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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Reformer of the Last Century

By Benjamin Rush (1746–1813)

[Born in Byberry, near Philadelphia, Penn. Died in Philadelphia, 1813. “Biographical Anecdotes of Benjamin Lay.”—Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical. 1798.]

THERE was a time when the name of this celebrated Christian philosopher was familiar to every man, woman, and to nearly every child, in Pennsylvania. His size, which was not much above four feet, his dress, which was always the same, consisting of light-colored plain clothes, a white hat, and half-boots;—his milk-white beard, which hung upon his breast; and, above all, his peculiar principles and conduct, rendered him to many, an object of admiration, and to all, the subject of conversation.

He was born in England, and spent the early part of his life at sea. His first settlement was in Barbadoes, as a merchant, where he was soon convinced of the iniquity of the slave trade. He bore an open testimony against it, in all companies, by which means he rendered himself so unpopular, that he left the island in disgust, and settled in the then province of Pennsylvania. He fixed his home at Abington, ten miles from Philadelphia, from whence he made frequent excursions to the city, and to different parts of the country.

At the time of his arrival in Pennsylvania, he found many of his brethren, the people called Quakers, had fallen so far from their original principles, as to keep negro slaves. He remonstrated with them, both publicly and privately, against the practice; but, frequently with so much indifferent zeal, as to give great offence. He often disturbed their public meetings, by interrupting or opposing their preachers, for which he was once carried out of a meeting-house, by two or three friends. Upon this occasion he submitted with patience to what he considered a species of persecution. He lay down at the door of the meeting-house, in a shower of rain, till divine worship was ended; nor could he be prevailed upon to rise, till the whole congregation had stepped over him in their way to their respective homes.

To show his indignation against the practice of slave-keeping, he once carried a bladder filled with blood into a meeting; and, in the presence of the whole congregation, thrust a sword, which he had concealed under his coat, into the bladder, exclaiming at the same time, “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow-creatures.” The terror of this extravagant and unexpected act, produced swoonings in several of the women of the congregation.

He once went into the house of a friend in Philadelphia, and found him seated at breakfast, with his family around him. Being asked by him to sit down and breakfast with them, he said, “Dost thou keep slaves in thy house?” Upon being answered in the affirmative, he said, “Then I will not partake with thee of the fruits of thy unrighteousness.”

He took great pains to convince a farmer and his wife, in Chester County, of the iniquity of keeping negro slaves, but to no purpose. They not only kept their slaves, but defended the practice. One day he went into their house, and after a short discourse with them upon the wickedness, and particularly the inhumanity, of separating children from their parents, which was involved in the slave trade, he seized the only child of the family (a little girl about three years old), and pretended to run away with her. The child cried bitterly, “I will be good,—I will be good,” and the parents showed signs of being alarmed. Upon observing the scene, Mr. Lay said, very emphatically,—“You see, and feel now a little of the distress you occasion every day, by the inhuman practice of slave-keeping.”

This singular philosopher did not limit his pious testimony against vice, to slave-keeping alone. He was opposed to every species of extravagance. Upon the introduction of tea, as an article of diet, into Pennsylvania, his wife bought a small quantity of it, with a set of cups and saucers, and brought them home with her. Mr. Lay took them from her, brought them back again to the city, and from the balcony of the court-house scattered the tea, and broke the cups and saucers, in the presence of many hundred spectators, delivering, at the same time, a striking lecture upon the folly of preferring that foreign herb, with its expensive appurtenances, to the simple and wholesome diet of our country.

He possessed a good deal of wit, and was quick at repartee. A citizen of Philadelphia, who knew his peculiarities, once met him in a crowd, at a funeral, in Germantown. Being desirous of entering into a conversation with him that should divert the company, the citizen accosted him, with the most respectful ceremony, and declared himself to be “his most humble servant.” “Art thou my servant?” said Mr. Lay. “Yes—I am,” said the citizen. “Then,” said Mr. Lay (holding up his foot towards him), “clean this shoe.” This unexpected reply turned the laugh upon the citizen. Being desirous of recovering himself in the opinion of the company, he asked him to instruct him in the way to heaven. “Dost thou indeed wish to be taught?” said Mr. Lay. “I do,” said the citizen. “Then,” said Mr. Lay, “do justice—love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.”

He wrote a small treatise upon negro slavery, which he brought to Dr. Franklin to be printed. Upon looking over it, the Doctor told him that it was not paged, and that there appeared to be no order or arrangement in it. “It is no matter,” said Mr. Lay, “print any part thou pleasest first.” This book contained many pious sentiments, and strong expressions against negro slavery; but even the address and skill of Dr. Franklin were not sufficient to connect its different parts together, so as to render it an agreeable or useful work. This book is in the library of the city of Philadelphia.

Mr. Lay was extremely attentive to young people. He took great pleasure in visiting schools, where he often preached to the youth. He frequently carried a basket of religious books with him, and distributed them as prizes among the scholars.

He was fond of reading. In the print of him, which is to be seen in many houses in Philadelphia, he is represented with “Tryon on Happiness” in his hand, a book which he valued very much, and which he frequently carried with him, in his excursions from home.

He was kind and charitable to the poor, but had no compassion for beggars. He used to say, “There was no man or woman, who was able to go abroad to beg, that was not able to earn fourpence a day, and this sum, he said, was enough to keep any person above want, or dependence, in this country.”

He was a severe enemy to idleness, insomuch that when he could not employ himself out-of-doors, or when he was tired of reading, he used to spend his time in spinning. His common sitting-room was hung with skeins of thread, spun entirely by himself. All his clothes were of his own manufactory.

He was extremely temperate in his diet, living chiefly upon vegetables. Turnips boiled, and afterwards roasted, were his favorite dinner. His drink was pure water. From a desire of imitating our Saviour, in everything, he once attempted to fast for forty days. This experiment, it is said, had nearly cost him his life. He was obliged to desist from it, long before the forty days were expired; but the fasting, it was said, so much debilitated his body, as to accelerate his death. He lived above eighty years, and died in his own house in Abington, about thirty years ago.

In reviewing the history of this extraordinary man, we cannot help absolving him of his weaknesses, when we contemplate his many active virtues. He was the pioneer of that war which has since been carried on, so successfully, against the commerce and slavery of the negroes. Perhaps the turbulence and severity of his temper were necessary to rouse the torpor of the human mind, at the period in which he lived, to this interesting subject. The meekness and gentleness of Anthony Benezet, who completed what Mr. Lay began, would probably have been as insufficient for the work performed by Mr. Lay, as the humble piety of De Renty, or of Thomas À Kempis, would have been to have accomplished the works of the zealous Luther, or the intrepid Knox in the sixteenth century.

The success of Mr. Lay in sowing the seeds of a principle which bids fair to produce a revolution in morals, commerce, and government, in the new and in the old world, should teach the benefactors of mankind not to despair, if they do not see the fruits of their benevolent propositions, or undertakings, during their lives. No one seed of truth or virtue ever perished. Wherever it may be sowed, or even scattered, it will preserve and carry with it the principle of life. Some of these seeds produce their fruits in a short time, but the most valuable of them, like the venerable oak—are centuries in growing; but they are unlike the pride of the forest, as well as all other vegetable productions, in being incapable of a decay. They exist and bloom forever.