chautauqua poster abilene

Broadside for a 1929 chautauqua assembly
Image: Redpath Chautauqua Collection, Special Collections
Department, University of Iowa Libraries, via LOC

As another summer draws to a close, as gas grills and swimming trunks are stashed away for another season, it’s only fitting to pay tribute to an event that was once a defining feature of the American summer: the chautauqua. From the 1880s through the 1920s, this unlikely amalgam of religious camp-meeting, open-air university and vaudeville road show swept through small towns and cities from Maine to California. And while Sinclair Lewis and other writers would eventually deride it as the embodiment of stuffy, sanctimonious provincialism, there is something about the chautauqua”“something about the earnestness of its faith in human progress”“that still speaks to us today.

chautauqua scientist

The chautauqua movement grew out of a fairly wonky debate within late 19th-century Christian theology: would the risen Christ return to earth before or after the millennium of peace described in the Book of Revelation? Premillenialists believed that Christ would come back before the millennium, and therefore their take on the Christian life involved a lot of watching and praying and generally keeping one’s nose clean. Postmillenialists, on the other hand, believed that Christians needed to engage with worldly institutions and social problems in order to bring the millennial kingdom into being.

Secular “Eloquent Inspiring Discussions” were part of the chautauqua movement (broadside c. 1924)
Image: Redpath Chatauqua Collection , Special Collections
Department, University of Iowa Libraries

The founders of the chautauqua movement, Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent, were solidly in the postmillenialist camp. In 1874, they established the original chautauqua in upstate New York as a training center for Sunday school teachers. But they rejected any rigid distinction between religious and secular education, and within five years they had broadened the chautauqua curriculum to include lectures on topics of scientific, artistic, and political interest. In the words of Andrew Rieser, author of The Chautauqua Moment: Protestants, Progressives, and the Culture of Modern Liberalism, “the transformation from a sectarian enclave to a college-style summer school featuring a liberal, humanistic education occurred at a breakneck pace.”

As word spread about Miller and Vincent’s experiment on Chautauqua Lake, independent assemblies began to crop up throughout rural America, with 78 of them in operation by 1899. Those who could not make it to one of the summer assemblies could participate in the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC), a sort of correspondence course organized around local discussion groups and an ambitious reading list. Academics warmed to the chautauqua as a platform that would allow them to disseminate their ideas to a broader audience, and professors from institutions like the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins became staples of the summer lecture circuit. At the dawn of the 20th century, chautauqua seemed poised to serve as the standard-bearer for a popular education movement that would link the ivory tower to the public square.

chautauqua reno

Latter-day chautauquas turned to entertainers like magician Edward M. Reno, broadside c. 1930
Image: Redpath Chautauqua Collection, Special Collections
Department, University of Iowa Libraries

So what went wrong? Rieser argues that, by the early 1900s, public institutions were beginning to assume responsibility for the kind of intellectual and cultural programming the chautauquas had provided. Scrambling to remain relevant, the assemblies tried to reposition themselves as purveyors of entertainment, pairing the old stump speakers with magicians, impersonators, and the like. The change in format may have kept the lights on for a few more years, but it alienated many of the chautauqua’s core constituents and gave rise to companies of touring performers (“circuit” chautauquas) with no real connection to the original assemblies. Chautauqua had become show business, and by the early 1930s Americans were not much in the mood for show business.

Can we imagine a 21st-century analogue to the chautauquas of yore? One promising candidate might be Elderhostel, with its emphasis on learning as “a lifelong pursuit that opens minds and enriches lives.” Universities like Yale and MIT have developed free online versions of courses taught by distinguished faculty members, and even Apple has gotten into the act with iTunes U. Yet for so many of these modern initiatives, learning is understood as an essentially individual pursuit, a response to personal curiosity rather than an act of participation in a broader polity. The chautauqua movement understood its aims in terms of cultivating a better, wiser citizenry.

Can your summer vacation do that?

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