CHAUTAUQUA MOVEMENT. The institution that Theodore Roosevelt once called "the most American thing in America" occupies an honored place in American cultural mythology. From its inception in 1874, Chautauqua tailored its appeal to the patriotic, churchgoing, white, native-born, mostly Protestant, northern and Midwestern middle classes—a group whose claim to represent Americans as a whole has been alternatively championed and criticized. "He who does not know Chautauqua," wrote the journalist Frank Bohn in 1926, with knowing irony, "does not know America."
As millions across the nation flocked to Chautauqua's hundreds of summer assemblies and reading circles, few could deny that the Chautauqua movement had emerged as a leading educational, cultural, and political force in American life in the late nineteenth century. By the 1920s, however, the reform impulses of the social gospel and Progressive Era that had shaped Chautauqua's appeal had dissipated. Although no longer a source of new ideas, Chautauqua continued (and continues) to champion the major themes of modern liberal thought in America: humanistic education, religious tolerance, and faith in social progress.
Chautauqua's origins lie in a confluence of sacred and secular forces sweeping across America after the Civil War. Chautauqua's cofounder, John Heyl Vincent, began his career as a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher on the Methodist circuit in the 1850s. By the early 1870s Vincent came to feel that the spiritual awakenings experienced at the "holiness" revivals were too emotional, too superficial. A revitalized and more effective Sunday school, Vincent reasoned, would root evangelical Protestantism in the more solid foundation of biblical learning, secular study, and middle-class prosperity.
In 1873 Vincent joined forces with Lewis Miller, a wealthy manufacturer of farm implements from Akron, Ohio, to find suitable headquarters for their nascent National Sunday School Association. They settled on Fair Point, a cloistered Methodist camp meeting on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in western New York State. The following year, Vincent and Miller forbade impromptu proselytizing and opened Fair Point's doors to both serious students and fun-seeking vacationers—in essence, building on the camp meeting template while transforming it into a semipublic, ecumenical institute and vacation re-treat devoted to teacher training. Vincent and Miller embraced the summer vacation as a fact of modern life and made it an integral part of their broader mission of spiritual and social renewal. They soon abandoned Fair Point and adopted the word "Chautauqua," cleverly hiding its evangelical roots behind an Indian place name.
By the 1880s, Chautauqua had evolved into the fore-most advocate for adult education, sacred and secular. Its eight-week summer program combined Bible study with courses in science, history, literature, and the arts, while giving visibility to social gospel–minded academics, politicians, preachers, prohibitionists, and reformers. Through correspondence courses, university extension, journals like The Chautauquan, and especially reading circles, Chautauqua's influence spread far beyond its campus boundaries. In 1878, Vincent inaugurated the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC). Under the leadership of the director Kate F. Kimball, 264,000 people—three quarters of them women—had enrolled in the CLSC by century's end. Students completing the four-year reading program received official (if symbolic) diplomas. Criticized by some as superficial, the CLSC nevertheless provided opportunities for thousands of mostly white, Protestant, middle-class women to develop stronger public voices and organizational experience.
Many CLSC women worked to establish independent Chautauqua assemblies in their own communities. Independent assemblies developed close ties with local boosters, interurbans, and railroads, who saw them as profitable (yet moral) tourist attractions. By 1900, nearly one hundred towns, mainly in the Midwest, held assemblies on grounds patterned on the original Chautauqua. As assemblies proliferated in the early twentieth century, competition for guests grew fierce, forcing assemblies to hire more popular fare, such as musical acts, theater troupes, and inspirational speakers.
In 1904, the assemblies faced an even greater challenge: for-profit lyceum organizers that year introduced a network of mobile Chautauquas, or "circuits." Competition from circuit Chautauquas forced many independent assemblies to hire lecture bureaus to handle their programming, relinquishing the podium to big-city companies and hastening the assemblies' decline. To modernists like Sinclair Lewis, the circuit Chautauqua, with its "animal and bird educators" (i.e., pet tricks), William Jennings Bryan speeches, sentimental plays, and crude wartime patriotism, symbolized the shallowness of middle-class culture. Despite ridicule from the urban avant-garde, the circuits launched the careers of numerous performers and served as vital links to the outside world for some 6,000 small towns. In the mid-1920s, the rise of commercial radio, movies, automobiles, and an expanded consumer culture signaled the end of the circuits' popularity in rural America. The last tent show folded in 1933.
Although the wider Chautauqua movement was over, the original assembly on Lake Chautauqua thrived. The "Mother Chautauqua," as it was called, expanded steadily until a combination of overbuilding and the Great Depression pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy in 1933. Its survival hung in the balance until a timely gift from John D. Rockefeller returned the institution to sound footing in 1936. No longer a source of much new social or political thought, Chautauqua had discovered a secular principle to sustain it—the need for informed citizenship in modern democracy. Competing perspectives on virtually every major social issue of the twentieth century have at one time or another found their way to the Chautauqua platform. Its nearly utopian aesthetic continued to earn the admiration of urban planners nationwide. In 1989 the grounds were designated a National Historic Landmark.
Bohn, Frank. "America Revealed in Chautauqua." New York Times Magazine, 10 October 1926, 3.
Kett, Joseph F. The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994.
Morrison, Theodore. Chautauqua. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Rieser, Andrew C. The Chautauqua Moment. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
"Chautauqua Movement." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/chautauqua-movement
"Chautauqua Movement." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved July 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/chautauqua-movement
Sunday School Beginnings. The Chautauqua movement grew out of summer Sunday school institutes held by the Methodist Episcopal Church during the 1870s. At an 1873 camp meeting in upstate New York John Heyl Vincent, a minister and later bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, proposed that a secular as well as a religious education be offered at these institutes based on the earlier methods used by Josiah Holbrook and other educators. The Chautauqua Assembly started the following summer as a “Sunday School Teachers’ Assembly,” at Fair Point, New York, on Lake Chautauqua. It was organized by Vincent and Lewis Miller, a wealthy manufacturer and an inventor respectively, as an eight-week program in the arts, sciences, and humanities. In 1877 it became “Chautauqua” by legislative enactment of the Teachers’ Assembly. The word came to mean different things:
Sunday schools, traveling tent shows, correspondence courses, educational innovation, lectures, plays, and musical performances.
Early Days. During the first sessions, participants lodged in leaky tents and endured bland foods. From the beginning, both Vincent and Lewis Miller tried to avoid the evangelism that was common to summer camp meetings; instead, Chautauqua was a place of “serious study” expanded to include more secular activities. Educational innovation was the hallmark of Chautauqua. There were extension programs (similiar to continuing-education courses), correspondence courses, and a quarter system in which students could choose any term to study or to work.
Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. In 1878 Vincent started a course of home reading that spread the Chautauqua movement nationally. He organized the C.L.S.C. (Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle) as a four-year plan of home reading in American and world history and literature. This plan was considered the first basic program of coordinated instruction on a national level for men and women in the United States. (By 1887 the circle had more than eighty thousand enrolled members.) The C.L.S.C, circulated books and study materials supplemented by a monthly magazine called the Chautauquan (1880-1914). At Fair Point the first amphitheater and the Hall of Philosophy were dedicated in 1879. Nine years later the Chautauqua College of Liberal Arts was established under the leadership of William Rainey Harper, a future president of the University of Chicago. The college was created for ambitious students already enrolled in the summer programs of the Chautauqua movement. This unusual institution awarded a bachelor’s degree with a four-year course of study that combined traditional classroom work with extension and correspondence courses.
Decline of the Movement. After the turn of the century, “traveling Chautauquas” were organized as tent shows, moving from town to town during the summer and offering lectures and entertainment to many isolated communities. Some traveling Chautauqua meetings, however, quickly became circuslike events with political and evangelical oratory and popular musical entertainment with no intellectual or cultural content. After World War I the programs began to lose audience interest, and the movement had almost entirely disappeared by the 1930s in part because of the growing influence of radio and films.
Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, The Story of Chautauqua (New York & London: Putnam, 1921);
Theodore Morrison, Chautauqua: A Center for Education, Religion, and the Arts in America (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1974);
Rebecca Richmond, Chautauqua: An American Place (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1943).
"Chautauqua Movement." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/chautauqua-movement
"Chautauqua Movement." American Eras. . Retrieved July 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/chautauqua-movement
Chautauqua movement, development in adult education somewhat similar to the lyceum movement. It derived from an institution at Chautauqua, N.Y. There, in 1873, John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller proposed to a Methodist Episcopal camp meeting that secular as well as religious instruction be included in the summer Sunday-school institute. Established on that basis in 1874, the institute evolved into an eight-week summer program, offering adult courses in the arts, sciences, and humanities. Thousands attended each year; for those who could not, there were courses for home study groups, and lecturers were sent out to supplement the material furnished from the organization's publishing house. Local reading circles flourished around the country.
Other communities were inspired to form local Chautauquas, and possibly 200–300 were organized, though few were so successful as the original. These local groups brought authors, explorers, musicians, and political leaders to lecture and furnished a variety of entertainment. The Chautauquas had something of the spirit of the revival meeting and something of the county fair. In 1912 the movement was organized commercially; lecturers and entertainers were furnished to local groups on a contract basis. This commercial endeavor was extremely successful, persisting until c.1924, after which automobile travel, motion pictures, and other forces rapidly diminished Chautauqua's appeal. The original Chautauqua site continues to draw summer visitors who attend varied programs.
See J. H. Vincent, The Chautauqua Movement (1886, repr. 1971); A. E. Bestor, Chautauqua Publications (1934); R. Richmond, Chautauqua: an American Place (1934); G. MacLaren, Morally We Roll Along (1938); V. Case and R. O. Case, We Called It Culture: The Story of Chautauqua (1948, repr. 1970); J. E. Gould, The Chautauqua Movement (1961).
"Chautauqua movement." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chautauqua-movement
"Chautauqua movement." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chautauqua-movement