It is a pretty safe bet that for every 1,000 people who know of William Wilberforce, no more than the odd one might have heard of Benjamin Lay. In many ways this is understandable enough, but if anyone deserves to muscle in on the mildly self-congratulatory and largely middle-class pantheon of Abolitionist Saints, it is the gloriously improbable and largely forgotten Quaker throwback and hero of Marcus Rediker’s generous and absorbing act — his own phrase — of ‘retrospective justice’.
There was probably only one period of English history in which Lay would have found himself at home, and that period, along with all the hopes and aspirations it had given birth to, had ended 20 years before he was born. The revolutionary wars of the mid-17th century had spawned an exhilarating range of religious and political radicalism, and it was among the visionaries, reformers, cranks, madmen and prophets of the New Model Army and Commonwealth — the Levellers and True Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Seekers, Familists, Grindle-tonians, Chiliasts, Anabaptists, Quakers, Proud Quakers and all the rest of them — that Lay would have found his natural bedfellows.
Lay ought to have been there in the stocks with James Nayler — and there would certainly be any number of quietist Friends who would happily have driven a nail through his tongue — but it was his vocation instead to be a thorn in the increasingly soft flesh of his 18th-century brethren. In its earliest days Quakerism had been as radical as any of the sects, but by the time, in 1682, that Benjamin was born to second-generation Quaker parents in Essex, George Fox was well on his way to imposing the discipline of a church on the untrammelled spiritual individualism of his first adherents.