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“Strictly American”: The Rise of the Chautauqua Movement in the United States

Posted on 03/03/2021

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the adult education and social movement known as Chautauqua blossomed in the United States. The original Chautauqua was the concept of a Methodist minister, John Heyl Vincent, who enlisted the commitment of a wealthy businessman, Lewis Miller. Chautauqua has its roots in public Protestant worship and in the earlier Lyceum movement, and the related advocacy of making enlightening adult education widely available. The movement took its name, formally the New York Chautauqua Assembly, from a lake in western New York where a summer camp to train Sunday school teachers had been established 1872. Many contemporary descriptions of this movement emphasize the provision of an admix of education, recreation, religion, and entertainment.

A comprehensive history of Chautauqua was authored by Herbert B. Adams, a preeminent educator at Johns Hopkins University who had advocated for history being understood as a separate discipline rather than an adjunct to literature. He had attended Chautauqua and wrote from direct experience as well as objective knowledge. In his account, which was included in the 1896 annual report of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Adams wrote:

Chautauqua is not denominational. It is not under the control of the Methodist Church, or any one religious body; but Chautauqua is profoundly religious. Eliminate that element, and its present earnestness would be gone.

Continuing, Adams describes the various denominational church clubhouses:

Thomas Jefferson first conceived the excellent idea of surrounding a nonsectarian university with different theological seminaries, each supported by its own constituency and all profiting by friendly relations to the central institution. Something of this relation appears in the religious and social life of Chautauqua.

In Part II of his disquisition, the author avers:

“American summer schools of the Chautauqua type are historical evolutions of the Southern camp meeting.”

An informative article tracing the development of Chautauqua appeared in the Idaho Statesman on September 2, 1886, twelve year after its founding. 

The following year [1875] they assembled again when new features were introduced, and lectures on science, art, literature, biography, etc. were given.

A somewhat more elegiac account was printed by the Cherokee Advocate on January 26, 1887. The writer rejoices in the democratic evolution of this institution: 

The original intention was to make Chautauqua an international center, a place where the highest officials in all spheres of life should come together to give the Book that recognition which would magnify it in the eyes of all the people, so that every citizen throughout the land should have a higher appreciation of the church and church-schools in their midst. 

Chautauqua makes another step. It aims to encourage our youth who lack education and appreciation of literature and art, to seek education even now. 

The writer limns an exciting future in asserting that a Sunday school teacher...

who has in his class 12 young fellows should in five years from now be able to shake the hands of twelve young men who, under his direction, have read history, science, literature, who can appreciate classic pictures, who are collecting engravings and photographs, whose evenings are turned to account in the interest of true culture.

From the beginning of Chautauqua there was a close alliance between the idealists and the money men. As has been stated, the original or “mother” Chautauqua was established by a minister and a wealthy businessman. 

The combination of piety and profit bubbled up in 1899. On June 27 of that year the Morning Herald of Lexington, Kentucky, reported a rift at the top of the organization, the Board of Trustees. Dr. William R. Harper

president of the University of Chicago, has ended his long connection with the Chautauqua. Back of the announcement…lies a battle of denominations. The Methodists who regard the Chautauqua enterprise as a monument to Methodism, believed they had baffled Jno. D. Rockefeller and others who, as they claimed, were attempting to make the Chautauqua movement an auxiliary to the University of Chicago.

The university was founded with Rockefeller money and incorporated by the American Baptist Education Society. Certainly, rivalry between the Methodists and the Baptists played a critical role in Harper’s offended resignation, but wherever Rockefeller came into the picture, money was at play.

The spirit, if not the theology and practice of worship, of the Chautauqua extended to the Jews who began their own parallel movement under the guidance of Rabbi Dr. Henry Berkowitz of Philadelphia as reported by the Baltimore Sun on March 27, 1899.

In 1893 he [Berkowitz] attended the sessions of the Chautauqua Society in New York, and there gained his inspiration for the formation of an organization which should do work along similar lines touching his own faith as was being done by members of the Christian household. He recognized that there was a lamentable lack of knowledge on the part of the adherents of Judaism with reference to their literature and their history, and though each rabbi in his own way was trying to do what he could to dispel it, organization was lacking and the “leaders were like scattered soldiers who needed reorganization for united work.”

Berkowitz’s idea caught on and spread throughout Jewish communities. The Jewish Chautauqua movement welcomed everyone.

The assembly does not invite Jews alone to take part in its deliberations. “On the contrary,” says the chancellor, “Its aim is to give an exposition of Jewish thought, precept and ideal as largely to the non-Jew as to the Jew, that wherever possible misunderstandings, misinformation and ignorance may be dispelled.” 

Among these non-Jewish participants was “Bishop John H. Vincent, founder of the Chautauqua system of education and chancellor of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle.”

In his paper published in the 1896 annual report of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Adams provides a fuller account of the Jewish Chautauqua movement including its expansion.

More recent reports show that this Jewish work has been extended through 18 States and that the membership has reached about 500. The work has kindled great enthusiasm not only among earnest-minded Israelites who have been encouraged by the Jewish press and pulpit, but also among Christian Chautauquans.

The rapid evolution of Chautauqua from developing Sunday school teachers to a much broader purpose is related in a history authored by Frederic J. Haskins and printed in the Dallas Morning News on July 17, 1907. 

The Chautauqua Assembly is another institution that is strictly American in its conception and development. It is estimated that more than 2,000,000 people will listen to the political reformers, scientists, moralists, entertainers and travelers who speak at the 600 assemblies that will be held this summer. Time was when the orator was confined to the pulpit and the campaign stump, but the Chautauqua has changed that, and the man of eloquence now has a broader field to work in and a more remunerative reward for his labor.

There is a section of the article titled “Chautauqua Talent” in which the writer asks and answers his rhetorical question, “What are they [attendees] offered?”

The earnest eloquence of an uneducated camp meeting exhorter? No. The excitement of a race on the fair grounds race track? No. 

They hear Mr. Bryan on “The Value of an Ideal,” or Senator La Follette on political reforms, or Gov. Folk on corruption in office, or Tom Lawson on “Frenzied Finance.” Perhaps it may be a debate between Champ Clark and Gen. Grosvenor on the tariff question—a better debate than can be heard in the halls of Congress.…“Sunshine” Hawkes may be there to delight the audience, old and young, with his quaint optimistic humor….Maybe Ben Tillman will fire the people by his passionate exposition of the race issue. Next day, perhaps, Booker Washington will tell of the work at Tuskegee Institute. Interspersed between these intellectual treats will be a concert or two by some good orchestra, a travel lecture with pictures, or some lighter form of entertainment. 

Haskins lauds the effect that Chautauqua had on American education.

Chickasha, I.T. [Indian Territory], is a town yet in its ‘teens, but its handsome library in a Grecian building of stone, has been fitted out with a good collection of reference books by the local Chautauquans. These Chautauquans have saved many a Carnegie library by agitating the public mind and preventing a City Council from going back on the promise of so much a year to buy books and maintain the library. 

Then the Chautauqua assembly advances the standard of education in the community. The local High School is benefited, and many youths are now in college who would be out of it if their fathers had not been awakened by the Chautauqua assembly to the value of a higher education. Fewer young men are kept away from college by poverty in these prosperous times than by the notion of parents that a college education is a useless and expensive thing, which is more likely to ruin the boy than to help him.

As more communities and states/territories sought to establish their own Chautauqua, a November 18, 1907, article in the Idaho Statesman is instructive in considering the project. Quoting committee member Rev. P. Monroe Smock:

“In moving toward a Chautauqua for Boise, there are three necessary steps to consider—the location, the superintendent of talent, the financial end….

“If the grounds are outside the city limits, with a good car service and a 5-cent fare, it is my opinion a distance of three or four miles would not be disadvantageous. The primary points in location and grounds are plenty of room (say 20 acres of ground), an abundance of shade and water, electric lights, camping privileges, accessibility to the city, so that business men from other towns, ranchers, teachers, doctors, preachers, housewives, young ladies and gentlemen may find an attractive spot for a couple of weeks during the summer—a place where they can find rest and recreation and advantages of literary and musical privileges, which a well located and conducted Chautauqua always provide. Such a place is to be had.” 

As for the Chautauqua’s superintendent of talent, Smock said:

“The person or committee to whom this is delegated should have a knowledge of present-day talent. He should be broad enough to select a variety of good, wholesome popular lecturers, singers, speakers, entertainers, cartoonists, readers and the like, with enough of the high-grade to draw crowds and give dignity to the program.”

The financial aspect of the project could be an organized stock company which puts “enough stock on the market to pay for the grounds and buildings, and, as the assembly grows in numbers and prosperity, let the grounds be beautified, enlarged and equipped as the demands appear.”

Despite the extraordinary success of Chautauqua in the early decades of the 1900s, it was finally eclipsed by new forms of entertainment and association provided by amusement parks, ballrooms, radio and movies. When it flourished, Chautauqua was a powerful force for adult education, enlightenment, religious observations, and largely wholesome family fun and adventure.

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