Lay, Benjamin (DNB00)

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LAY, BENJAMIN (1677–1759), eccentric opponent of slavery, was born of quaker parents at Colchester in 1677. After a scanty education he was bound apprentice to a glove-maker, but before he was eighteen he went to work on his brother's farm. Soon afterwards he turned sailor and made a voyage to Scanderoon, taking a trip into Syria. He returned home about 1710, married, and settled in Colchester. He seems to have busied himself in public affairs, and is said to have presented to George I a copy of Milton's tract on the way to remove hirelings out of the church. He annoyed his fellow-quakers by his repeated opposition to the ministers, and in 1717 was removed from the body; but he continued to profess quaker principles, and seems to have regularly attended meeting. In 1718 he emigrated to Barbadoes and commenced business as a merchant. He became interested in the condition of the slaves, whom he fed on Sundays and tried to benefit by addressing them and their masters. Having incurred in this way the hostility of the slave-owners, Lay removed in 1731 to Philadelphia. He built a cottage near the town and lived in an eccentric manner. Shortly after his arrival, in a moment of anger, he slaughtered an intrusive hog and nailed its quarters to the posts at the corners of his garden, but he experienced such remorse for the act that he never used any animal product afterwards, either for food or clothing. In consequence he went barefoot, wore a tow coat and trousers (much darned) of his own making, and as he never shaved his curious milk coloured beard, he presented a singular appearance. He continued his crusade against slavery, illustrating his principles in odd ways, and distributing many pamphlets of his own composition. One of his tracts, 'All Slave-keepers that keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates,' was printed in 1737 by Franklin, who paid Lay a visit on one occasion in company with Governor Penn. Lay also 'had a testimony' against tobacco and against tea, and on one occasion carried a number of tea-cups to the market-place of Philadelphia and destroyed some as a public protest. A more dangerous fancy induced him to try to fast for forty days in imitation of Christ, and bought him to the verge of the grave. As early as 1737 he suggested humane improvements in the criminal code. About 1740 he removed from his cave-like cottage to a neighbouring farmhouse and boarded there. He died 8 Feb. 1759, and buried at the quakers' burial-ground, Abington, near Philadelphia. His wife, Sarah, predeceased him. Lay was hump-backed, with very thin legs, and only four seven inches in height. His wife was deformed. But he was recognised as a philanthropist, and his pamphlets and teaching are said to have been of considerable influence upon the younger quakers of the district. Just before his death the society resolved to disown such of their members as persisted in holding slaves. His portrait is in the collection at the London Friends' Institute, Devonshire House.

[Memoirs by Vaux and Francis; Benjamin Rush's Essays; Smith's Cat. of Friends' Books Wharton's Notes on the Provincial Literature of Pennsylvannia in Memoirs, &c. of the Hist. Soc. of Pennsylvannia, vol. i.; Biog. Cat. . . . of Friends and others whose portraits are in the London Friends' Institute.]

W. A. J. A.