In September 1738, Benjamin Lay, a radical Quaker barely four feet tall, filled an animal bladder with bright red pokeberry juice, then tucked it into the secret compartment of a book. He donned a military uniform and a sword, covered himself in an overcoat, hid the book, and set off from his home in Abington, Pennsylvania for Burlington, New Jersey, where the Yearly Meeting of Philadelphia Quakers was being held, a gathering of the colony’s most powerful Quakers. Lay had a message for them.
Quakers have no formal ministers, so congregants speak as the spirit moves them. Lay was a man of large and unruly spirit. In a thundering voice that belied his stature, he announced that slaveholding was the greatest sin in the world. He threw off his overcoat to reveal his military uniform. The crowd gasped. He raised the book above his head, unsheathed his sword, and declared: ‘God will take vengeance on those who oppress their fellow creatures.’ He ran his sword through the book. The bladder exploded in a gush of blood, spattering the slaveholders sitting nearby. A group of Quaker men grabbed up Lay – he did not resist – and threw him out of the meeting house into the street. The soldier of God had delivered a chilling prophecy: slaveowning would destroy the Quaker faith.Among other things, I was impressed by the influence of the ancient Cynical philosophers on Lay.