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.
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).
The first Chautauqua Sunday School Assembly opened in August 1874 at Fair Point on Chautauqua Lake, New York. Lewis Miller, an Akron inventor and farm equipment manufacturer, and John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist Episcopal minister (later bishop), initially intended that the assembly provide summer training for Sunday school teachers. The assembly rapidly broadened to include academic subjects, music, art, and physical education. By 1880 the Chautauqua platform had achieved prominence as a national forum on public issues, international relations, literature, and science. Nine U.S. presidents have visited or spoken at Chautauqua, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who gave his "I Hate War" speech in 1936. Between 1985 and 1989 the institution initiated a series of exchanges with the Soviet Union during the time of perestroika. Today some 150,000 attend its scheduled summer programs in the arts, education, religion, and recreation.
The founders' purpose was to make education "once the privilege of the few the valued possession of the many." In 1878 Vincent and his associates established the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC), the oldest continuing book club in North America. The CLSC was a pioneer in adult education, summer schools, and correspondence courses. It gave hundreds of thousands of readers, particularly women, who had been deprived of a formal education, the opportunity to experience something like a college career. Over 8,400 were enrolled in the first year; 1,718 received diplomas four years later. In 1883 the various educational departments of the institution were reorganized into a university, later designated the College of Liberal Arts. William Rainey Harper, who was principal of the college, became president of the University of Chicago in 1892. Melvil Dewey started a library school in 1901. In 1902, a new charter changed the name of the assembly to the Chautauqua Institution. Chautauqua is a National Historic District; in 1989, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
From early in the twentieth century, music became increasingly important at Chautauqua. The School of Music was organized in 1889. The New York Symphony Orchestra began a residency in 1920. In 1929 the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, under Albert Stoessel, began the summer series that continues to the present. George Gershwin composed his Concerto in F in a practice shack on the grounds. Also in 1929, Stoessel created a professional opera company.
The influence of the original assembly gave rise to many independent or permanent Chautauquas—more than 150 by 1904—set up in natural surroundings similar to Chautauqua Lake and organized to advance education among the masses. A separate development from 1903 to the 1920s—the circuit or tent Chautauquas—brought programs of inspiration, culture, entertainment, and lectures to communities throughout the country. By one estimate in 1919, one out of 11 people in the country were attending a Chautauqua every year. The New Republic reported in 1924 that more than 10 million people bought 35 million tickets in one year to various Chautauqua performances. Whatever the accuracy of the estimates, Chautauqua and the movement it inspired has had a profound impact on the social and cultural life of the nation.
Bibliography: j. h. vincent, The Chautauqua Movement (Boston 1886). r. richmond, Chautauqua: An American Place (New York 1943). v. and r. o. case, We Called It Culture (New York 1948). l. j. wells, A History of the Music Festival at Chautauqua Institution from 1874 to 1957 (Washington 1958). j. e. gould, The Chautauqua Movement (New York 1961). t. morrison, Chautauqua: A Center for Education, Religion, and the Arts in America (Chicago 1974). m. f. bestor cram, Chautauqua Salute: The Bestor Years (Chautauqua 1990). j. simpson, Chautauqua: An American Utopia (New York 1999).
In the years between the 1870s and the 1920s, the name Chautauqua came to be synonymous with culture, learning, entertainment, and social activism. Originating at a New York religious institute, the Chautauqua movement—which focused on self-improvement through education—spread across small-town America. Even today, that spirit of lifelong education lives on at the Chautauqua Institution.
In 1873, in the little town of Chautauqua, New York, two Methodist ministers, John Heyl Vincent (1832–1920) and Lewis Miller (1829–1899), developed a unique program of study that combined various nonreligious educational subjects with typical Sunday school topics. By 1874, their idea had become reality and the Chautauqua Institution offered a nine-week summer session of adult education courses. As the word spread, more and more people were drawn to the unusual school. They studied politics, culture, literature, and science, and attended lectures and performances from the most famous people of the day, including feminist Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), inventors Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) and Henry Ford (1863–1947), Helen Keller (1880–1968), and nine presidents of the United States.
The leaders of Chautauqua soon became aware that only a few of those Americans who were hungry for learning and cultural dialogue lived within traveling distance of New York. They mailed courses of home study to interested students and sent
speakers traveling on a circuit to over two hundred Chautauquas around the country. Soon the arrival of the Chautauqua circuit was greeted with as much enthusiasm as a traveling circus. Lecturers, entertainers, politicians, and preachers made the rounds. They brought much needed information, intellectual stimulation, and diversion to communities that had little contact with urban cultures.
Two major developments of the 1920s brought an end to the era of the Chautauqua: the automobile, which ended the isolation of American small towns; and the motion picture, which provided entertainment nationwide. However, New York's Chautauqua Institution still offers its dynamic study sessions, drawing almost two hundred thousand visitors from all over the country in 2000.
For More Information
Case, V., and R. O. Case. We Called It Culture: The Story of Chautauqua. Manchester, NH: Ayers Company Publishers, 1977.
Chautauqua Institution.http://www.chautauqua-inst.org (accessed December 14, 2001).
Kostyal, K. M. "An Enduring Tradition." National Geographic Traveler. (May-June 1993): pp. 28–32.
Schurr, Cathleen. "Chautauqua: Yesterday and Today." American History Illustrated (July-August, 1992): pp. 40–47.