Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Benjamin Lay and Quaker Corporate Witness

I often hear Friends lament that we do not have a corporate witness currently, or try to figure out in consternation how to marshal other Friends to unify around one of the many critical and compelling issues of our time.  I think that Friends fail to understand the actual chapters of Quaker's historic witness.  For example, Friends proudly speak of the standard of Quakers "not owning slaves".   They sweep past the over 100 years it took our Yearly Meetings to reach consensus that Friends were not to own slavery (or that even after that some Friends did).   This ignores the great price of unpopularity and even expulsion that the early abolitionist experienced in their own Meetings.   It also ignores that this later standard was achieved by "reading Friends out of Meeting".  (Meaning that Slave owners were stripped of membership.)  Given that Friends have now rejected the idea of reading anyone out of membership, it would literally be impossible for modern Friends to achieve this level of conformity to any position we might take on any issue.
Take for example the biography of Benjamin Lay:  The Fearless Benjamin Lay by Marcus Redikar released this past month.  Redikar reports on the tactics of Benjamin, a small man known as a hunchback because of his 4 foot height and curvature of the upper back.   In 1738 he became the last of a very few Quakers expelled for their abolitionism.  In fact Redikar tells us Lay was expelled from two British Friends Meetings as well as Abington Friends meeting in the US. Below he describes the incident that led to Lay's expulsion: 

"On September 19, 1738, a man named Benjamin Lay strode into a Quaker meetinghouse in Burlington, New Jersey, for the biggest event of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. He wore a great coat, which hid a military uniform and a sword. Beneath his coat Lay carried a hollowed-out book with a secret compartment, into which he had tucked a tied-off animal bladder filled with bright red pokeberry juice. Because Quakers had no formal minister or church ceremony, people spoke as the spirit moved them. Lay, a Quaker himself, waited his turn.

He finally rose to address this gathering of 'weighty Quakers.' Many Friends in Pennsylvania and New Jersey had grown rich on Atlantic commerce, and many bought human property. To them Lay announced in a booming voice that God Almighty respects all peoples equally, rich and poor, men and women, white and black alike. He said that slave keeping was the greatest sin in the world and asked, How can a people who profess the golden rule keep slaves? He then threw off his great coat, revealing the military garb, the book and the blade.

A murmur filled the hall as the prophet thundered his judgment: “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.” He pulled out the sword, raised the book above his head, and plunged the sword through it. People gasped as the red liquid gushed down his arm; women swooned. To the shock of all, he spattered “blood” on the slave keepers. He prophesied a dark, violent future: Quakers who failed to heed the prophet’s call must expect physical, moral and spiritual death.

The room exploded into chaos, but Lay stood quiet and still, 'like a statue,' a witness remarked. Several Quakers quickly surrounded the armed soldier of God and carried him from the building. He did not resist. He had made his point.  This spectacular performance was one moment of guerrilla theater among many in Lay’s life."

Now if you consider this carefully my guess is these are not tactics you could see yourself doing in your Friends Meeting or for that matter any Friends Meeting.   Yet there are many recorded incidents of him doing guerrilla theater among Friends, as well as "calling out" Friends (from the bench during business meeting) in a way that could only be described honestly as self-righteous heckling.  So maybe you say: "well no wonder he was expelled - poor social skills, really very rude....other polite Friends could have gotten the same job done."   Yet both John Woolman and Lucretia Mott made themselves very unpopular among many Friends for their calls to conscience. Lucretia Mott was almost written out of her Meeting several times, probably only spared this because of the wealth and status of her husband.  George Fox for that matter in the beginning of Quakerism entered other people's churches, stood up on the benches and disrupted the service and called the minister hypocritics, among other things.  So playing nice was not in the original Quaker play book.  Speaking the truth bluntly was.  As Quakers have through education and the protection of the right to freedom of religion become more middle class have we also learned the middle class pattern of playing it safe?

I believe if we honestly appraise our history we will see that a few Friends with vision and courage put out a call to Friends to stand for social justice.  There calls were not immediately heeded or was unity quickly or easily reached.  Most spent their lifetimes both inside and outside of the Society of Friends agitating for a vision of justice that was often many decades ahead of their time and took great flack in both arenas for their "eccentric position".  They often did not see the fruits of their labor before their death.  In fact Redikar tells us Lay was living in a cave towards the end of his life in poor health and a Friend came to tell him that the Yearly Meeting had just passed a minute to discipline and disown Quaker slave owners and he jumped up saying: "I can now die in peace."

It does apparently take a certain personality type to be dedicated to the truth above popularity or even security.   That kind of personality is it seems at times flamboyant or "rude" or aggressive and self-righteous in making its point.  As Redikar says about Lay: "His confrontational methods made people talk: about him, his ideas, the nature of Quakerism and Christianity, and, most of all, slavery."   One has to think that Lay, Woolman and Mott did not have the idea that speaking to that of God in another person means to speak gently so as to not offend.  Perhaps the confrontation with oppression will always offend the ways in which oppression has dressed itself up and justified itself.  We have also been taught that minority voices in business meeting are to be listened to because they may in fact carry a piece of the truth not visible to the rest of us.  Can we believe this even when a Friend's voice makes us uncomfortable and challenges our own choices?  Are we willing to have a called Meeting for Business to respond to a crisis rather than send all our concerns off to a lengthy many month process before action can be taken?

Thus for us to wish in the present that we would all be in unity around social concerns is to ignore the actual history of how we have come to be in unity.  There were always Friends dragging the rest of us forward.  Even once we came to unity in consensus,  the work was always done by a small minority of the Meeting.   It is not insignificant that we have a value set that asks people to listen to God's voice, that teaches the rest of us to validate and support those among us who are so led.  It did make a difference that activist Friends were (usually) eventually supported by their Meetings.   But it is a great myth to say Friends acted as one body or in one mind for these great social causes.   It is true that heeding God's call we were out front ahead of much of the rest of the population.

This leads me to ask:  Who is a Friendly nuisance in your Meeting?   How well are you listening and heeding that person's words?   What truth do you care about so deeply that you would stand on a public bench making a spectacle of yourself?  What are you not willing to risk and why?  Are you willing to offend the oppressive?  Are you willing to upset and offend others by unequivocally stating a truth that challenges the very basis of who they are and how they live?

For more on Benjamin Lay see: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/quaker-comet-greatest-abolitionist-never-heard-180964401/
or: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/12/opinion/sunday/youll-never-be-as-radical-as-this-18th-century-quaker-dwarf.html

A portrait of Benjamin Lay



  1. It's the nice, good people who would need to be offended.

    Their affliction is not in being 'oppressive', but in having been propagandized into accepting ideologies, attitudes, and policies that cause great harm -- and in living lives of continual distraction by 'chaff' (as in the debris a missile throws out to confuse its target.)

    When ignorance and misleading assumptions are the problem to address, arousing emotional storms isn't the best way. In a psychic environment of continual distraction & disturbance, people don't have a lot of curiosity to spare on anything that doesn't upset them -- but they do develop strong defenses against being upset, and are most likely to forget the matter as soon as the next atrocity of the day hits the public agenda.

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