Updated on 23 February 2021
On 19 September, 1738, the Quaker Benjamin Lay entered Friends Meeting House in Burlington, New Jersey, with fake blood.
North America’s First Abolitionist
The fake blood was red berry juice and it was contained in an animal’s bladder. The animal bladder itself was concealed in a hollowed-out book. Lay sat down in silence for the meeting and when he felt prompted he stood up and gave ministry saying that all men, rich or poor, black or white were equal. Therefore, he argued, slave keeping was the greatest sin in the world and those Quakers that owned slaves at the time should set them free.
He then thundered out:
“Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.”Benjamin Lay
From his long overcoat, he produced the hollowed-out book together with a sword. He then raised the book above his head and stabbed the animal’s bladder. Blood spattered across the shocked congregation and Lay was marched out of the building. Subsequently, Lay was formally disowned by Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic. The fake blood protest was the culmination of nearly 25 years of campaigning by Lay against the slave trade and he widely considered as North America’s first abolitionist.
The Lays’ Life
Benjamin Lay was born near Colchester, England, in 1682 to a Quaker family. From birth he suffered from a form of dwarfism that caused a major curvature of the spine resulting in him standing at about four and a half foot tall.
Despite his disability, Lay made it through childhood and as an adult began work, first a shepherd and then a glove maker. In 1718, he ran away to London and got married to fellow Quaker Sarah Smith. In London he gained employment as a sailor and the couple moved to Barbados.
It was during his time in Barbabos that Lay encountered the slave trade first hand. Working as a shopkeeper on the island, he saw an enslaved man kill himself rather than submit to yet another whipping. This and countless other barbarities in the British colony deeply troubled Lay and drove his passion for ending the slave trade.
In 1731, Lay and his wife found his way to America first landing in Massachusetts and the local Quakers sent word to London asking if he was in good stead. They replied that he was a committed Friend, but felt he was too outspoken in meetings. They stated:
“We believe he is Convinced of the Truth but for want of keeping low and humble in his mind, hath by an indiscreet zeal been too forward to appear in our publick Meetings.”
The Lays soon left Massachusetts for William Penn’s Philadelphia and Lay found himself shocked that some wealthy Quakers owned slaves. In protest, Lay once stood outside a Quaker meeting in winter with no coat and one foot bare in the snow. When passersby expressed concern for his health, he said that slaves were made to work outdoors in winter dressed as he was.
On another occasion, he temporarily kidnapped the child of slaveholders to show them how Africans felt when their relatives were sold overseas.
Lay’s wife Sarah died in 1735, and he found solace in increasing his passion for the abolitionist movement. In 1737, with the aid of Benjamin Franklin, he printed All Slave-keepers that keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates, which was one America’s earliest works on anti-slavery.
Then seven years after he had first set foot in Philadelphia, Lay committed his defining act of protest with the fake blood. After he was disowned from the Society of Friends, he built his own home in a cave and lived peacefully on a vegetarian diet until his death in 1759, aged 77.
Shortly before his death, Lay received news that Quakers in Philadelphia had agreed to start banning the ownership of slaves. It is believed Lay said of the decision “I can now die in peace.”
In 2018, two Quaker meetings from the UK and two from the United States issued a joint statement saying that their decision to disown him was an error and that in Benjamin Lay they recognised:
“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.”
The grave marker was laid in commemoration in the Abington Quaker Burial Ground, Philadelphia.
Images from https://www.bbc.co.uk/