Posted by: Jim E | April 14, 2010

Chautauqua…Huh???…Yes, Chautauqua…

What was Chautauqua?…well, it’s a lake in western New York state…but it was far more than that…no doubt it changed America in so many ways…Theodore Roosevelt called it “the most American thing in America”…it helped to mold the mind of America, said William Jennings Bryan…

But this came to my mind the other day when I was reading about Camp Meetings…most of us are too young to remember those meetings…they were Bible conferences with important preachers of the day…like the Niagara Bible Conference during the 1880’s and 1890’s…with the likes of Charles Erdman, James Brookes, A. J. Gordon, C. I. Scofield and Hudson Taylor…and with the success of this conference and number of others began…D. L. Moody’s Northfield Bible Conference and others…and so if you have ever been to a “conference grounds”…you have seen part of this movement…Maranatha in Michigan is one and there are many more…around the country…

Most of them had large wooden structures, most of them open to the outdoors…but surely not heated or cooled…most of them held in the summer months…protected from the rain…but that’s about all…many of these conference grounds are still operating today…and though the programs have changed to meet the needs of today…they are still going strong, as people see the need to reach out to a more relaxed and uplifting experience…especially for families and family vacations…

These Bible conferences and Chautauqua were started about the same time…and for the same reasons…in fact Chautauquas (pronounced “sha-TAW-kwa”)…began as Sunday school teacher training in an outdoor setting…on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in New York state…this format was copied by many…in the summer, outdoor, by a lake…and called, conferences or assemblies…or simply Chautauquas…

Most Americans have never even heard of such a thing…but they were extremely popular during the early part of the 20th century…from the 1880’s until the 1940’s, Chautauquas were very popular…they would travel a circuit around the country…three to seven days in one town and travel on to another…they brought with them lecturers, preachers, musicians, classic plays, Broadway hits…glee clubs, orchestras, Metropolitan opera stars, bell ringers…bringing with them stimulating thought on political, social and cultural issues of the day…it brought a little of everything to people across the country…in small towns and country settings that normally would not see and hear anything like this…

Finally the Chautauquas were organized into a series of touring companies where each performer was assigned to a definite day on the program throughout the touring season…talent traveled from one tent outfit to another appearing in each in their turn…these circuit chautauquas began in 1904 and by the 1910’s could be found everywhere…presenting its message of self and civic improvement to millions of Americans…at its peak in the mid-20’s…Chautauquas appeared in more than 10,000 communities in 45 states…to audiences totaling 45 million people…

Lecturers were probably most important…bringing new ideas to America…human interest, comic story-telling…temperance, evangelical messages…etc…music also was a staple…bands, singers, groups…opera stars, music of all kinds…plays…from one person to groups…Shakespeare was popular…people, even in small towns and farms, knew the Bible and Shakespeare…it was part of their education, even “out there”…

There was excitement in those rural areas at the thought of that huge tent coming to their area in the summer months…and they looked forward to that time…the Great Depression brought an end to the traveling Chautauquas…though some continued on until WWII…their arrival brought people together to improve their minds and their ties to one another…it was wholesome and morally acceptable vaudeville…a welcome sight providing entertainment and enlightenment…it brought the improvement that most people who lived in rural America wanted…they had already formed libraries, opera halls, lyceums in towns far out of the way…so Chautauquas were a welcome sight each and every year…

And as today…things changed…with the coming of radio and movies and eventually television the Chautauqua movement lost popularity…and although there are still programs that have this idea to them on television today…I still remember…the smell of the tent…and folding chairs…the sawdust aisles…and me sitting there…drinking it all in…


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Responses

  1. This was interesting. Maranatha Bible Conference is still going on every summer and they have closed and heated buildings where they can have retreats, etc. all winter. Where I spent my winters in Lakeland, Florida, I stay at a Wesleyan Holiness Campground. I stay in a dormitory, one room, shared bathroom, but many friends that have been coming for many years. We have a camp meeting for 10 days in February when we have special speaker evangelists and Bible teachers and a special musician that comes in. We also have special music throughout the winter, and chapel services every weekday morning as well as services on Sunday.


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