Advent and Slavery

Betsy Grooms Edmonds

December 2, 2018

     Voice, Isaiah 61: 1
     New Living Trans.,  Luke 4: 15-21
     Contemporary English version, Joel 2:28

Is this a good time at the beginning of Advent to look at anything to do with slavery?

The Isaiah scripture lays the foundation.  Centuries later, When the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear the very One they have been waiting for, the dialogue between the two expresses the unique impact of the Messiah who is about to arrive.

When Jesus begins His ministry with the Isaiah prophecy, He affirms how He fulfills scripture by His pronouncement: “in this Day, in this place, I fulfill the scripture right before you!”

Yes, setting prisoners free was a powerful sign of the Awaited Messiah.

Let me share with you one way way I look at one facet of the overall picture of slavery: How God’s spirit moves setting the prisoners free, through those who fight for them.  I see this picture on roughly 3 levels, showing how the Spirit or God operates through people in various circumstances.

First, the Lord touched individuals who operated at governmental levels: Did you know that Thomas Jefferson, even though a slave owner, valiantly tried to put an anti-slavery clause in the Declaration of Independence, but was blocked by the New York Delegation?  Benjamin Franklin, though a former slave owner, became president of an anti-slavery organization in Pennsylvania.  And there was the former slave, William Douglas who made friends and heavily influenced Abraham Lincoln.  There are many more.

Earlier, in Britain, William Wilberforce tricked their parliament into an anti slavery bill.  Even a noted potter, Josiah Wedgwood, had a huge impact with his medallion on china, showing the kneeling slave and bearing the legend, “Am I not a man, and a brother?”.  Lord Mansfield wrote the initial court opinion declaring slavery illegal.

There were those in France and other countries who were convinced that slavery was evil, and worked against it.  Influential writers and Frenchmen railed against slavery though both Spain and France had declared that, within their borders, slavery was outlawed in the 1500’s.

In the middle level I see the ordinary citizens who organized, preached and wrote against slavery: In England, John Ramsay wrote the first detailed descriptions of mistreatment of slaves.  Olaudah Equiano’s narrative of his life as a slave was the first book from a slave.  David Livingstone, the popular missionary in Africa saw slavery and its effects and became part of the anti-slavery movement.

In the US, writers made a huge impact on the sentiments of people.  They were the rock stars of their day: Early on, Thomas Paine wrote “African Slavery in America”; Harriett Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, caused a huge wave of sentiment across the US; as did Frederic Douglas’ speeches and his autobiography as a slave.  Many others joined in writing and speaking.

There were many societies and religious organizations throughout the country that fought to abolish slavery.  More notably were the Society of Quakers and the American Methodist Episcopal church.

Over twenty organized groups were active in various states and across the country.  And on the ground, in the real action, I see the individuals, who, often at great risk, spoke against this horrendous trade of individuals as property.  They include the speeches of Sojourner Truth; and the perilous actions of Harriet Tubman and many others who freed free slaves through the Underground Railroad; and others, using measures of deceit and actual rebellion against this cruel system.  And the most rebellious paid with their lives, such as Nat Turner and John Brown, among others.

The person I want to introduce to you today you probably never heard of.  He was one of these “on the ground” individuals who felt the Spirit move him to rail against the pillars of church and society against slavery. 

But before we meet him I want to mention it is thought today, right now, there are over 40 million persons enslaved in various ways around the world.  There are economic slaves working in fields, as domestics, and in sweatshops.  There are those in the sex trade, imprisoned under false pretenses who have their passports and identities taken away.  This is today, right now.

For this description of Lay and his work, I am indebted to Marcus Redike of the New York Times.

Back to introducing this brave, “on-the-ground” gentleman, Benjamin Lay.  He is not your usual hero.

It was September 1738, and Benjamin Lay had walked 20 miles, subsisting on “acorns and peaches,” to reach the Quakers’ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.  Beneath his overcoat he wore a military uniform and a sword -- both forbidden in Quaker teachings.  He also carried a hollowed-out book with a secret compartment, into which he had tucked and tied-off animal bladder filled with bright red pokeberry juice.

When it was Lay’s turn to speak, he rose to address the Quakers, many of whom had grown rich and bought African slaves.  He was a dwarf, barely four feet tall, but from his small body came a thunderous voice.  “God,” he intoned, “respects all people equally, be they rich or poor, man or woman, white or black.”

Throwing his overcoat aside, he spoke this prophecy: “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.” He raised the book above his head and plunged the sword through it.

As the “blood” gushed down his arm, several members of the congregation fainted.  He then splattered “the blood” on the heads and bodies of the slave keepers.  His message was clear: Anyone who failed to heed his call must expect death -- of body and soul.

Lay did not resist when his fellow Quakers threw him out of the building.  He knew his beloved community would disown him for his performance, but he had made his point.  As long as Quakers owned slaves, he would use his body and his words to disrupt their hypocritical routines.

Lay’s methods made people talk about him, his ideas, the nature of Quakerism and Christianity, and, most of all: slavery.  According to Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, the name of this “celebrated Christian philosopher” became “familiar to every man, woman and to nearly every child, in Pennsylvania.” For or against, everyone told stories about Benjamin Lay.  Lay, a hunchback as well as a dwarf, was the world’s first revolutionary abolitionist.  Against the common sense of the day, when slavery seemed to most people completely unchangeable, while Lay imagined a new world in which people would live simply, make their own food and cloths, and respect nature.

He lived in a cave in Abington, just north of Philadelphia; ate only fruits and vegetables --”the innocent fruits of the earth” -- and championed animal rights.  He refused to consume any item produced by slave labor and was known to walk out of a dinner in protest when he found out that his host owned slaves.  Today Benjamin Lay is largely forgotten, for essentially two reasons.  The first is that he did not fit the mainstream, heroic picture, the long-told story about the history of the anti-slavery movement.  Formerly a common sailor, he was not one of the so-called gentleman saints like William Wilberforce, an aristocratic leader of the abolition movement in Britain.  Benjamin was wild, and confrontational, militant and uncompromising.  A second reason is that he was considered deformed in both body and mind.  As a little Person, and as a man seemingly eccentric at best, and usually considered deranged or insane, he was ridiculed and dismissed, even among Quakers; Quakers who were specifically committed to an ideal of spiritual equality.  These put-downs continued in later accounts of his life. 

Yet Benjamin deserves a proud place in our history.  He predicted that for Quakers and for America, slave keeping would be a long, destructive burden.  In another prediction, he wrote that slavery “will be as the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of snakes, in the end.” This poison and the venom have had long lives; indeed, as we still live with the consequences of slavery: prejudice, poverty, structural inequality and premature death.

Disparaged and abandoned by his fellow Quakers, Benjamin eventually helped win the debate over slavery.  He wanted to provoke, to unsettle, and even to confound -- to make people think and act.  His greatest power, indeed his genius, lay in his gift as an agitator.  In every meeting he attended, public or private, he drew a line under the issue of slavery.  He asked everyone he met, “Which side are you on?”

Slowly, over a quarter century, his relentless agitation changed hearts and minds.  In 1758 a friend arrived at his cave to inform him that the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting had finally taken the first big step toward abolition.  This ruling meant that those who traded in slaves would be disciplined from that moment and perhaps driven from the community.  When he heard this, Lay fell silent for a few reverential moments, then rose from his chair, praised God and announced, “I can now die in peace.” He died a year later, an outsider to the Quaker community he loved, but a moral giant of a man.

Benjamin Lay was, in sum, a class-conscious, race-conscious, environmentally conscious ultra-radical.  By boycotting slave-produced products, Lay pioneered the politics of consumption and initiated a tactic that would become central to the ultimate success of abolitionism in the 19th century, and one that still motivates global movements against abuses like sweatshops today -- Agitation and confrontation.

In his time Lay may have been the most radical person on, the planet.  He helps us to understand what was politically and morally possible in the first half of the 18th century -- and what may be possible now.  It is more than we can imagine, or … perhaps, even dream….AMEN.