From the Assembly’s first meeting, religion has been a central part of Chautauqua purpose and life. So central is religion that whenever Jon Schmitz, Chautauqua archivist and historian, gives a talk about some component of the Chautauqua program, he ends up talking about religion as well.
This will be the case at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ, where Schmitz will give a presentation on science at Chautauqua titled “Creation and Re-creation: Science (and Religion and Art) at Chautauqua.” His lecture is part of the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series.
“Religion is so essential to the fabric of Chautauqua that any part of the program — even the grounds themselves — cannot be discussed without understanding its connection to the large context of religion,” Schmitz said.
But religion wasn’t the only component of the Chautauqua platform, even from the very beginning.
“In a general sense, science was included in the program from the start, primarily for religious reasons,” Schmitz said.
If evidence from natural sciences appeared to contradict the Bible, it was understood that the scientific evidence must be mistaken, and with time, science would come around to agreeing with religion.
“After all, there was but one God, and one truth, so how could there be any contradiction?” Schmitz said.
Science fit nicely along religion and culture, and this can be made clear by the coining of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, assuring the Chautauqua audience that science and religion agreed.
“For the most part, science at Chautauqua was either presented as intellectual entertainment, or used to support the Assembly’s agreed-upon social and political agenda,” Schmitz said.
There were courses and lectures to discuss the science of alcohol abuse, poverty and good diet.
Tension percolated before and culminated in 1925 with the Scopes trial where William Jennings Bryan, a most popular speaker on the Chautauqua circuit, assisted the prosecution, and Shailer Mathews, director of Chautauqua’s Department of Religion, was called by Clarence Darrow as a witness for the defense.
During this time, Chautauquans, to some degree, lost faith in the world. Schmitz said that they had not lost faith in God or the Bible, but they found the world confusing and frightening.
Into this dilemma came art, in the name of Henry Turner Bailey, who believed “all people should be educated in art, not so that they would be artists and produce great works of art, but so they could learn how to recognize beauty in the world,” Schmitz said.
For Bailey, creativity was not simply productivity — it was an interaction between the artist and the world. It brought the artist to understand not just that the object existed, but how it was possible; and, in so doing, how it was a distinct part of the world as a whole.
“In short, it was to teach us how to look at the world through the eyes of a maker,” Schmitz said. It was an opportunity to understand the world as a factor of creation, and to see it as complete. “And this is the meaning of the Sabbath.”
The re-creation of nature in art is the work of the imagination, and “this is what John Vincent meant when he said that Chautauqua was all about the Sabbath,” Schmitz said.