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All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates


One of the earliest North American antislavery works, published by Benjamin Lay in 1737 in Philadelphia. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.

Benjamin Lay (1677-1759) was a Quaker merchant who, together with Ralph Sandiford and Anthony Benezet, was one of the earliest public opponents of slavery in colonial America. He was born in England, lived ten years in Barbadoes, and moved to the Philadelphia area. Lay attracted great attention during the 1730s in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for his vociferous opposition to slavery and slave-owners within the Quaker community. His physical appearance reinforced this public notice, as he stood only four feet seven inches, had a severely hunched back, and a very large white beard. He was physically ejected from meetinghouses where he vehemently denounced slavery and was disavowed by the Quaker community, although he considered himself a Quaker throughout his life.

Lay had a theatrical talent that accompanied his antislavery rhetoric. On one occasion he threw off his Quaker garb in meetinghouse to reveal a military uniform, denounced slaveholders as men of war, and stabbed his belt with a sword to pierce a bladder containing red fluid. On another occasion he stood barefoot in the snow in front of a meetinghouse to protest slavery. Once he kidnapped the son of Quaker slaveholders to demonstrate how Africans felt when their children were kidnapped; he returned the child when searchers came to his house.

All Slave-keepers that keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates (1737) was Lay’s only published work. His friend Benjamin Franklin printed the work. All Slave-keepers is not only one of the earliest antislavery texts of colonial America, but one of the most vehement ever written. Lay viewed slavery as quintessential moral corruption and condemned it as such. Most of the text argues that slavery constitutes a social evil that offends divine justice, although the latter sections contain vast and visionary jeremiads against all forms of worldly evil. Lay’s antislavery writings were frequently viewed as quixotic but had a more pervasive influence on the development of American religious antislavery thought than they have been attributed.

— Joe Lockard