Anti-slavery campaigner Benjamin Lay re-embraced by Quakers

By Nic Rigby
BBC News

image copyrightNational Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
image captionBenjamin Lay, known as the Quaker Comet, was a pioneer of non-violent direct action

After 280 years, four Quaker meetings in the UK and USA have re-embraced a 4ft-tall anti-slavery campaigner.

Benjamin Lay's most famous stunt involved spraying people at a religious meeting with mock blood.

Lay, who had dwarfism, was born in Essex in 1682 and trained as a glove-maker in Colchester before emigrating.

In the US, his campaign saw him disowned by Christian Quakers in Abington and Philadelphia - where many leading Quakers kept slaves.

image copyrightPennsylvania; Quaker collection
image captionLay, who was born in Copford near Colchester, made his own clothes from flax to avoid the exploitation of animals

His radicalism also saw him disowned by Quakers in Colchester and London.

'Shed the blood'

Lay's belief in direct action was demonstrated in 1738 when he went to the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Quakers with a hollowed-out book which hid a tied-off animal bladder containing red berry juice.

Lay told the gathering, which included wealthy Quaker slave-owners: "Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures."

He then plunged a sword into the book and the liquid splattered over people at the gathering.

Now the four groups linked to those who disowned him - the Abington Monthly Meeting, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the North London Monthly Meeting and the Friends of the Southern East Anglia Meeting - have recognised the error.

image copyrightCourtesy Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore
image captionThe Friends' Meeting House in Burlington, New Jersey, was one of the places where Benjamin Lay protested

Their joint statement recognises "the integrity and courage of a man who called slave-holders, including Quakers, to account, who protested the abomination of slavery, upheld the equality of the sexes, and lived his life with integrity according to his Quaker beliefs".

It concludes: "We hold that Benjamin Lay was a Friend of the Truth; we are in unity with the spirit of Benjamin Lay."

University of Pittsburgh historian and biographer of Lay, Marcus Rediker, said the news "brought tears to my eyes, not only because it represents retrospective justice, but because it would have meant so much to Benjamin himself".

"He dearly loved his fellow Quakers - as long as they did not own slaves," he said.

image copyrightMarcus Rediker
image captionAs part of the re-embracing of Benjamin Lay a new grave marker has been placed in the Abington Quaker Burial Ground

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