Another step towards tackling racism
In a move towards becoming a more equal and inclusive church, Quakers will rename a room in their London premises after early abolitionist Benjamin Lay.
Benjamin Lay was a 17th century Quaker who dedicated his life to campaigning against slavery at a time when wealthy Quakers 'owned' enslaved people. He was also a vegetarian, a feminist and opposed to the death penalty.
The new name was suggested by staff of the Quiet Company, which manages Friends House, after Quakers agreed last year that it was not appropriate to commemorate William Penn any longer.
“We recognise that changing the name of a room is not, of itself, a way to change the world or the relationships we each have with other people around us," management meeting agreed. “It can only play a small part in a much wider commitment to building a more equal and inclusive society."
Naming public rooms in Friends House after Quakers who have made a difference in the world brings their stories to hundreds of thousands of visitors to the building each year.
We owe it to those who live with the legacy of slavery to take steps to redress this.- Paul Parker
Paul Parker, Recording Clerk for Quakers in Britain, said: “Some might say we're rewriting history. Rather, we are completing history by telling the whole story, acknowledging our own part. We owe it to those who live with the legacy of slavery to take steps to redress this."
Penn, who founded the state of Pennsylvania, made important contributions to religious freedom, democracy and pacifism, and these will be remembered. But we cannot ignore the truth that he was also a slaveholder, profiting from enslaved people, like many other Quakers.
His near contemporary, Lay stood 4ft tall and was born to Quaker parents near Colchester in England in 1682. Moving to Barbados in 1718, he began advocating against slavery when he saw an enslaved man take his own life.
In later life, appalled by what he saw as a degraded society and economy, he lived self-sufficiently in a cave in Pennsylvania. He wrote over 200 pamphlets attacking slavery, the prison system and the wealthy Quaker elite of that state.
Lay used unusual protest techniques: at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1738 he ministered against slavery, ending by plunging a sword into a Bible containing a bladder of blood-red juice, splattering nearby Quakers. On another occasion he (temporarily) kidnapped the child of slaveholders to show them how Africans felt when their relatives were taken.
In 1758 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting agreed to discipline any Quakers who bought, sold or imported slaves. “I can now die in peace," Lay commented and he did, the following year.