‘Some might say we’re rewriting history. Rather, we’re completing history by telling the whole story, acknowledging our own part. We owe it to those who live with the legacy of slavery to take steps to redress this.’
The William Penn room at Friends House is to be renamed after abolitionist Benjamin Lay. The new name was suggested by staff of the Quiet Company, which manages Friends House, after it was decided last year that it was not appropriate to commemorate William Penn any longer.
Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) said that the name change is part of the Society’s move towards becoming a more equal and inclusive church. Benjamin Lay was a sevententh-century Quaker who dedicated his life to campaigning against slavery at a time when wealthy Quakers ‘owned’ enslaved people. He was also a vegetarian, a feminist and opposed to the death penalty.
The management meeting of BYM said: ‘We recognise that changing the name of a room is not, of itself, a way to change the world or the relationships we each have with other people around us. It can only play a small part in a much wider commitment to building a more equal and inclusive society.’
Paul Parker, recording clerk for BYM, said: ‘Some might say we’re rewriting history. Rather, we’re completing history by telling the whole story, acknowledging our own part. We owe it to those who live with the legacy of slavery to take steps to redress this.’
BYM said that Penn, who founded the state of Pennsylvania, ‘made important contributions to religious freedom, democracy and pacifism, and these will be remembered. But we cannot ignore the truth that he was also a slaveholder, profiting from enslaved people, like many other Quakers’.
The four-foot Lay was born to Quaker parents near Colchester in England in 1682. Moving to Barbados in 1718, he began advocating against slavery when he saw an enslaved man. In later life, appalled by what he saw as a degraded society and economy, he lived self-sufficiently in a cave in Pennsylvania. He wrote over 200 pamphlets attacking slavery, the prison system and the wealthy Quaker elite of that state.
Lay is well known for using unusual protest techniques. At Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1738 he plunged a sword into a Bible containing a bladder of blood-red juice, splattering nearby Quakers. On another occasion he (temporarily) kidnapped the child of slaveholders to show them how Africans felt when their relatives were taken. In 1758 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting agreed to discipline any Quakers who bought, sold or imported enslaved people.
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