What does it mean to be an American? Over a century ago, the answer seemed straightforward to Teddy Roosevelt when he called Chautauqua “the most American thing in America.”1 As we approach the centennial of the most successful third-party presidential candidacy in American history, it is worth pondering what Roosevelt meant about this now fairly obscure phenomenon.
In the election of 1912, Teddy Roosevelt stood at Armageddon and battled for the Lord while his followers sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic and Onward Christian Soldier. This music resonated with those who partook of the Chautauqua experience. Chautauqua was primarily northern Methodist, but appealed to other Protestant denominations as well. Though mostly rural in character and expressive of small-town values, Chautauqua was progressive and expansive in spirit, devoted to education and improvement. It represented the people who had avidly supported Abraham Lincoln and Union. Politically, it was part of the America that elected Republican (and often Methodist) Presidents from 1860 to 1912. Presidents from Ulysses S. Grant to Roosevelt attended and participated in the Chautauqua phenomenon, which exemplified the values of rural, white, middle-class Protestant America. Thus to understand Chautauqua is to understand the American political majority in the time of Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and the Progressive era.
But there is more to the story than Roosevelt’s reflections. Chautauqua is also a testament to the ability of one individual to design an experience that perfectly met the needs of the time, at least for this audience. The Chautauqua that John Heyl Vincent created would not work a century later, and could not have worked a century earlier when the lands we call the heartland of America were still a wilderness. For its time, however, Chautauqua was exactly right.
Chautauqua was right because it spoke to basic social needs. We are a storytelling species. We need to congregate, to assemble, to share, to be part of something larger than ourselves. Given the values, technology and geography of its time, Chautauqua was perfectly designed as an instrument of hope and progress through education for the people of America. That is what made Chautauqua the most American thing in America to Teddy Roosevelt, and what invites our interest in its origins.
In the waning decades of the 18th century and the dawn of the 19th, Methodist circuit riders transformed a once minor religion in the United States into America’s largest Christian denomination. These circuit riders were renowned as warriors of light amid the darkness of the wilderness. The original venue for their showdowns with the forces of darkness was the camp meeting. Its power and appeal is hard for us today to appreciate, we who find it increasingly difficult to appreciate the rhythms of life before artificial illumination, when no mode of transportation was faster than a horse. People didn’t commute to work; work was right outside their front door, and inside it, too. Daily social life in rural America often was confined to the family, especially in those first days of the pioneers in the Mississippi Valley, breeding a deep-seated, recurring sense of isolation. That daily isolation made times of social gatherings all the more precious. Summer was the season when people assembled, and the camp meeting toward the end of the season was a time of giving thanks for the harvest, a time when the fruits of one’s hard work would be reaped and shared.
Gradually, as America became networked by rails and telegraph lines, as the wilderness became domesticated, as the Second City—Chicago the great—ruled the heartland, as the Northwest Territories became the middle of the country and its people the middle class, the raucous wilderness camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening became more regularized and formal affairs. Preachers held forth on regular schedules. There were meetings held, reports read and committees formed. By the 1830s, the heyday of the old-style camp meetings was almost past. As evidence, an instruction manual entitled Camp Meeting Manual (1845) appeared to provide precise directions for conducting a camp meeting. It may have been America’s first franchising impulse, and denunciations of sinful amusement became more of a ritualized routine than an impassioned cause. Times had changed.
But times were still changing, too. Plain folk had gone fancy compared to earlier generations. What could good Protestant Christians do about it? They felt adrift between worlds, between eras. Was Currier & Ives nostalgia or reality? What was it in the post-Civil War period that gave meaning to people’s lives and elevated daily existence above the humdrum? No one wanted to turn back the tide of progress or the broad-based wealth and security it brought, but the price exacted by that great tide was unsettling to many.
John Heyl Vincent (1832–1920) had a vision and a plan to ease the tide and still the roiling waters of change. The descendant of a French Huguenot emigrant to New Rochelle, New York in 1676, Vincent began his adult life as a Methodist circuit rider. He developed Chautauqua partly under the influence of a minister named Horace Bushnell. In 1836, Bushnell had written that he “had found the ‘most disheartening impediment to the Christian minister’ was the widespread conviction that religion depended only on revivals.” A few years later, the 11-year-old Vincent had a fierce and frightening response to the pending doom prophesied by William Miller in 1843–44. The terror, emotional intensity and failure of Miller’s prophecy weaned Vincent from revivals into seeking a better way to express and live his faith. Vincent came to share Bushnell’s view, expressed in fuller form in the latter’s widely discussed Christian Nurture (1847), that championed the importance of the social environment in the creation of moral adults.
Vincent created that social environment by combining the spirit of the old camp meeting with an earlier institution in American history: the Lyceum. Lyceums were town organizations that arranged for various speakers and entertainers to visit from the cities. Popular in New England and the northern Midwest, Vincent used that form to turn wilderness camp meetings of intense emotionalism into middle-class gatherings devoted to education and enlightenment. The new warriors were not to be itinerant preachers battling Satan, but nurturing teachers, frequently female. Sunday Schools with uniform weekly lesson plans, not once-yearly camp meetings, were the future; the education of the mind, not the elevation of emotions, was the creed. Proclaiming that “History is the Revelation of Providence”, Vincent made progress itself into a refined religious experience for a settled audience.
The Fair Point Camp Meeting site in Chautauqua, New York, which today encompasses 750 acres, became the epicenter of Vincent’s movement. Joined by the inventor and philanthropist Lewis Miller, Vincent set to work developing a uniform plan for teaching children. Chautauqua started out as a summer program in 1874 to teach Sunday school teachers to master the Uniform Lesson Plan.
The summer program, which grew to attract as many as 100,000 participants a season, was based around four principles or pillars: arts, education, religion and recreation. The Chautauqua founders couched their program in modern language out of a determination to resist the assault on the Bible in the growing, mostly urban secular world during the final decades of the 19th century. They wanted to fortify people against the onslaught of agnosticism and rationalism, which, in their view, sought to undermine the saving message of the Bible through attacks on its historicity. Vincent and Miller saw no contradiction between faith and progress, so they sought to graft the best that modernity had to offer onto unshakable Christian principles. Chautauqua graduates thus made symbolic pilgrimages through arches of Faith, Science, Literature and Art. These four, students were told, unified civilization from its ancestral Holy Land through the Protestant Reformation to its fulfillment in America. The aim of the studies and this well-employed ritual theater was to fortify newly armed warriors of light to return home and fight the good fight as teachers in schools and within families. That they did, which turned Chautauqua into a new means for providing a sense of community, belonging and purpose to the people who were becoming Middle America.
Vincent’s Chautauqua experience venerated the Hebrew Bible, as did American Protestantism more generally. This veneration was expressed by his attempts to re-create the physicality of the Holy Land for Chautauqua-goers.
Vincent developed his appreciation and enthusiasm for the Holy Land after the Reverend Edward Robinson’s then-famous 1838 journey to Palestine. Robinson’s trip helped Americans appreciate the fact that the places described in Holy Scriptures were a living reality, even unto the present day. The subsequent intrepid adventures of Herman Melville, Mark Twain and others reinforced Robinson’s experiences and further connected the religious world of faith with the “secular” world of exploration, discovery and science. Vincent’s emphasis on the Holy Land at Chautauqua was no doubt the result of his own visit, too. As he wrote of his experience: “Behold Mount Zion. Through the mists of earth I saw the splendors of heaven.”
Initially, Vincent communicated this experience through his own Sunday School teaching, using music and song to teach children about the sites of the Holy Land. He developed an equivalent of “merit badges”, by which students demonstrated their gradual progression in knowledge of biblical geography. Vincent didn’t stop with merit badges, however. He also created a way to bring the Holy Land to America. He recreated it in miniature. When new students disembarked from the ferryboats at Chautauqua Lake (re-imagined as “the Mediterranean Sea”), the first ground they set foot on coming off the pier was Palestine Park. The Park contained a model (which still exists today) of Jerusalem at the time of Herod. There was even a rumor that the soil for the park had been transplanted from the Holy Land itself. (It wasn’t.)
Vincent’s educational ingenuity didn’t stop with bringing the Holy Land to Chautauqua, New York. He sought to bring Chautauqua to America as well, being all too keenly aware of the obvious limitations on the number of Americans who could make it to upstate New York. In 1878, Vincent instituted a home study program called the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) with the motto: “We study the Word and works of God.”
The CLSC initially served only an audience of Sunday School teachers, but it soon thereafter it expanded to serve the larger Protestant community. The Chautauqua founders recognized that many middle-class Americans with no access to higher education, especially in rural areas, were thirsting for knowledge in an accessible format. While the CLSC couldn’t send an itinerant preacher to every village and small town, it could communicate by using the rapidly expanding U.S. Postal Service. Thus Vincent and Miller established Chautauqua University, possibly the first distance-learning institution ever created. It became a national institution of learning for the dissemination of Christian-approved information and inspiration.
The CLSC was soon bringing college-level books to small communities throughout the United States through a four-year program of directed home reading. By 1900, this program had expanded to a membership of 2,500,000 with 10,000 circles, primarily in towns of fewer than 3,000 people. These circles afforded people in isolated areas the opportunity to interact as a shared community for cultural development. They were, not incidentally, predominantly female in membership. The movement’s flagship was its magazine, The Chautauqua, ably edited for many years by Theodore Flood. Flood’s name is barely recognized anymore, even by historians of the period, but in his day he was arguably one of the most influential men in America.
America’s small-town Christian women used the educational power of Chautauqua to channel the best of Methodist religion. A Chautauqua circle amplified the word and spirit of the local minister. An 1889 letter to Methodist Review begins with the declaration, “Towns of eight hundred to two thousand inhabitants are very dead”, but goes on to hail the preacher as a man of culture who brings intellectual and spiritual life to his flock:
Emphasizing above all the systematic study of the Bible in the Sunday-school, the reading of the Bible in the home, the comments upon its truths in the prayer meeting, preaching them in the pulpit, organizing the young people into normal classes and Chautauqua circles, training the children at suitable time, developing the power of song, seeking modes of Christian activity for the adults–by these and kindred means a small town may be kept thoroughly alive, and the Church the leading force and most honored organization among the people.
Every town had its Doc Graham or George Bailey, that unsung individual who is a force for good, shaping the community, sustaining it and holding it together in times of adversity. And the local Chautauqua circle invariably formed his support group and megaphone.
The New York-based Chautauqua program itself also became more available to local communities in the first decades of the 20th century. The success of the national assembly and the CLSC program led local communities to attempt their own Chautauquas. These “Little Chautauquas” or “daughter Chautauquas” began to spring up for those who could not attend the national assembly in upstate New York. By 1915, some 8,000 of them existed, a disproportionate number in and around Iowa. Towns unable to create a “daughter Chautauqua” sometimes resorted to circuit or tent tours, with standard programs barnstorming the country much as the circuit riders had in the past.
Chautauqua Week became an annual marker in many communities, by far the most important few days of the year. The erection of the characteristic brown Chautauqua tent symbolized a break in the monotony of rural or small-town life. Actress and Chautauqua performer Gay MacLaren attested to this celebration in a description of her first Chautauqua:
The streets were crowded with people all dressed up as if it were the Fourth of July, and there were flags and banners everywhere. The banners had the word ‘Chautauqua’ printed across them in colored letters. Farmers’ wagons piled high with bedding, cooking utensils, and children rattled along the dusty roads to the Chautauqua grounds.
People would assemble by the tent with their camping equipment and spend the week there in this updated version of the old annual harvest campground assembly. Through such assemblies, the isolated peoples of the American Midwest affirmed their identity and sense of belonging to something larger than the nuclear family. This was particularly so for those communities too far away from the annual state fair for most people to attend. As one woman told the great muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell:
It is a great thing for us, particularly for us younger women with growing children. There are none of us in this town very rich. Most of us have to do all our work. We have little amusement and almost never get away from home. The Chautauqua brings us an entire change. We plan for weeks before it. There is hardly a woman I know in town who has not her work so arranged, her pantry so full of food, that she can’t get to the meetings at half past two in the afternoon, and easily stay until five. She gets her work done up for Chautauqua week.
Tarbell noted that this attitude was common throughout her tour: the need of people in isolated communities to connect with other people and the larger world around them. Chautauqua Week remained an event of major proportions for the isolated rural towns of middle America during the first two decades of the 20th century. It brought people new things to talk about: For a brief moment a small town could become a cultural center linked to the larger world, much as radio, movies, television and the Internet would later do.
The full impact of the Chautauqua experience may be difficult for Americans to appreciate a scant century after its heyday. Times have changed, and the country has moved on to other forms of entertainment. We have other means of social networking now. But perhaps it is worthwhile to linger a little longer on how Chautauqua touched the people who experienced it, and what it meant and still means for the United States, for the passion and ideals of the communities served by Chautauqua a century ago still help define the country in this new millennia.
Return now to the report of Ida Tarbell as she recounts her own personal awakening. When she began the circuit trip, she was “not conscious that there was a large percentage of condescension in my attitude toward the undertaking.” But as she faced the earnest audiences of hard-working Americans in town after town standing in awe before the still novel tents ablaze with the miracle of electric lights, she was humbled by what she saw. She gained “a deepened respect and confidence in the average people of the country” as she listened to their debates on the issues of the day, from the Great War to the destructive impact demon rum was having on their children, their community and their way of life.
She saw real people forming real families and building real communities. Standing before a Civil War monument, a band played a sendoff for the 135 boys of the town of 2,800 going off to war in 1917. Tarbell saw the town gather as one to witness the event. As the procession moved before her, she watched the veterans of past wars lead the way for those about to disappear from sight and face death in the world beyond; she heard the prayers of the hopeful and the words “My Country ‘tis of thee” as they rose to the heavens above. The condescending urban elitist hadn’t just flown over the American heartland; she had experienced the American civil religion in its full force, and would never be the same again. Tarbell was humbled, as the conclusion to her article, “A Look at the People”, reveals:
He who undertakes a Chautauqua circuit may be able to contribute little to the education of his audiences, but let him be assured that if he is open-minded, they will do much toward his own education.
Ida Tarbell, like so many others who became a part of the Chautauqua experience, saw that we are a communal species. We need to belong in time and space; we suffer when we are untethered, alone and abandoned in a dark and foreboding wilderness, whether a literal or a postmodern one. Of course we have today an amazing range of devices we can use to hear music or listen to stories, but if we do it behind closed doors and shuttered shades, we remain as isolated in our wilderness as our forebears were in theirs.
Regardless of the social science jargon one uses to describe such phenomena, and no matter which environment or society one is talking about, human beings everywhere have a need to gather, sing their songs, tell their stories, celebrate their memories and perform their rituals. For Middle America after Lincoln and all the way to Teddy Roosevelt, Chautauqua was the way. We should remember what Vincent did to help us learn what we need to do in our own time, our own place, and our own context as our journey continues.