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Quakers in the Age of the Internet (abridged)

Jon Watts
On Healers (September 2023)
Annual Sessions

Quakers in the Age of the Internet: Keynote presentation by Jon Watts to Intermountain Yearly Meeting; June 24, 2023; Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado

The following text was abridged from a transcript of this presentation, published online at: https://westernfriend.org/media/quakers-age-internet-unabridged.

I was a kid in the 1990s. We had this fantastic, brand-new thing called dial-up internet. You could write text to people who could read it on different continents. After telling your mom you needed to use the phone.

We’ve come a long way. In 2009, I posted a video to a brand-new internet platform called YouTube. I was a singer-songwriter, and I had written a song about growing up Quaker. I heard that in order to promote my music, I had to make a video and post it on YouTube.

I got back a few days later, and the video had 40,000 views. There were comments under the video from people all over the world. Quakers, who were saying, “I love this video.” And some who were saying, “I hate this video.” And others who were saying, “That guy’s not a Quaker.”

So, I had this light bulb moment. I realized that we were encountering each other – Quakers all over the world, across branches, across geographies. That’s a big change. Our different branches have been siloed for centuries.

Another kind of comment kept showing up on that video. A bunch of people who were saying, “Oh, this Quakerism thing looks pretty cool. I’ve never heard of this before.” And I had to respond and say, “You know, not every Quaker meeting for worship turns into a dance party. But go to your local meeting, try it out, see what happens.”

I grew up in a Quaker intentional community in rural Virginia, just outside of Richmond. We had six families and an open-door policy. I would wander around the property and go to Quaker meeting with whatever family went on a Sunday morning.

When it came time to choose a college, I knew that I wanted to continue having Quaker community. So I chose a historically Quaker college that had a specific Quaker program. That was Guilford College in North Carolina.

My first day at Guilford, we went on a field trip. We went to an Evangelical Friends church. There was a pastor. We all faced forward. There was a choir. There was a Christian flag and an American flag at the front of the room. I was really confused. I thought, don’t Quakers sit around in a circle and just be silent for an hour? That’s what I’d been doing my whole life.

That field trip was the work of Max Carter. Part of his ministry is to have Quakers from different branches start to encounter each other and start to be in conversation with one another.

There was an important time for me during college, when I stepped away from the religion. And when I came back to it, I came back hungry. I wanted to know: What is this thing that I’ve been doing my whole life? Where did it come from? How did we get here?

I went and asked Max Carter those questions. He’s been waiting his entire life for someone to ask him those questions. He is full of stories. As a musician, I responded to those stories by writing songs about them. In fact, Max told me so many amazing stories that I wrote an entire album, songs about James Naylor, Solomon Eccles, George Fox. Quakers in the seventeenth century were so willing to put everything on the line for what they believed in.

So that’s the context for my YouTube video, “Dance Party Erupts at Quaker Meeting for Worship.” And I realized that people are discovering us through this new platform. So, I had this idea. What if every week I published the voice of a different Quaker on this platform and made this incredible library of conversations available? That’s the idea that eventually became the QuakerSpeak Project. I teamed up with Friends Journal in 2013. And for six years, I traveled around and spoke with different Quakers about their experiences in this new time that we’re living in.

QuakerSpeak really changed my life, having these conversations with Friends. We are such a powerful people. When you are invited into that space, to speak from the Spirit, to speak out of the silence, to share our deepest invitations for the world around us.

Each of those videos has been viewed thousands of times, all over the world. And the comment sections are robust. I do a lot of traveling like this nowadays, and wherever I go, inevitably someone comes up to me and says, “I was on a spiritual journey. I was seeking. And so, I did a web search, and I found these videos. Now I’m, whatever, the clerk of my meeting or whatever they roped me into.”

This is the platform. This is the vernacular. This is the native communication technology of the next generation and the generation after that. They’re out there and they’re hungry for examples of faithful courage. Those are the kinds of stories that the next generation is deeply hungry for.

Because there’s so much upheaval in the world. And there’s so much that Quakers have to offer, stretching all the way back to the seventeenth century, about how to confront the world, based in a faithful community, based in a loving way.

So, after six years of publishing a video every week, I decided to take a break. I passed that project on to a new director. Something important that I’ve learned from public ministry is to honor both the seasons of being very public and doing big things, and the seasons of stepping back and reflecting – talking with Friends, talking with your meeting, having clearness committees.

So, I took a couple of years off. And eventually, I realized that I wanted to go deeper into these two pieces – this spark of courageous faithfulness and loving confrontation in the early Quakers and this new era that we’re in. So, I’ve started a new project called “Thee Quaker Podcast.” Do a web search. Check it out.

One of the things that I’ve been learning is: when Quakerism began in the seventeenth century, they were experiencing a very chaotic time – politically, culturally, a great deal of upheaval, a great deal of not knowing what comes next. And at the same time, a new communication technology called the printing press was spreading throughout Britain. So, the new generation of that time had a freedom to publish tracts that their parents hadn’t had. The new generation grew up with this technology. They were natives to it, and they were off to the races.

Well, I don’t know about you, but this gets me fired up. I know a lot of us feel overwhelmed about all the changes that are happening in our lifetimes. But there’s a tremendous opportunity for Friends right now. With our voices, the way that we know how to use them, inspired by the Spirit, grounded in silence, faithfully courageous. Our voices are deeply needed in the world right now. We have this massive opportunity to be faithful.  ~~~

Quakers and media Quaker history

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