Benjamin Lay: Quaker vegan revolutionary abolitionist

A Quaker vegan revolutionary abolitionist shows us how to live. A story for All Saints … thanks, Lucy.

Benjamin Lay was an early 18th century Quaker, and ‘a class-conscious, race-conscious, environmentally conscious ultraradical.’* If that’s not a big enough mouthful, he was more specifically a revolutionary abolitionist vegan with a disability (dwarfism) who boycotted all slave-produced commodities and lived in a cave.

In 1738 he walked 20 miles to a Quaker meeting to deliver a speech against slavery that climaxed in him plunging a sword through a Bible in which he had concealed a bladder full of red berry juice. Just to make sure the point was clear, he then splattered the juice over the slave-keepers in the audience, crying out ‘thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.’

He was, obviously, thrown out of the meeting and, heartbreakingly, disowned from the community. Yet it created the conversation and discomfort he aimed for, which he continued to relentlessly pursue. His efforts eventually led the Philadelphia Society of Friends to pass a resolve disciplining members who owned slaves in 1958 – a year before Benjamin himself died and joined our cloud of witnesses.

As a historical figure, Benjamin Lay can be remembered and bring inspiration for us all to pursue social justice, which is no small thing. But adding him to our Cloud of Witnesses? I can’t stop thinking of how he must be wanting to rain red juice down on those power-brokers keeping asylum seekers on Nauru, and cheering on the advocates fighting against this. It’s not a matter commemorating and being #inspired by him – it’s knowing that we are his peers, that we also believe in the same scripture which drove his actions, that the conviction that he had is ours to have also.

We – you, me and Benjamin – are the Body of Christ, and His Spirit is with us now as it was with Benjamin when he stabbed that juice-soaked Bible.

Love and peace,

First emailed to Sanctuary, 7 November 2018 © Sanctuary, 2020. We had no formal reflection tonight; instead, the congregation shared stories about their saints, that is, people who had shaped and guided their faith journey. Read this excellent adapted excerpt of Marcus Rediker, “The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist”, 2017. Facts and quotes above drawn from this. Image credit: William Williams, Benjamin Lay (c. 1750 – 1758). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; this acquisition was made possible by a generous contribution from the James Smithson Society.


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