The Fearless Benjamin Lay

An eighteenth century Friend has been formally re-associated with Quakerism after being disowned for nearly 300 years

Benjamin Lay, the eighteenth century Quaker who used confrontational protest to persuade the Religious Society of Friends to oppose slavery, has been formally re-associated with his faith community after having been disowned for nearly 300 years.

In 1776 Quakers became the first western faith community to make owning slaves a disownable offence. Benjamin Lay’s activism was instrumental to this outcome, but he was disowned four times for his theatrical and zealous protests for equality. He was one of the first people in the world to publish a call for an outright and immediate end to slavery everywhere, and dedicated his life to persuading his Quaker community to put into practice their testimony to equality.

When he published his seminal anti-slavery tract All Slave Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage: Apostates, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting responded by publicly declaring that ‘the author is not of their religious community; that they disapprove of his Conduct, the Composition and Printing of the Book’.

Benjamin Lay returned to public attention this year following the publication of a biography by US historian Marcus Rediker, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist. Drawing strongly on Quaker records in London, Essex and Pennsylvania, where Benjamin Lay resided, the book reveals how a lack of clarity surrounding his eventual reinstatement in London was used as part of the justification to exclude him from membership in North America.

Although there is no formal procedure for reinstating deceased members, Quakers in Abington, Pennsylvania, where Benjamin Lay attended towards the end of his life, have agreed to come as close as they could, by formally recognising him as a ‘Friend of the Truth and as being in unity with the spirit’ of the Meeting.

At the same time Quakers from the successor to Benjamin Lay’s North London Meeting have agreed to write to all communities from which he was disowned to clarify that he is in good standing with North London Quakers, emphasising that they, too, recognise him as a ‘Friend of the Truth’ and ‘in unity with the spirit of our Area Meeting’.

Responding to the decisions of North London and Abington Quakers, Marcus Rediker said: ‘I must confess I was moved to tears when I read these minutes. This action would have meant so much to Benjamin, no question about it. He dearly loved his fellow Quakers.’

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