Born in 1682 in Essex, England, to a Quaker family of modest means, Benjamin Lay possessed—or perhaps more accurately, was possessed by—an unshakable moral conviction that compelled him to follow his conscience, even as it led him to live a deeply unconventional, and in many ways uncomfortable, life. In England he was disowned by two Quaker communities for accusing religious leaders of covetousness; Lay saw the community’s rising wealth and materialism as anathema to the Society of Friends’ commitment to equality. In Pennsylvania, where he moved in 1732, his truth-telling and deepening antislavery militancy got him disowned twice more.
Decades before the Bill of Rights was ratified, Lay’s speech was remarkably free. It was also creative. His brazen self-expression was undoubtedly unique, but it was not without precedent. In the decades prior to his birth, Lay’s home county of Essex had been a hotbed of political protest and religious rebellion. During the English Revolution, radical sects including the Diggers, Ranters, Seekers, and Levelers deployed spectacular tactics to challenge established authority and liberate the individual. Quakerism was part of this emancipatory efflorescence, emphasizing God’s presence in each person, including women, through what adherents understood to be an inner light. By elevating the spiritual experience and moral conscience of the individual, Quakerism demoted traditional clergy and undermined social hierarchy. Friends dressed in a simple style and flouted convention—behavior that led to their persecution in England and in the colonies before the Society became more established.
Lay knew this history well, and his protests harked back to this rich tradition of dissent. His guerrilla theater was calibrated to shock and persuade. Above all, he sought to expose the hypocrisy and vanity of the Quaker elders and ministers who owned people—how could a faith that preaches pacifism be reconciled to the theft and torture of human beings believed to be possessed of an inner light?—and to highlight the avarice and violence that ownership entailed. By doing this, he revealed the complicity of the broader community, which he felt had lost touch with its core values: commitments to equality, nonviolence, and the Golden Rule above all. He did so by making a scene at every opportunity. During worship, Lay would vehemently denounce any slaveholders who spoke, sometimes from the women’s section, where he occasionally sat in subversion of ossifying gender norms. One Sunday morning he stood shoeless in the snow outside the meetinghouse. When Friends passed by and expressed worry that he might catch cold, Lay replied that they should extend the same concern to the “poor slaves in your fields, who go all winter half clad.” Another time, Lay aimed to teach a lesson to neighbors who owned a young Black girl by entertaining their son at his home for an entire day, unbeknownst to the parents. When the couple approached Lay in a panic, convinced their child was lost, he called the boy over. Perhaps now, Lay told them, they could imagine the anguish of the girl and her family.