Quaker Abolitionist Benjamin Lay Remembered

Addressing Racism

Three years ago, Abington Friends Meeting member and caretaker Dave Wermeling noticed a tall professorial-looking figure wandering in the meeting burial ground.  It was the historian Marcus Rediker doing research for a book he was writing on the 18th century Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lay.  Dave confirmed for Marcus that Benjamin and his wife Sarah were buried at Abington but the exact location was unmarked.

The only recognition Benjamin Lay received, after being disowned by the meeting for his active ministry against slave-holding by Quakers, was a small etching of his distinctive figure which hangs in the meeting fellowship room.

In 2016, Marcus was invited to talk about his research into the life of Benjamin Lay which inspired Friends at Abington to consider more closely Lay’s legacy.  Member Loretta Fox was so inspired by Dave’s enthusiasm and Marcus’ research she felt led to a propose a memorial minute to the meeting recognizing Lay’s unwavering dedication to racial equality and his unstinting courage to witness to the evils of enslaving people.

“I felt led to draft a minute of unity because it is important for Abington Meeting to acknowledge that Sarah and Benjamin Lay were buried under our care,” said Loretta.  “Not only for them, but more importantly for the enslaved people and their descendants for whom they so valiantly spoke.  As the community that disowned Lay, we need to go on record as accepting his message and honoring his witness to the truth, however belatedly.”

Burial Marker for Sarah & Benjamin Lay

On Saturday, April 21, 2018, Abington Monthly Meeting unveiled a burial stone for Sarah & Benjamin Lay. The event which featured opening remarks by author Marcus Rediker and local resident and Quaker Avis Wanda McClinton was followed by a gathering in the meetinghouse in the manner of a Friends Memorial Meeting.

Part of the program was a dramatic reading of Benjamin Lay’s writing by meeting member and actor Benjamin Lloyd.  “We are all indebted to Marcus’ book,” said Ben.  “As I read, I found myself totally absorbed in the story of this little person, just a couple of generations removed from the birth of the Quaker movement, travelling the high seas and later confronting the evils of slavery in America.  He seemed possessed of an almost pathologically contrarian nature.  I identified with him!”

Ben Lloyd’s reading of passages from Lay’s publication “All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage: Apostates” was electrifying.  It convincingly conveyed the barely contained rage of Lays convictions as well the compassion he felt for those Friends whom he railed against.  Any doubt as to the unsettling power of Lay’s message was dispelled by this dramatic rendition of his words.

The program concluded with a multigenerational and multiethnic/racial panel discussion exploring the query: What practices and beliefs do we hold that future generations will someday look back on and say, What were they thinking?”

Friends shared their contemporary concerns and activities against the mistreatment and criminalization of immigrants, support for the Black Lives Matter movement, activism to confront mass incarceration and protesting gun violence in our schools and neighborhoods, among others.