Williams Sr. The portrait is believed to have been commissioned by Benjamin Franklin’s wife, Deborah, as a gift to her husband. (National Portrait Gallery)

JENKINTOWN, Pa. — One day in the 1990s, Dave Wermeling stumbled across an etching of a small, bearded man in a Colonial outfit in the Quaker meeting house where he is the caretaker. “Benjamin Lay,” read a note on the back of the frame. It described him as a zealous abolitionist who died in 1759.

What it didn’t say was that Lay wrote one of the first treatises against slavery in Colonial America — at a time when many prosperous Pennsylvania Quakers were slave owners. Or that Lay was “disowned” by the Abington Meeting House here, where Wermeling works.

“I was just looking around the nooks and crannies, mostly for mouse droppings,” said Wermeling, 60, a friendly man with a generous laugh. “What I found was a historical mystery.”

He wondered: Who was the rabble-rouser in the sketch? “This was pre-Internet,” he said. “It’s not like you could go look things up like we do now.”

And so, his quest began. He asked the older Quakers what they knew about Lay. He researched. A decade passed. Then, in 2014, he met Marcus Rediker, a prominent historian from the University of Pittsburgh, who visited the Abington Meeting House for a book he was writing about Lay.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Wermeling said. “This well-known author just appeared out of nowhere talking about Benjamin. I went nuts. Finally, we were closer to getting some answers.”

It would also prove a fortunate twist of fate for Benjamin Lay, albeit posthumously.

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Rediker was soon invited to the Abington Meeting House to address members of the Religious Society of Friends, as Quakers are formally known. He told them that Lay was among the first people in the country to call for the abolition of slavery. He was also the last Quaker in America “disowned” for  objecting to slavery.

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Then Rediker made a request that caught the community by surprise.

“He actually suggested that we reconsider Benjamin Lay’s membership,” said Loretta Fox, the Abington Meeting’s administrator. “Maybe we could right the wrong done to him.”

But first, they had to come to terms with Lay. Some had misgivings. Was Lay the eccentric “little man” with a “diseased” intellect, as some historians portrayed him? Or was he the revolutionary anti-slavery hero portrayed by Rediker?

Lay was born in England in 1682, at a time when Quakers openly challenged the Anglican establishment. They eschewed religious rituals and clergy, insisting that people could experience God directly. They refused to bear arms or take oaths and espoused egalitarianism. All of this fueled their widespread persecution.

“In their origins, they were known for shouting down ministers. Benjamin Lay was very much like those early Quakers,” said Rediker, who last year published “The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist.”

Lay worked as a shepherd on his brother’s farm as a teen, then trained as a glove maker (which he hated). He ran away at age 21 to become a sailor and eventually settled in Barbados with his wife, Sarah. In those experiences, he not only heard stories about the horrors of the slave trade but witnessed them firsthand.

He was so convinced that slavery was wrong that he grew his own food and made all of his own clothes, so as to not use or partake of any product produced by slave labor. He stopped eating meat and got around on foot because he did not want to exploit animals, either.

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“In some ways, Benjamin Lay was the founder of the idea of complicity,” Rediker told The Washington Post. “He’s basically saying you have to live in a new and virtuous way. Abolitionism is part of it. All of that is revolutionary.”

When he was 50, Lay and his wife settled in the colony of Pennsylvania, first in Philadelphia, then home to the world’s second-largest Quaker community. They eventually moved a few miles north, where he lived in a cave near the Abington Meeting House. It was there that Lay, an avid reader, housed one of the best book collections around, particularly spiritual works.

He had been drawn to Pennsylvania by the promise of William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” — a place where Quakers could live their faith without persecution. But he found that some Quakers were slaveholders — which, in Lay’s mind, made them persecutors. Penn, who had founded the colony but died years before Lay’s arrival, had been a slave-owning Quaker.

“Benjamin was shocked when he came to America,” Abington’s Fox said. “He thought it was going to be this wonderful place for Quakers. And he got here, and there was slavery here, too.”

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Lay fiercely protested against slavery. He spoke out in worship services, calling Quakers and others who were slave owners “man-stealers.” He also employed street theatrics, according to Roberts Vaux, who published a biography of Lay 55 years after his death.

Vaux wrote that one winter, Lay stood in the snow outside a Quaker meeting house with his right foot and leg uncovered. When people urged him to come inside, he said, “Ah, you pretend compassion for me but you do not feel for the poor slaves in your fields, who go all winter half clad.”

Lay was well-known throughout the Philadelphia area for his antics, which historians say were made all the more dramatic because of his dwarfism. He also had kyphosis, or a severely curved spine, and people called him a hunchback. Modern headlines often describe Lay as an “abolitionist dwarf,” or “Quaker dwarf.” Some commentators have reasoned that the ridicule he endured for his size made him empathize with the enslaved.

“Benjamin Lay would be memorable no matter his stature because of his convictions,” actor Mark Povinelli, president of the Little People of America, told The Post. “But because he was so physically different in such a rougher time period is really a compelling story.”

By January 1738, the Abington Meeting had enough of Lay’s disruptions and formally disowned him. That meant he could have no say in policy, which he desperately wanted to change. He was 56 years old and still reeling from the death of his wife three years earlier.

Despite the rejection, he was allowed to attend worship — and he continued to speak out. “He loved Quakerism,” Rediker said, “and thought the slave owners were ruining it.”

In August of that year, Benjamin Franklin published Lay’s anti-slavery screed, “All Slave-keepers that keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates.”

“Is there any eviler fruit in the world than slave-keeping?” Lay wrote. “Anything more devilish? It is of the very nature of hell itself, and is the belly of hell.”

He called Christians and ministers who embraced slavery “hypocrites” and said they were damned to hell. He lashed out at Quakers, who refused to bear arms, “yet purchase the plunder, the captives, for slaves at a very great price, thereby justifying their selling of them.”

The Quaker establishment in Philadelphia denounced the treatise and Lay three times in an ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette, according to Rediker.

In September 1738, Lay walked 20 miles to attend the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the largest gathering of Quakers in the area. He showed up in a military coat with a small sword by his side, according to Vaux. When he rose to speak, Lay denounced the slave holders in blistering fashion and thrust his blade into a tied-off animal bladder filled with red juice.

“To the shock of all, he splattered ‘blood’ ” on the slave keepers,” Rediker wrote.

Quakers carried him out of the meeting. Lay didn’t resist.

History, of course, was on Lay’s side. A couple of years before he died in 1759 at age 77, Quakers began to push for an end to slavery and eventually initiated a process to discipline and disown Quakers who traded slaves, Rediker wrote.

Even so, historians played down or ignored Lay’s role. Rediker believes that was, in part, because Lay didn’t fit the narrative embraced by the upper crust in the abolitionist movement. Historians, he said, also dismissed Lay a “ridiculous little man” because of his size, because he wasn’t wealthy or well-schooled, and because he had worked as a sailor, a shepherd and a tradesman.

“But he’s coming back,” Rediker said. “He’s finally starting to get the attention that he deserves.”

After months of discerning Lay’s legacy, the Abington Meeting, a predominantly white congregation with about 300 members, reached a decision a few months ago. They didn’t restore Lay’s membership, because some felt it wrong to “rewrite” history. Nor was there a Quaker mechanism for reinstating a membership posthumously, Fox said.

Instead, they adopted a statement recognizing Lay as a “Friend of the Truth” and as “being in unity with the spirit” of the meetinghouse. “Friends of the Truth” is how early Quakers identified themselves.

Later this year, a historical marker will be erected on a nearby street. Last month, the Abington Meeting hosted a public ceremony to unveil a burial marker for Benjamin and Sarah, near where they are thought to have been buried in an unmarked grave. As the sun bore down, about 75 people stood in a semicircle listening to tributes.

For Wermeling, the caretaker, it was a day he never imagined when he found the etching of Lay. While many turned up for the ceremony in casual clothes, jeans and the like, he donned a dark suit for the gathering.

He saw a logic to Lay’s aggressive protests.

“You know how there’s an emergency and people aren’t leaving the building when it’s on fire?” he said. “When it came to slavery, Benjamin Lay saw it for what it was. An emergency. And when there’s an emergency and people don’t respond, you scream louder and louder until they do.”

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