From Slaveowners to Abolitionists

Prophet Against Slavery: Benjamin Lay, A Graphic Novel

by David Lester, with Marcus Rediker and Paul Buhle, Beacon Press, 2021

Quakers are so firmly identified as abolitionists that it may surprise many to hear that Quakers once owned slaves. A new graphic history reveals the neglected figure of Benjamin Lay (1682-1759), whose outrageous theatrical protests helped spur the Society of Friends to rid itself of the sin of slave-keeping and become a moral force against slavery in society at large. Their abolitionist stance came after a long internal struggle. Benjamin Lay was neither the first nor the last to fight for the freedom of African Americans and the salvation of their Quaker enslavers, but he was by far the most colorful and shocking in his tactics.

At a yearly meeting of Philadelphia area Friends in 1738, Lay pronounced “All slave-keepers that keep the innocent in bondage, pretending to lay claim to the pure and holy Christian religion, commit a notorious sin.” He punctuated his remarks by pulling off his coat to reveal a soldier’s uniform, withdrawing a sword, and stabbing a book, spattering his listeners with blood-red berry juice, shouting “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.” He was expelled bodily on the spot and was eventually disowned through proper Quaker procedure.

This rude disrupter was barely four feet tall, hunchbacked, and of humble origins. Born in England in 1682, Lay had worked as a shepherd, a spinner, and a glove-maker, which he hated, before becoming a sailor, “to see the world.” In his 12 years at sea, he lived in brotherhood with a diversity of sailors, including the formerly enslaved and veteran workers of the slave trade. After Lay married the remarkable Sarah, a fellow little person and Quaker minister, the couple migrated to Barbados, home to a thriving slave economy, where their abolitionist beliefs were galvanized.

Arriving in Philadelphia, the Lays were dismayed to find the “City of Brotherly Love” was also rife with the buying and selling of “fellow creatures,” by members of their own faith community. For his dogged denunciation of Quaker slaveholders, Lay was thrown out of four Quaker meetings, including Abington Friends, near Philadelphia, where he eventually settled in a cave with Sarah and his library of hundreds of books. Though largely self-taught, Lay wrote a fierce polemic of a book. All Slave-Keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates was printed by Benjamin Franklin, who discretely left his name off it, so as not to offend his Quaker clients. It was published without the approval of the Quaker leaders, who bought ads in the newspaper to disavow the book and its author.

Artist David Lester focuses on the dramatic actions and spiritual development of our bristly hero. He draws with a rough verve that suits his passionate subject. But underneath the expressionistic flourishes lie the structures of a brilliant visual storyteller. Lester never overexplains: Images speak for themselves in lucid passages of wordless panels. A preacher’s head morphs into that of a wolf, overlaid with a sheep, as the hypocrite’s sermon drones on. Pages depicting African men in chains require no inscription beyond the spattered sign of the British pound,which drives the story. Violence – against Lay or the enslaved Africans – is depicted with sketchy vigor rather than gory detail, honoring the story without gratuitously exploiting the suffering of the victims.

There is great tenderness in Lester’s drawings of sheep, which Benjamin Lay cared for so much that he became a vegetarian. To avoid any products of exploitation, he grew his own food. He spun flax to make his own clothes of linen, eschewing the cruelty of sheep shearing. He walked miles rather than abuse a horse. Instead of sugar, which was tainted with the blood of slaves, he kept bee hives. In a public square, he smashed fine china teacups to protest conditions on tea and sugar plantations. He broke tobacco pipes while railing against the enslavement of tobacco workers.

This graphic novel is adapted from the groundbreaking biography The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist, by Marcus Rediker, who also contributed an essay to this volume elaborating on Lay’s historical context and significance. Comics editor and radical historian Paul Buhle offers insights into Lester’s inspired pictorial choices.


Lay’s assault on hypocrisy and greed can still make us squirm. As a Quaker, I cringe at the spectacle of our forefathers behaving badly to such a truthteller, however obnoxious and unruly he may have been. This is probably why we’ve heard so little about Lay’s ingenious agitation. A much gentler persuader is generally credited with convincing Friends to turn against slavery: John Woolman sat in worship with slave-owning Quakers, expressing concern for their immortal souls. His faithful witness from a place of love is held up as a pacifist success story. Woolman’s story lets us feel better about ourselves. But perhaps Woolman would not have been so well received if Lay’s abrasive confrontations hadn’t come before him. Prophet Against Slavery is a vibrant and surprisingly intimate portrait of a visionary who never relented in his fight for justice, no matter how great the opposition.