The Radical Abolitionists – Sarah and Benjamin Lay
There were many individuals who fought for freedom from slavery. There were also some couples whose stories are intertwined with abolition – one of these is Sarah and Benjamin Lay. An admired Quaker preacher and a radical abolitionist respectively, their story takes them from Deptford to the other side of the Atlantic…
Benjamin Lay was born in Essex in 1682, and though he received little formal education, he would go on to amass a large library of books on poetry, philosophy, history and theology. By his twenties he was a sailor, meeting people from across the world. His experiences, and the deep indignation he felt at the barbarism of slavery, led him to fight for the unconditional emancipation of all enslaved people.
Benjamin moved to Barbados with his wife, Sarah, in 1718. Sarah (née Smith) had lived in Deptford and the couple probably met at a Deptford Monthly Meeting of Friends (as Quakers refer to themselves). She was a popular preacher, travelling widely to represent the local Quaker community. In Barbados, the Lays opened a small shop and witnessed the impact of slavery on the island. They learnt more about the experiences of enslaved people by inviting them into their home and serving meals to increasingly large crowds. They became determined to fight against the slave trade.
After a couple of years in Barbados, the Lays returned to England. Benjamin openly denounced slavery and criticised those who traded in human lives. For this, the local Quaker community disowned him, a pattern that would often be repeated throughout his life as early Quakers were not all abolitionists. Come 1732, Benjamin and Sarah decided to emigrate to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Benjamin’s approach to protesting against slavery was theatrical and radical. At the 1738 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Quakers, for example, he plunged a sword into a Bible that he’d filled with red berry juice to simulate blood. He also wrote a fiery treatise against slavery, titled All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates (an apostate is someone who renounces religion). It outlined his belief in a universal stand against slavery. Nathaniel Smith Kogan analyses Benjamin’s radical approach in part through the lens of disability, as both he and Sarah were people with restricted growth (dwarfism). Smith Kogan argues that Benjamin’s disability shaped his work by encouraging empathy with enslaved people and empowering him to advocate for others.
Benjamin’s radical approach certainly caused tensions within the Quaker community. The couple moved to Abington, Pennsylvania in 1734, and though Sarah was embraced as a member – “appearing to be of a good Conversation during her residence here” – Benjamin was not welcomed with open arms. Sadly, Sarah died in 1735 after 17 years with her husband. In the years that followed, Benjamin chose to live simply, eradicating all types of oppression from his life (including of animals) by making his own clothes and growing his own plant-based diet.
In 1758, news finally reached Benjamin that the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting had condemned slaveholding, with reformers calling for a return to a simpler way of living. Benjamin died in February of the following year with the knowledge that the cause he spent his life campaigning for was finally being recognised. He was buried near Sarah in the Quaker burial ground in Abington, though Sarah was buried as a member and Benjamin was not. Recently, the Abington Quakers have recognised him as “a Friend of the Truth”. An engraved marker for the couple has been added to the burial ground in recognition of Benjamin and Sarah’s place in the local history of Abington and the history of abolition.
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 Nathaniel Smith Kogan, “Aberrations in the Body and in the Body Politic: The Eighteenth-Century Life of Benjamin Lay, Disabled Abolitionist,” Disability Studies Quarterly 36, no. 3 (2016): Summer 2016.
 Marcus Rediker, “The “Quaker Comet” Was the Greatest Abolitionist You’ve Never Heard Of,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 2017.
 Nic Rigby, “Anti-slavery Campaigner Benjamin Lay Re-embraced By Quakers,” BBC, December 2018.