By Eugene Grant: I didn’t learn of Benjamin Lay until I was thirty-one years old. This is important, because I myself have dwarfism. There is a shameful absence of books documenting the lives of important historical figures with dwarfism. Just as Game of Thrones and Tyrion Lannister alone cannot compensate—as many average height people seem to think he does—for centuries of ridicule and abuse, so Marcus Rediker and The Fearless Benjamin Lay cannot make up for this dearth of representation, but the book is a significant step forwards.
The recognition represented a profound, heartfelt act of retrospective justice, because Lay had been unjustly disowned in the first place. It was a symbolic rejection of what a previous slave-owning generation of Quakers had done and it was simultaneously an affirmation that Benjamin Lay’s values matter to the Abington congregation, in the present and for the future. I learned during my research that Lay dearly loved his fellow Quakers—at least those who did not own slaves—and that his exclusion was terribly painful to him. It was therefore deeply touching, 279 years later, to know that he has been brought back into the fold. This act would have meant everything to him.
He sounds like a fascinating nonfiction character—too quirky to be true—but radical Quaker dwarf Benjamin Lay truly lived, and historian Marcus Rediker has brought his virtually unknown story to life in The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist. Mocked as “the little hunchback” and written off by his contemporaries as “cracked in the head,” Benjamin Lay was uncompromising in his stance against slavery, and wholly committed himself to convince his fellow Quakers to denounce and abolish it. In many ways, he was prescient and ultra-modern for his time, the eighteenth century. Lay’s worldview was an astonishing combination of Quakerism, vegetarianism, animal rights, opposition to the death penalty, and abolitionism. Until his death in 1759, he lived a life of resistance.