The Daily Record: A question of destiny from Chautauqua’s geographical top floor

To pick up The Chautauqua Assembly Herald on July 26, 1895, Chautauquans would read about themselves from the day before, awakened by a Chautauquan landlady calling her guests’ attention to the fact that breakfast in her house would begin promptly at 7 a.m.

“Think of it — ponder the fact — seven o’clock!” the Herald’s review of the day before exclaimed. And why? “Because at 8:10 a.m., Chautauqua was today in the full swing of its multitudinous activity.” It was a full, varied and enjoyable day.

And yesterday, as well as today, would be enjoyed from a perch of sorts, 1,400 feet above sea level, where “the southwest corner of the state of New York is the roof of this part of the world.”

The editorial described the tangled Appalachian system of mountains at the east edge of the Mississippi Basin, rising in a series of steps from Lake Ontario, the last and highest being here. To the west there are no mountains, and the country appears to be rolling and hilly.

“Lake Chautauqua is only about 7 miles from Lake Erie and yet its level is 726 feet above Lake Erie,” the editorial said.

The lake is at such an altitude that the captains, whose ships the waters ply, might wonder “how in the world they ever got up here and how they will ever get down again to blue water.”

There was a famous barn, the editorial said, situated in Mayville, “whose ridge pole split the raindrops, sending half into the Atlantic and half into the Gulf of Mexico,” the lake waters draining ultimately into the Allegheny, and then the Ohio, and then to the west and south in the Mississippi. The rain split by the ridge pole toward Mayville drains into Lake Erie, the St. Lawrence and eventually east into the Atlantic.

“Chautauqua is about 1,400 feet above the sea so that its light is certainly set on a hill for the enlightenment of an admiring world,” the Assembly Herald editors wrote.

With these observations, looking north and south and east and west, the editorial proclaimed a moral: “Chautauqua is a good place for study, for sleep, and good times. It is the geographical top floor of the Eastern United States, and as near being a ‘skyscraper’ as such a town can be and not be perched on a mountain top.”

And from this airy platform, Professor Jenks spoke of “Essentials of Citizenship.” The Rev. John Barrows spoke of “Universal Aspects of Christianity.” There were lectures on “War Ships of Old,” “The New Elocution,” and “Growth of Purely Instrumental Forms.”

One lecture’s subject as much as or more than others strummed the chords of lofty imagination to which the July 26 editorial referred. The Rev. F.S. Hensen, D.D. and Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Chicago, spoke on the topic “Sires and Sons.”

The topic was new to him, having never spoken on it before, and he admitted it a serious thing to attempt a new lecture in such a presence.

“It seems almost presumption, for this is the broadest and ablest platform on the American continent [applause], and I am to talk to you today upon the broadest and loftiest theme that ever was treated in a public discourse, and I profoundly feel my utter inadequacy to its proper treatment,” Hensen said.

The course of empire had traveled westward, “through the gates of Asia, past the portals of Hercules, over the traveled deep, through the Narrows of New York harbor and the Chesapeake, through the gaps of the Alleghenies and the passes of the Rocky mountains, away to the Golden Gate and frozen Alaska, and that is the end,” Hensen said.

Prosperity such as ours, he continued, had been gained with frightful peril, and the more rapid the gain in prosperity, the more frightful the peril.

At present, prosperity was attended by the “incoming of the hordes from all lands, lured to these western shores by the boundless possibilities that open before them.”

Hensen had nothing against foreigners. Even the North American Indian was a foreigner originally.

“Whence he came, and when, no one knows,” he said. Some of the best of people have come from distant lands and have unpronounceable names.

“Yet we can not blink the fact that while in the earlier history of America we got the cream of the old world’s population, we are getting now in large measure the scum and the dregs,” Hensen said.

It was not unlike the wooden horse, Athena’s fatal gift. The Greeks were inside. Troy had been safe “and then the wily Greeks came down out of the belly of the wooden horse and in that fateful moment all Troy was wrapped in shame and soaked in blood. There is danger that we harbor here elements that impair our nation’s existence.”

Hensen described domestic foes as well as foreign. Most politicians are good men, but for some, the demagogue is here, the frothing, unscrupulous and unprincipled politician.

There is, too, the plutocrats, the combination of wealth in great greedy corporations. And there is the saloon, as well as the anarchists within them.

“There is peril in the air,” Hensen said.

The only defense would be found in the preservation of the American spirit. To defend the American republic, the moral principles and patriotic sentiment of its people is needed.

“Break down this sea wall and you will have a deluge, not of water, but of blood,” he said.

The American spirit is not to be found in coarseness of speech or boorishness of manners, as it is sometimes mistaken to be.

“Do you know that our English cousins, though they ought to know better, sometimes think that Buffalo Bill, not as you find him in the parlor but as you see him in the sawdust ring, is a typical American gentleman?” Hensen said.

Nor does the American spirit worship the dollar. To love money as an end in itself is “a sad excrescence on the genuine American spirit.”

Destiny? It will come with the love of liberty, the love of law, and reverence for woman. “No land on earth has given woman such a place of power,” Hensen said. And this really had little to do with suffrage.

“I am not arguing against the ballot, but I am arguing for greater influence — without the ballot she wields the mightiest power below the stars, for she presides at the fountain whence character flows,” he said. “She dominates destiny from cradle to the grave, and perhaps all the more thoroughly because inconspicuously.”

Finally there needs to be love of religion. Hensen said the forefathers depended on it, that they appealed to the Supreme Judge “for the rectitude of their intentions, and invoking the Divine blessing on their heroic endeavor, Congress knelt in prayer and recognized their dependence upon Him.”

The Rev. P.S. Hensen said in closing, “if we their sons ever forget the all wise and infinitely loving Father that guided Columbus across the trackless deep, and girded our fathers with strength,” well, the question of destiny would, indeed, be settled, but in a very unpleasant place.