Wednesday 4 October 2023


The first time I browsed in the small library in the Marazion Meeting Room was when my wife, Louise, and I were curating her textile art exhibition in early September this year. Serendipity pointed me to A Quaker Book of Wisdom - with the well-chosen title helping guide me. This book became my first borrowing from the library. In the last week of September, I read its 170 pages and began to look forward to writing this blog-post. By the beginning of October, I had been accepted as the new Librarian by our Marazion Quaker community, an event which makes the beginning of this blog-post series even more special for me. I hope when you read my reviews of the library books I read, you will be encouraged to borrow these books yourselves as Quakers, or purchase or borrow elsewhere.

Robert Lawrence Smith (1924 - 2021) was a birthright Quaker, a direct descendent of the first generation of Quakers in America. He toyed with the idea of being a medical man but was always drawn to the humanities and had a long career as an educator, including the headship of Sidwell Friends School, America's largest Quaker day school, from 1965 to 1978 His book is a distillation of the Quaker wisdom that has guided him through the decades of his life up to his mid-70s. The subtitle is 'Life Lessons in Simplicity, Service, and Common Sense' and the structure is indeed simple and effectively serves its purpose of providing insight into how Robert Lawrence Smith has found his inner peace and calm. There are ten chapters - Silence - Worship - Truth - Simplicity - Conscience - Non-violence - Service - Business - Education - Family - with a Prologue titled 'Let Your Life Speak' and an Epilogue summary of the book's messages which is called 'A Quaker Legacy: Ten Life Lessons'. More on that Epilogue at the end of this blog-post. 

Robert Lawrence Smith, the Headteacher from 1965 to 1978, playing chess with a student at Sidwell Quaker School (thanks to The Washington Post for this image).

For your consideration here, bullet-pointed, are some of the thoughts of Robert Lawrence Smith:

  • My Grandfather (who wrote a monograph tracing three centuries of his Quaker family's life in America) was echoing a central message of Quakerism resoundingly set forth by George Fox, the religion's seventeenth-century founder: "Let your life speak". 
  • Quaker wisdom provides lasting sustenance...the compassionate Quaker message needs to be heard in today's complex, materialistic, often unjust, and discriminatory society. Every day brings new public debate over issues Quakers have always addressed: war and peace, social justice, education, health care, poverty, business ethics, public service, the use of world resources. 
  • Quakerism is a pragmatic faith that depends on inner experience, on habits of mind and feeling that come from living rather than from reading - as Quakers say: "The letter killeth, the Spirit giveth life". Yet what Quakers know also comes from familiarity, through written accounts, with the lives of those who came before us. 
  • For Quakers, wisdom begins in silence. Only then can we hear the voice of God that dwells within each of us. Only by listening in stillness for that voice and letting it guide our actions can we truly let our lives speak.
  • I believe the answer lies in George Fox's sublimely optimistic vision of human nature. If there is that of God in every person, then truth is the best that there is in each of us - the part of us that is naturally drawn towards the good, towards God. If we listen for the truth - for the best that is within us - then our lives will begin to "speak" the truth. As George Fox said, "Truth comes from within. It is the basis for daily life, like the food we eat. The poet Walt Whitman astutely defined truth as "Whatever satisfies the soul".

Published in 1998 in the USA and Great Britain - the Marazion Meeting Library copy was gifted by Vernon Frost in February 2000 as the inscription inside the front cover shows.   

  • For Quakers, simplicity is truth's twin virtue: the two concepts are seamlessly intertwined. Without simplicity of spirit, we are not prepared to receive the truth. And if we fail to act in accordance with the truth, we cannot let our lives speak.  
  • By simplicity, Quakers mean a way of life that follows naturally from a way of worshipping. The early Quakers used the word 'plain' as in 'plain dress and 'plain speech'. Living simply is about giving yourself the freedom to pursue the indestructible impulse to do good in the world, to go towards the best. "What do I need?" is simplicity's fundamental question, a question that rubs up against our proclivity for acquiring things. Montaigne, the French philosopher and essayist, wrote: "The great and glorious masterpiece of man is to be able to live to the point". Simplicity helps us to live to the point, to clear the way to the best.
  • Nonviolence has always been the most paradoxical, counter-intuitive, and optimistic of Quaker ideals. Jesus taught his followers to extend love in place of the sword. George Fox exhorted his followers to "take away the occasion of all wars". The challenge for Friends is to become the world's peacemakers. The more love we add to the world, the more loving and humane a place it will become. 
  • The concept of Quaker service starts with the belief that there is that of God in every person and that all people in the world are, therefore, members of one extended family of equals. The first generations of Quakers in America took up the challenge by working for the abolition of slavery, fair treatment of Native Americans, and humane conditions for prisoners and patients in mental hospitals. "As way opens" is a Quaker saying that stems directly from Meeting, from the experience of patiently seeking truth through group silence. It also pertains more broadly to discovering your own capabilities and your own individual path. Lucretia Mott, the tiny, fearless Quaker from Nantucket, made her life speak by working tirelessly for the abolition of slavery, for equal rights, and for higher education for women. Her challenge was this: "The Light is available yesterday, today and to eternity. What is thee doing about it?".
  • Quaker businesspeople understand that they are accountable to the individuals they employ, the customers they share, and their own conscience. Good ethics is good business.
  • Teaching continues to be one of the the hardest and most important jobs in the world. Despite new methodologies, there must always be reliance on the old virtues of skill, care, love, patience, and time. Parents are every child's first teachers, and any school, no matter how good, can only build on those first, most formative lessons. 
  • Love is the jewel that family life perfects over time, the heirloom that gets passed on to children and to future generations. 

Sidwell Friends School image of Robert L. Smith, as used in their 2021 Obituary. 


There is much else in this remarkable book, not least the biographical detail, for you to discover. Here though, as promised, more in summary on the Epilogue - A Life Legacy: Ten Life Lessons:

  1. Seize the present.
  2. Love yourself, whatever faults you have, and love the world, however bad it is.
  3. Stop talking and listen to what you really know.
  4. Play soccer! (or whatever team sport you love)
  5. Accept the fact that our lives are only partly in our own hands.
  6. Believe in the perfectibility of yourself and society.
  7. Make your life visible in the world through your work.
  8. Seek justice in the world, but not in your own life.
  9. Look for the light of God in every person.
  10. Let your life speak.


  1. The humanism of Quaker thought and especially that of Smith is evident and encouraging. I once had a philosophy teacher who said that sometimes ethics involved nuance and sometimes not. That causing harm to children is wrong is inarguable. You know its wrong. This notion comes from somewhere inside of our humanity. As Smith said, the truth comes from within, or as Whitman said, truth is whatever satisfies the soul. But there is a nuance here, and a danger. This approach to truth lays groundwork that can be used to justify the use and acceptance of alternative facts. Untruths that nevertheless satisfy the soul, that come from within subjective experience rather than from empirical evidence. The souls that can be satisfied this way are possibly damaged, and possibly redeemable, but in any case often satisfied by untruth because it matches what they need to be true about the world. Looking for truth within ourselves is necessary but we have to be honest about what we're doing there.

    1. I've just reread this and realized I should have replied earlier - just to say now, briefly, I agree - I understand this nuance and it is important - we can so easily be self-deceiving, as I say in The Road to Corbyn ('a Robert Tressell for our times'). I'm still dining out on that compliment.