A review of The Fearless Benjamin Lay by Marcus Rediker

Reviewed by Tina Jayroe

The Fearless Benjamin Lay
The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist
by Marcus Rediker
Beacon Press
2017, 232 pages, ISBN: 9780807035924

This book is a “tender-hearted” biography of an English, then later American Quaker who abhorred the acts and institutions of African enslavement in the 18th century. It presents a man who vehemently disagreed with his fellows’ blatant rejection of The Golden Rule. For Benjamin Lay (1682–1759) this was unacceptable, and he spent most of his life squawking about it.  

The Fearless Benjamin Lay:The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist will engage serious adults and younger audiences partially by presenting a topic of some obscurity, partially by noting the author’s affection for Lay (and his causes), and partially by the publisher’s pleasant layout.

Rediker is a professor, activist, and historian of the Atlantic slave trade. Writing in a contemporary and progressive way, he reveals this man’s courageous cry against the unfairness, brutal cruelty, and inexcusable ambivalence toward slave labor in all its forms. Lay is presented as an exemplar, and the author tells us how he was determined to devote “a study all its own” to Lay after discovering him in previous research. 

Lay spoke truth to power over and over in the face of many opponents and much derision. He challenged the status quo throughout his life and performed guerilla theatre to get his points across:  

On another occasion, after he was tossed into the street on a rainy day, Benjamin returned to the main door of the meetinghouse, lay down in the mud, and required every person leaving the meeting to step over his supine body. Friends knew that if Benjamin walked through the meetinghouse door and encountered slave holders, combustion would follow. Gary B. Nash aptly called Benjamin a ‘living stick of dynamite.’ (73)

Lay was an antinomian—a strain of early, radical Quakers who thought that individual human conscience was a virtue above any religious or civil law. Lay and a sparse few advocated a lack of authority in all Christian assemblies and when he and his wife had had enough strife rebelling against their English counterparts, they sailed to the States and continued the fight in the City of Brotherly Love.

Lay was an activist and a minimalist. He walked long distances to avoid the exploitation of horses, and made his own clothes out of naturally fibrous substances that did not come from animals. Milk and honey were the only non-vegan products he consumed, and he “boycotted all commodities” made with the labor of humans in bondage. As a test of religious austerity he fasted for three weeks before others saved him from serious illness. He lived in a cave, acquired a personal library, grew his own garden, and wrote a book about the evils of slavery entitled, All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. It was intended as an affront on the hypocrisy of his fellow, slave-holding Quakers. 

He found it ‘intolerable’ that some of these slave keepers had come to America as ‘vile servants,’ experienced the hard life of indentured servitude, gained their freedom and acquired wealth, and now mistreated their own bond slaves. (56)

The Fearless Benjamin Lay contains a glossy, colored insert containing 17th, 18th, and 19th century images and written explanations of each. One beautiful illustration depicts the “Riverine Genealogy”—a unique art piece by Thomas Clarkson in 1808 depicting a sort of heritage map of antislavery Quakers. Another example is the portrait of Lay, now in the Smithsonian and commissioned by Ben Franklin’s wife around the time of his death. Rediker explains that a humble Quaker like Benjamin who opposed any type of lavishness or immodesty would probably not have approved of having his likeness reproduced, and certainly did not sit for it. (Ironically, Beacon Press published a graphic novel about Lay titled, Prophet Against Slavery, in 2021.)

Near the end of the book, in the Author’s Note section, Rediker comments about our ever-morphing view of heroes of the past stating:

Thomas Jefferson was undeniably a brilliant man but at the same time one of the leading racists of his era, arguing fiercely in international debate against the intellectual capabilities of peoples of African descent. (152)

Benjamin Franklin—who published Lay’s book somewhat anonymously and was a friend of his—was also a slave owner and printed advertisements in his paper for the recapture and sale of slaves. The Fearless Benjamin Lay recounts how during that same time frame, Lay was protesting such practices and how, toward the end of his life, his efforts began to pay off. Thus, Rediker makes the case to fight the power, plant the seed, have compassion.

When he described someone as ‘tender-hearted,’ he was paying that person his highest compliment, invoking his most cherished ideal. In these pages I have offered what I hope is a ‘tender-hearted’ history of a deeply principled and often impossible man. (152) 

This stunning biography is about a rare and brave little person willing to stand up and oppose the giants of a hideously widespread, profitable enterprise in its third century of existence, and on two continents.